Could South Africa and Namibia go the way of Zimbabwe?

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.

That from a new book by Ato Onoma on the politics of property rights in Africa.

“Institutions rule” is the new refrain in economic development. Onoma might agree, but his book is a frontal assault on the simple notion that property rights reforms will  produce de Soto-style development and prosperity — or that land reforms will ever be honestly executed in the first place. So the book is not just for Africanists, but (maybe more importantly) anyone interested in modern institutional development, policy reform, and the state.

Onoma’s example from rural Ghana sounds a lot like like the national scene in Zimbabwe. Possibly the best bit of the book is the conclusion, where he extends his argument to Zimbabwe and shows why South Africa and Namibia could go down a similar path.

The basic argument: there are forces in these societies that can benefit from using land as a political weapon, and conditions like large-scale land hunger and a sense of historical injustice make a dramatic switch possible, from progressive land reform regime to polarizing pariahs. It pays to remember that,  not so long ago, Zimbabwe was considered a model for peaceful land reform.

It’s a pity the publisher hasn’t released a paperback or Kindle version. Academic publishers like Cambridge need to shed their crusty ways. Check back soon if the hardback price makes you wince.