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Human Rights, History and Land Appropriation in Africa

Limitations in the Discourse ...

Photo Credit: BBC, April 2013. See

Photo Credit: BBC, April 2013. See

By Andriata Chironda. 

In November 2014, the government of Tanzania reportedly planned to sell large tracts of land to a private company which intends to convert the land into commercial hunting and luxury safaris. The land in question measures 1,500 square kilometers and is located near the Serengeti national park. Due to its proximity to the Serengeti national park, Tanzania’s government officials indicated that the land would become a designated “wildlife corridor.”  The deal would force thousands of local Maasai people to abandon their ancestral pastures and grave sites. In part, the plans generated notoriety because they would lead to the eviction of the nomadic Maasai people and restrict their access to land which provided them with sustenance.

The matter has also drawn international attention due to reports that the private company planning to purchase the land is connected to the royal family in Dubai, which is one of the city states within the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  The international outcry led President Kikwete to respond that “There has never been, nor will there ever be, any plan to evict the Maasai people from their ancestral land.” Despite this, a mere three months later, in February 2015, thousands of Maasai were removed at gunpoint, their homes were burnt, and livestock destroyed.  Although there was much uproar with the initial announcement that the Maasai would be forcibly removed, it seems that President Kikewete’s strategy had worked.  The world moved on and the mainstream media has been notably silent on the Maasai’s plight a mere few months later.  Thankfully, organizations such has Cordaid, Cultural Survival, Just Conservation, and The Ecologist have reported on the Tanzanian government’s breach of promise.  For a video created by members of the Maasai community, which gives voice to their perspective, see the film Olosho.

This issue draws attention to a long history of conflict over land appropriation, apportionment, and use on the African continent. Since the start of European colonization, indigenous African communities have been evicted, often forcibly, from ancestral lands. The “human rights” of such communities and their claims to land have conflicted with state policies that appropriated land, institutionalized land tenure and culminated in the primacy of “property rights.” This raises important questions about the universality of “human rights,” especially when contemplating the historical and continuing removals of African communities and indigenous groups from ancestral lands. Unfortunately, current human rights discourse is inadequate in addressing the contentious issue of land use in Africa.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948 by the United Nations and pronounced itself, the “common standard of achievement for all peoples and nationals.” Makau Mutua critiques human rights discourse by questioning the sanctimonious tone of the Declaration’s claim to universality in light of its birth in an epoch characterized by the “… conceptual, cultural, economic, military, and philosophical domination of the European West over non-European peoples and traditions.”  In this vein, the UDHR and ensuing discourse on human rights derive their limitations from their temporal (the particular historical moment of conception) and Eurocentric derivation. The “universalization of human rights cannot succeed unless the corpus is moored in all the cultures of the world.” (Mutua)

While this may seem like a clichéd argument for cultural relativism, Mutua’s observation interrogates the broader narrative of Europe’s superiority and claim to “civilization” as embedded in the Declaration’s bold claims to universality “for all peoples and nationals.” Such aspirations were declared within a particular historical context characterized by emerging anti-colonial and liberation movements that confronted racist colonial policies and unfavorable material conditions for indigenous people in European colonies.  Mark Mazower considers the founding of the United Nations itself “as essentially a further chapter in the history of world organization inaugurated by the [League of Nations] …linked to the question of empire and the visions of global order that emerged out of the British Empire in […] its final decades.” Mazower argues that the ideas, thinkers and discourses that birthed the United Nations Charter in 1945 were attempting to preserve colonial empires, notwithstanding that anti-colonial movements (especially in Asia) exploited its Universalist rhetoric to confront colonial rule.  Following the end of the Second World War,“colonial metro-poles of both Great Britain and France […] championed the protection of human rights at the regional level [whilst they simultaneously] … tried at all costs to prevent the spread of universal human rights to their overseas possessions out of fear that the basis of their colonial rule would be stripped of all legitimation.” (Klose)

