Why it's all about land

In much of Africa today, the sad reality is that land is still the only asset guaranteed to retain i

It is rare for African societies to show much interest in their neighbours' affairs. Language differences and cultural perspectives rooted in the colonial era usually make the citizens of one African state feel they have more in common with events in Washington, Paris or London than the country next door.

Not this time, however. With Kenya and Zimbabwe locked in post-election crises, leaderships, voters and opinion-makers in both nations are watching each other like hawks. The same goes for the foreign donors and NGOs with operations in these two former British colonies: what are the parallels, they keep wondering, and what are the lessons to be applied in future?

One is already emerging. In both countries, the issue of land hunger has never received the level of attention that it deserved, and any future dispensation will have to grasp this nettle if there is to be durable peace, rather than an Elastoplast job that merely allows each country to stumble on to the next crisis.

If in Kenya the overall dispute centred on who had won the December elections, the violence that swept the Rift Valley, creating most of the internally displaced, was about land, with Kalen jins who had spent decades resenting the presence of Kikuyus settled there by Jomo Kenyatta torching their enviable farms.

In Zimbabwe, analysts trace Robert Mugabe's destruction of his own country's economy, which began with the defiant dispossession of the country's white farmers, back to Britain's refusal to deliver on Thatcher-era promises to pay for the redistribution of land to poor blacks.

The multilateral lending organisations, aid agencies and NGOs that engage with Africa have usually fought shy of the land issue, telling themselves that this was a matter for sovereign African governments to deal with.

Addressing land inequalities seemed too complex a task, too politically sensitive, too likely to throw up embarrassing reminders of colonial culpability. Beneath all this ran a fundamental philosophical difference between the ways westerners and Africans think about land.

To expatriates working on the continent, the abiding African obsession with owning a plot of soil, however small and badly watered, can be a cause of baffled wonderment, as is the viciousness of the disputes that regularly break out over those allotments. "Do you know a single Kenyan who isn't involved in a land dispute?" a Dutch friend living in Nairobi once asked me. I had to admit that, come to think of it, each of my Kenyan acquaintances was embroiled in one.

We westerners don't do land, we do property. Houses and flats, leases and mortgages - those are the obsessions that preoccupy the urbanite in an industrialised society. So it's all too easy for us to view the African obsession with land as a throwback to a halcyon era of village life, an instinct that would need to be suppressed if the continent joins the modern world.

But this isn't fair. If you examine where your average hard-working, middle-aged Kenyan or Zimbabwean can turn for financial security as his physical strength begins to ebb, the lust for land suddenly makes perfect sense. Social security? Dream on, baby. A company pension? Only the lucky few. How about bank savings? In Zimbabwe, runaway inflation has rendered bank accounts worthless, while in Kenya the spectacular collapse of a series of "political banks" in the 1990s taught the locals that their money was safer stashed under the mattress.

There's livestock, of course, but herds of cattle and goats - essentially walking bank balances - not only destroy the environment, they die when the rains fail, and with them evaporates the family fortune.

Forget about the African's supposed love affair with land - this is a need fuelled by a pragmatic and hard-headed assessment of personal risk. In much of the continent today, the sad reality is that land is still the only asset guaranteed to retain its value.

The peace deal brokered in Kenya by Kofi Annan and backed by the international community calls for examination of festering land disputes, detailed exhaustively in the past by a series of commissions whose recommendations then went ignored by the government of the day. In Zimbabwe, a donor rescue package drawn up in preparation for the day Mugabe quits caters for a lead British role in funding land reform. New Labour will finally shoulder the responsibility it refused to recognise back in 1997, when the Zimbabwean president asked Clare Short for help.

One day, rural Africans will be able to secure financial peace of mind in other ways, with stocks and shares, pension funds and saving accounts, property and timeshares. In the meantime, it's good to see that the donors have woken up to the fact that as long as their poverty alleviation programmes leave the land hunger of Africa's anxious poor unaddressed, they will be treating the symptoms rather than the cause.

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Food crisis