Tag Archives: land

Four Cases of Conflict Over Resources: #1 Rwanda

In reviewing some cases of conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, I was reminded that I could not name a single one in which some form of natural resource, e.g. land, precious metals or other tradable commodities, did not undergird the fighting. I was fascinated anew in rereading about the histories of four conflicts in particular and will be making various posts that describe these in a nutshell. This is the first, and it will cover the issue of land scarcity in the Rwandan Genocide.  The other four cases to follow—Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Niger Delta—are about overabundance rather than scarcity. For a great narrative about land scarcity’s role in the 1994 genocide, you can also read Chapter 10, “Malthus in Africa,” of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse.” This title refers to the Malthusian dilemma in which human population tends to exceed the capacity for food production to feed that population.

The cases demonstrate four possible hypotheses about what might cause, sustain, and give form to civil conflicts in Africa. No conflict is ever driven by a single factor and conflict is always the interaction of many factors. Note that these conflicts arose in the era after the Cold War of comparably informal warfare and thus were quite different from most previous conflicts in the 20th century. As opposed to traditional wars, these are examples of “new” or “hybrid” conflicts because they A) involve many non-state actors, B) were based on identity more than ideology, C) used fear to garner political control, and D) were financed through predation rather than taxes. Modern conflicts in developing countries, particularly in Africa, can often be partially explained along these lines.

Rwanda and the “Green War” ExplanationThis points to environmental degradation and scarcity as a source of poverty and cause of conflict. For example, rising population pressure and falling agricultural productivity may lead to land disputes. Lack of water may provoke conflict, e.g. Sudan. Environmental stress like that in 1990s Rwanda tends to make people prone to violence as they seek alternatives to desperate situations. In the Rwandan context, lack of access to farming land—necessary to food production and even securing marriage for young men—helped impel the violence (in combination with other historical and geographic factors).

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My Relatively Quick Summary of the Rwandan Genocide:  The mountainous country of Rwanda in Central Africa was controlled first by Germany and then after WWI by Belgium until its independence in 1962. Belgian rulers systematically favored the minority Tutsis over the majority Hutu groups, which sowed the seeds of ethnic tensions that were a significant factor in later conflicts for Rwanda. A 1959 Hutu revolution forced 300,000 Tutsis to flee and Hutus officially took over when they ousted the last Tutsi monarch in 1961. Ethnically motivated violence ensued in the following decades, including after the installment of a moderate Hutu, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, as head of state. He ruled through his party, the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (NRMD), for the next two decades as he ossified his power in elections in which he was the sole candidate. During this time, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis refugees were living in Uganda and attempting to re-enter the country through the forces of their Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). From 1990-1993, PRF fighters attempted a takeover of the capital of Kigali until Habyarima agreed to the creation of a transition government that would include the Tutsis, an agreement inflaming Hutu extremists.  In this context, the Rwandan Genocide was a single three-month phase of the larger Rwanda Civil War (1990-1994).

Environmental conditions were ripe for conflict by the spring of 1994. Rwanda was a landlocked and impoverished country that relied, as it does today, on agriculture. Fluctuating world prices for coffee on the world market in the 1980s began a sustained economic crisis that peaked in 1990 with the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) structural adjustment program for the national economy. The average Rwandan farmer was earning less for their crops in one of the most population dense countries in Africa. There was not enough farmland or resources to sustain working-age Rwandans, including large swathes of unemployed and unpropertied men, and land disputes arose along ethnic lines. Conditions of environmental stress and poverty were extreme.

The single incident that inflamed the genocide occurred in April of 1994, when the plane carrying Habyarimana and the Burundian president was shot down over the capital city of Kigali, killing all occupants. Some blame the RPF and others the Hutu extremists for the assassination. Quickly thereafter on the same day, the Presidential Guard, the Rwandan armed forces (RAF), and Hutu militias–the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi—began indiscriminately slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Kigali. The Rwandan media, specifically government-sponsored radio programs, played a pivotal role in spreading the rallying crying for violence across the rest of the country. Radio broadcasters called for the killing of Tutsi “cockroaches” and encouraged all Hutus to take up arms. This was particularly dangerous in a population-dense environment in which neighbors lived so closely together. Pressure among Hutus to engage in killings quickly spread in clusters within tight-knit communities.

An estimated 850,000 Tutsis were individually killed by hand in a 90-day period, which exceeds the per-day killing rate of any other genocide in world history. Around ¾ of the Tutsi population was killed, along with 1/3 of the Batwa Pygmy population, while ¼ of Hutus engaged in violence. Family members were forced to kill their own family members and join the violence. Génocidaires systematically targeted Tutsi and moderate Hutu women for sexual violence as a weapon of war with the goal of sexual mutilation and spreading AIDs. The sexual violence was so extensive that it became the first event in which rape as a weapon of war would later be prosecuted as an official war crime by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands.