Therefore, the human rights discourse born of this historical moment was inherently limited within a broader hegemonic narrative of a self- preserving “civilization.” The desire to redress Africans’ land dispossession, its appropriation and subsequent apportionment by colonial governments, dominated the agenda of many African anti-colonial/ liberation movements, more so in settler colonies. For example, in the case of the Mau Mau rebellion, which was violently supressed by British colonial authorities, “the land problem became a key issue for the Kikuyu because land ownership not only enabled the Kikuyu to provide for themselves [but] it was also an elementary cornerstone of their traditional culture.”(Klose)

In turn, colonial state machinery determined and enforced land policies that displaced indigenous communities from ancestral lands. Similarly, the post-colonial state continues to play a central role in the impoverishment of African communities by displacing or removing them from land. This highlights a key contradiction in the modern state’s role as “…the primary guarantor of human rights, while it is simultaneously the target of the international human rights law prescribing the standard of treatment of individuals by their governments … [thus creating a situation in which] the state is the antithesis of human rights; the one exists to combat the other in a struggle for the supremacy over society.” (Mutua)

Ocheje argues that the “public interest” justifications often given by African governments for forced evictions are a myth. Among many others, one justification proffered by governments is that evictions are needed to attract tourism and investment. Instead, Ocheje suggests that forced evictions arise from antiquated planning laws of colonial origins, corruption and a failure by post-colonial governments to effect land reforms. Through the examples of recent government led or sanctioned evictions in African countries such Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Ghana, Ocheje asserts that in all cases of mass evictions and removals, “neither compensation for the destruction of homes or seizure of land nor alternative accommodation is provided for the evictees [and]… in many cases, the evictees are labelled as illegal squatters who are not entitled to compensation regardless of how long they have lived on the land and how much they have spent establishing their homes.” Furthermore, “the loss of livelihood does not seem to count, just as other indirect, but more significant, losses, such as those associated with loss of lives and the stoppage of children’s education, are apparently of no consequence in the eyes of the governments.” (Ocheje)*

A subsidiary of a Belgian mining firm operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Enterprise General Malta Forrest (EGMF), is reported to have lied about supplying bulldozers to illegally demolish homes near a copper and cobalt mine in 2009. However, Amnesty International reported that it obtained evidence, including satellite images and videos, showing that armed government policemen destroyed homes near the mine in Southern Katanga with the use of bulldozers supplied by EGMP. Amnesty International alleges a “cover-up” by Congolese authorities and that the “state has failed its own people” by not bringing anyone to justice for these forced evictions or ensuring compensation was paid.  Instances in which governments facilitate and participate in forced evictions and the destruction of people’s homes and livelihoods are not isolated. Clearly, the removal of entire communities in such ways violates human rights and has adverse implications for human development. The state ought to guarantee human rights, but becomes itself the agent of violation. The state’s role in violating human rights does not lie merely in its capacity to “act” and enforce the physical removal of human bodies from designated land, but also in its role as a hegemonic voice on discourse regarding land policy.

Historically, the appropriation of land and eviction of indigenous communities by the colonial state was preceded by the discursive “erasure” of occupants and their “culture” from “nature” and the targeted land. Writing about the removal of indigenous people from land designated for conservation in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), historian Terence Ranger observes that tourists and local Zimbabweans “think of the Matopos hills as they are presented to them in the National Park—as wild nature.”  Instead, Ranger “reinstate[s] culture and history into nature” and shows how the colonial government justified the physical removal of African communities from the Matopos hills through a discourse that pitted “modernity” against “tradition.” In this binary, pre-colonial African farms, “with their wasteful ‘traditional’ methods, wreaked wanton destruction upon [the] land… and African farmers, in short, could not strike a proper and fruitful exploitation of the land, or else intervene dynamically to conserve it. Science was needed in the Matopos to save nature from African humanity.”  The effect was to re-invent the Matopos as “wild”, erase African history and claims to the land and, to create a National Park, despite that the hills were shaped by “centuries of interaction with human beings and their grazing domestic animals [and] … an African ideology of the land, which states a quite different relationship between nature and culture.” (Ranger) Thus, the historical “voice” of Africans and claims to the hills were suppressed and their physical removal justified.

