Monday, June 7, 2010

Securing fundamental human rights:
Despite constant talk of tribal tensions, experts say that in Liberia – and in much of Africa – ethnicity is rarely the real issue. Mr. Unruh, at McGill, says ethnic conflict, or even drought or famine, are usually symptoms of a deeper land dispute. "Underneath all of that," he says, "is an ongoing land conflict, or different understandings about how land is accessed and used."

One of the main problems is that "land reform" is a hoary term, in the past used as frequently by socialists and statists to justify grabbing land. But, a free economy is grounded in property rights:
It seemed as if these chiefs — who would otherwise prefer secure property rights — were suffering from distributive conflicts over land and a lack of information about their boundaries and the extent of allocations. Common sense seemed to dictate that if lands were dutifully surveyed, demarcated, and adjudicated, and chiefs were given registers in which they could record allocations, they would surely avoid infringing on each other’s parcels and end these problems. So I asked Muntari [the local Ghanaian planning official] what the state was doing to help chiefs solve these distributive conflicts and information problems.

Muntari’s response was unsettling. He claimed that, after working with chiefs for seventeen years, he had come to the conclusion that chiefs did not want clear boundaries, functional property registers, and an environment devoid of disputes. He argued that the chiefs would sabotage any effort to provide these features. According to Muntari, in the absence of such mechanisms, cash-strapped, land-hungry chiefs could conveniently “mistakenly” allocate the lands of neighboring chiefs or sell land that their ancestors had sold earlier. Further, where tenants engaged in subversive political behavior, chiefs could conveniently award their rights to more loyal subjects…

Simply put, chiefs did not want property rights security.

In West Africa, the lack of secure property rights was the key element of governmental corruption, and as such it is a fundamental human right, as Ato Onoma makes clear. In Liberia, much of the conflict that I dealt with was a result of either long standing disputes over who exactly owns the land and on what terms somebody let someone else use it. Just as frequently, I ran into issues with overlapping mineral concessions, granted at various levels of the economy, with multinationals gathering claims from Monrovia, local businessmen getting stakes from county officials, and locals digging on small individual claims on bribes to the nearby inspector. In one instance, an inspector admitted openly that he received bribes-- he didn't call it as such, but when asked about getting his paychecks from the government, he admitted that he got most of his food from those that he should have been regulating.

But, land deeds simply don't exist in most cases, and sorting out traditional claims to ownership is a messy business. The mere act of clarifying legal status of property rights is open to political manipulations, making this a problem what simply won't go away.
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