The End of the Genocide: The genocide came to an end in July 1994 when the Tutsi-led RPF finally took military control of Kigali and the rest of the country and installed a coalition government. Over 2 million Tutsis were refugees across the border in what is now DRC (then called Zaire) and many returned. Only after the killing ended did the international community respond, and the Rwandan Genocide is often cited as the worst example of global apathy in the face of a clear humanitarian crisis. There were some UN and European peacekeepers on the ground but their mandate did not permit them to use force against the Hutu extremists and there is evidence that some humanitarian zones they created were used a gateway for génocidaires to escape the country. Because of the logistical challenges of prosecuting thousands of violence participants, the RPF established community justice courts called Gacaca courts, a form of transitional justice meant to aid communal healing, closure, and forgiveness on a grassroots level after a collective trauma.

Today, Rwanda is perhaps the greatest example of a country that chose to rebuild positively after mass violence and is an example of constructive change. It has the highest number of female parliamentarians in the world, outlawed reference to tribe or ethnicity (even in casual conversation) to avoid discrimination, hosts a monthly community service day nationwide, was the first country in the world to ban plastic bags as a green initiative, and hosts the most expensive building on the continent. It is a land of surprises today.

Generating Capital in Africa

With an ever-increasing population of 163 million people, Nigeria has a lot of consumers. Nigeria also has a lot of business entrepreneurs.  Nigeria also has a lot of money. So how is it that people with all the ingredients for developing their economy still live on an average of $2 a day?

In The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, Hernando de Soto has an idea. He argues that a lack of legally protected property rights in the global south impedes people’s ability to transform their meager assets into greater capital.  Poor countries have the “stuff” necessary to not be poor, but because their stuff isn’t legally legitimate they can’t buy, sell, or trade that stuff in order to build up the economy. They remain in this rut of dead capital. For example, the rural-to-urban migrants living in self-made islands around Lagos may have shacks worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but because they do not legally own that property in the eyes of the state, they cannot take out loans against their property in order to make larger investments.

In contrast, property rights in Western law create beneficial economic effects that undergird the health of European and the American economies.  He writes that Western law fixes the value of assets, puts all asset information in one place, tracks and protects transactions, and makes assets “fungible,” meaning that they can be modified to suit different types of transactions. Additionally, it networks business agents so they can engage in transactions that build more capital as well as makes business people accountable for their practices, accountability that is sorely lacking in Nigeria.

In reading, I wondered how I could apply his argument to my analysis of law in rural Niger Delta.  I remembered that one of the common themes in my interviews with protesting women was their sense of injustice that the state and oil companies had extracted crude on their property without consulting or compensating them.  When I asked them if they owned the land, a first cluster of women said that they did, but their grandfather has passed away and he was the last elder who could attest to it, or they had lost their deeds decades ago, or that they had inherited it based on a public agreement.

A second cluster didn’t have titles per say, but that it was theirs “collectively” as Ogoni people. I wondered why in their minds it didn’t belong to just the people of the village, or Rivers State people, or Niger Delta people. Some also said that the land was theirs personally because their family had farmed on it for many years. As an urban American, I didn’t understand these responses initially.

The answer is social contract. Property and rights are socially constructed first, and then legitimated in formal written law second. In rural villages property disputes are resolved by asking the eldest community member where they remember boundaries being drawn or which family they remember as being the owner; land titles filed with the state are not the basis of ownership necessarily.  For the second cluster, this land was “Ogoni property” long before the advent of the post-independence Nigeria legal system, and for them their ownership based on social contract will always remain more salient that the modern state’s claim to that same land. When the federal government or oil companies use that land as if it belonged to the state, Nigerians view that property use as illegitimate and thus engage in collective action.

The women who claimed to own their land because they had farmed it are in good company.  When settlers were initially dividing up vast tracts of American land two centuries ago, they gained official titles based on the idea that the land belonged to them because they had made use of it. However, American pioneers had the benefit of staking claim to virgin territory in the legal sense.  Deltans’s claims are obfuscated by legal pluralism, their pre-existing social contracts co-existing with formal Nigerian law derived from British common law as well as foreign companies’ claims to access that land. It is therefore not surprising that such frustration and feelings of violation would have lead to collective demonstrations in the area over the past twenty years.

To de Soto’s point, Deltans have assets, e.g. huts, houses, farmland, etc.  But, they can’t officially prove so because they long ago lost their titles or don’t have the literacy necessary to file paperwork, or most commonly, because Nigerian government bureaucracy is so unnavigable that people are forced to work and live extralegally. Functioning outside of the protections of law limits their ability to utilize their property in ways that drive the economy, e.g. they can’t use property as collateral on a loan or apply to open a legal business if they don’t “own” the property.  Law is supposed to fit the needs of its people, but Nigerians have been forced to fit into the confines of a post-independence legal order that does not have a foundation in social practices. And that, it could be argued, is a big part of why so many Nigerians are still so poor.

For a critical look at de Soto’s book, see the New York Times Book Reviews.