The reinstatement of “culture” into “nature” inevitably leads to the reinstatement of humanity onto the landscape. Put differently, a collapsing of the culture versus nature dichotomy, undermines the underlying binary of “traditional” (indigenous land use) versus “modern” (state appropriation of land for corporate use or conservationism). This binary is what forms the basis of undermining and de-legitimizing African communities’ claims and rights to land that the state has cordoned off for conservationism, “National parks”, tourism or resource extraction. In this way, state policies elevate the latter forms of land use over “traditional” or indigenous farming or grazing practices that are deemed to not conform to the state’s logic of modernity. Land appropriation by the colonial state and its postcolonial heir is therefore premised on a narrative of progress embedded in a false binary.

The discursive erasure of African communities by colonial governments rendered them “non-existent” at worst or, a threat to “nature” at best; “The [Matopos] rocks would be protected but deprived of their voices. Colonial sciences, which had at first been directed toward the exploitation of the Matopos, increasingly contributed to the conservationist ideology … The geological image of the hills was one of a very ancient environment, appropriately either lived in by an ancient people (like the San hunter-gatherers) or preserved by a modern one (like the whites), but not appropriately farmed by African agriculturalists.” (Ranger) These observations, albeit pertaining to a different part of the African continent, provide a useful historical lens through which to understand land dispossession and appropriation at the discursive level.

Put simply, human occupants are erased from a history of the landscape and demonized as a threat to “nature” and modernity. This provides the state with the necessary (and seemingly laudable) justification to appropriate land and displace its inhabitants. However, the paradox is that the state is positioned, not as a protector of human rights [as it purports to be], but as a guarantor of “modernity” and all its inhumane vagaries. Lamenting his community’s plight in 2013, a Maasai elder, Lekakui Kanduli told the CNN “These attempts to clean us out of our old homelands have been happening for decades. The British moved us 50 years ago from what is now the Serengeti Park and subsequent governments have consistently restricted our grazing rights … The government uses our faces on tourism posters and brochures for Tanzania, yet President Kikwete has said that our way of life is a thing of the past and we should live in the modern world. But without our land and our traditions, what are we? Most people in Loliondo raise cows and goats to pay for food and education for our children.”

Much like today’s postcolonial Tanzanian state, early 20th century colonial Rhodesia’s “Native Department, the Forestry Department, the Prime Minister’s office and the newly created Natural Resources Board had come to be preoccupied with the threat posed by these people [Banyubi/ Kalanga] and their herds to the Matopos environment. It was now land rather than people which needed to be protected in its primal state. In the 1920s and 1930s most whites continued to regard the Matopos as wild and remote. But so far as the Native Department was concerned, it had become the remoteness not of romance but of backwardness. In 1920, the Native Commissioner of Matobo recorded that ‘the majority of the Natives live in the Reserves and in the unalienated Matopos rent free.”  Such official views and generalizations about the Matopos were mistaken and “African agricultural and pastoral methods in the Matopos were not the product of mere traditionalism.” (Ranger)

I have drawn parallels above between the post-colonial and contemporary Tanzanian case of the Maasai on one hand, and colonial Rhodesia’s land policy regarding the Matopos, in order to show that as far as the state (colonial and postcolonial) is concerned, “human rights” are marginal to “modernity.”  Specifically, the welfare and human rights of African people (as pertains to land use) have always been marginal to state priorities such as investment, resource extraction, conservationism and tourism. In fact, as Ranger shows, the post-colonial Zimbabwe government did not deviate from Rhodesia’s colonial policies when the country attained black majority rule in 1980. In response to Africans’ request to be resettled back on the land lost to the British South Africa Company (BSAC) during the advent of colonialism, the newly minted African Minister of Natural Resources in independent Zimbabwe declared that: “[National] Parks served as reservoirs of wild life; were recreational areas for all the people; had enormous potential for earning foreign currency and in a case such as the Matopos were a vital catchment area. It would discredit Zimbabwe internationally were [it] to embark upon a programme of reducing our parks and wild life estate.” (Ranger) **

