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Understanding the role of political corruption in African land sectors

A guest blog by students from the London School of Economics, outlining the results of their study about land and political corruption in Africa.

In the predominantly agrarian societies of Sub Saharan Africa, land remains an important source of social security for local communities. Rising pressures on land due to large-scale commercial projects, or its use as a redistributive tool by the state, however, pose a challenge to safeguarding communities’ rights and livelihoods.

Attempts to improve tenure security for local communities concentrate on developing an appropriate legal and constitutional base. This is certainly a necessary first step. But is it sufficient? In our report we find that a strong legal base is insufficient where people can tailor, abuse or neglect this institution. This is the political corruption that facilitates illegitimate land transfers.

The manifestation of political corruption is a unique product of a country’s land tenure regime, the actual recognition and application of these rules, and the strength of accountability mechanisms. These factors explain where, how and why political corruption occurs. We used this framework to analyse the role of political corruption in the land sectors of Ghana, Kenya and Zambia. Given the diversity and complexity of land related issues in these countries, it is key to carefully identify the role of (political) corruption. Sometimes it is at the core of the problem, whilst in land administrations it is often a product of inefficiency and in the case of layered land claims, irrelevant to a solution.

Institutional tailoring

Distinguishing laws that have been intentionally tailored to suit private and political interest from ones that were well intended with negative consequences is extremely difficult. Zambia is such an example. Here, the 1995 Land Act requires permanent conversion of communal land into state land before leases can be granted. Discourses about productivity and protection of customary rights legitimized this conversion clause, but the consequences were far from these predictions. This new legal base has led to a vast and permanent redistribution of land from communities to local and foreign investors, mediated by the state (Nolte 2013).

Abuse and neglect of interest clauses

A more visible case of political corruption to facilitate illegitimate land acquisitions is the abuse and neglect of community and public interest clauses. In Ghana and Zambia, local chiefs hold the majority of land on behalf of their community, and are legally required to allocate it in the latter’s interest and to seek consent prior to a transfer or conversion. In Kenya, where our research focusses on public lands before the 2010 constitution, allocation by the presidency also had to be in the interest of the public.

On paper, this legal base has potential to ensure land tenure security, but practice suggests otherwise. Chiefs, rather than local people, are the main beneficiaries of land sales to private companies in Ghana (Ubink 2004). In Zambia, applicants often go directly to the national government, not consulting local stakeholders (Brown 2005). In other cases, government delegates have abused the community interest clause by overemphasizing benefits or via coercion (German et al. 2013). In both countries, the amount of facilitation payments or ‘drink money’ escalated. This, together with the increasing value of land, made land sales more attractive and further reduced incentives of chiefs to seek community’s consent.

In areas where the presidency or a centralized lands commission governs public land, such as Kenya before the 2010 constitution, political corruption occurs at higher levels in government. Here, letters of allotment were allocated based on patronage (O’Brien 2011). Beneficiaries either resold them to private investors or got the opportunity to resell them above market price to state corporations (Southall 2005). Again, this abuse of established rules neglected the public interest clause that was supposed to guide land allocations.

Need for stronger checks and balances

Weak mechanisms to hold traditional, local and national authorities accountable open up space for political corruption, even if the legal and constitutional bases seem strong. The most problematic position is that of local communities, who lack sufficient resources and power to hold authorities accountable. Consultations with traditional leaders for land investments are insufficiently enforced and monitored in both Ghana and Zambia (Ubink 2008). In the latter, social structures also inhibit the ability of local groups to question land allocation by chiefs. In Kenya, the 2010 constitution tackled some land-related problems by reducing the power of the president over land and redistributing a considerable amount of public land to local councils (Boone 2012). Still, it did so without solving the problems of downward accountability at the local level.

A stronger focus on community based accountability mechanisms, strengthening an independent judiciary and accessible registration processes cannot be overemphasised in combating political corruption and achieving tenure security. This is necessary to ensure that checks and balances become stronger than human agency in land transfers in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia.


Boone, C. (2012) Land conflict and distributive politics in Kenya. African Studies Review. 55(1) p. 75-103

Brown, T. (2005) Contestation, confusion and corruption: Market-based land reform in Zambia. In Evers, S. et al. (2004) Competing Jurisdictions: Settling land claims in Africa.

German, L., Schoneveld, G. & Mwangi, E. (2013) Contemporary Processes of Large-Scale Land Acquisition in Sub-Saharan Africa: Legal Deficiency or Elite Capture of the Rule of Law? World Development. 48 p.1-18

Nolte, K. (2013) Large scale agricultural investments under poor land governance systems:: Actors and institutions in the case of Zambia. GIGA Working Papers, No. 221

O’Brien, E. (2011) Irregular and illegal land acquisition by Kenya’s elites: Trends, processes, and impacts of Kenya’s land grabbing phenomenon. Rome: International Land Coalition.

Southall, R. (2005). The Ndungu Report: Land & Graft in Kenya. Review of African Political Economy. 32 p.142-151

Ubink, J, 2004, Struggles for land and the role of the chiefs, Research report 04/1 University Leiden Van Vollenhove Institute.

Ubink, J.M. (2008) In the land of the chiefs. Customary law, land conflicts, and the role of the state in peri-urban Ghana. Leiden University Press, Leiden.

Author : T. Owen, M. Vanmulken & G. Duale

17 Jul 2015

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