I do not wish to suggest that there have been no counter discourses at the institutional level which seek to protect the rights of marginal communities. The United Nations convened the first World Conference on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which was held from September 22 to 23, 2014 and the United Nations General Assembly subsequently adopted the outcome document of this conference. While the World Conference represents the “universal recognition [in theory] of the rights of Indigenous peoples at the international level, and the increasingly nuanced approach by States to the particular challenges faced…” as pertains to land rights, critics argue that such acknowledgements are ineffective in protecting indigenous human rights in the face of conservationism. For example, in Eastern Tanzania, members of the Uvinje are expecting to be forcibly removed from their traditional lands and waters due to the expansion of Saadani National Park which was created in the 1960s as a game reserve and national park. In Kenya, Roe and Jonas remind us that, despite “winning their case, the Endorois people have yet to enjoy their rights, and continue their struggle against a long-running injustice perpetrated in the name of conservation.”

While the issue of deprivation and violation of indigenous land rights is not unique to Africa, the land policies of colonial and post-colonial African states provide a prism through which to interrogate the universality of “human rights” discourse, especially in relation to land – a finite and deeply contested means of production. As seen through the Tanzania case and the historical backdrop of Rhodesian colonial policy, human rights have been subsumed by the primacy of property rights and capital, both clothed in the seemingly benign capes of conservationism, investment and tourism. The Maasai people face forced removal and restricted access to land which has sustained their livelihoods for generations and which is an integral part of their identity.

Both the colonial and post-colonial African states have championed “modernity” and within it, policies which erase African communities from the landscape, discursively and physically. This is illustrative of contradictions in human rights discourse and suggests that in practice, human rights are not “universal” at all.

In conclusion, Mutua puts it well, “The Universal declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the grandest of all human rights documents, endows the struggle between good and evil with historicity in which the defeat of the latter is only possible through human rights…. [A] valid critique must first acknowledge that the human rights movement … is a bundle of contradictions.”

Works Cited:

Klose, Fabian. Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence, 2013.

Mazower, Mark. No Enchanted Place: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, 2009.

Mutua, Makau. Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique, 2002.

Ocheje, Paul. “In the Public Interest”: Forced Evictions, Land Rights and Human Development in Africa,” Journal of African Law, Volume 51 (2), 2007.

Ranger, Terence. Voices from the Rocks: Nature, Culture and History in the Matopos Hills of Zimbabwe, 1999.

Scoones, Ian (et al.). Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities, James Currey, 2010.

Roe, Dilys and Harry Jonas. “An End to Unjust Conservation,” November 16, 2014. (Website Accessed December 10, 2014).


*Recently, the First Lady of Zimbabwe, Grace Mugabe was accused of evicting villagers from land in order to build her own wildlife sanctuary and national park for profit.Also, see the controversy over land in the Save Conservancy where villagers were reportedly displaced in order to allow conservationism and private investment in hunting/ecotourism.

** See Scoones (2010), which looks at Zimbabwe’s land policy from the 1997 shift from a willing- seller and willing-buyer policy, to an accelerated redistribution program with compulsory acquisition— and the ensuing debates. In 2000, Zimbabwe’s government of President Robert Mugabe embarked on a controversial and fast-track land reform policy which he justified as a bid to redistribute land to historically marginalized black farmers. However, land that was designated for conservation by previous colonial Rhodesian governments has remained largely unchanged in post-independent Zimbabwe. National Parks (albeit suffering neglect due to state decline) have remained a significant source of tourist revenue. Zimbabwe’s government has been consistent in its quest for “investment,” profit and the exploitation of nature and wildlife for tourism revenue. Notably, this is similar to the reason proffered by Tanzania’s government in regards to the land surrounding the Serengeti.

About Andriata Chironda (1 Article)
Andriata is a PhD candidate in History at Carleton University and is also employed as a policy analyst with the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Chironda's research focuses on the history of international migration policy and the evolving discursive and material context of refugee protection policy since the end of the Second World War. Chironda holds an M.A. in History, with a specialization in Immigration and Pluralism Studies, from the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto (2009) and an Honours B.A. in History and Diaspora and Transnational Studies from Trinity College, University of Toronto (2007). Doctoral supervisors: Audra Diptee and James Milner

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