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Breaking Grounds

Akim Mugisa
South Sudan is blessed with fertile land – but it has a darker side. Clashes and land-grabbing have soured many peoples’ close-knit relationship with their soil.
28.03.2014  |  Juba

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, celebrated its second birthday in July 2013. It was born out of the division of Africa’s biggest nation and it is still large, covering some 619,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of France or the US State of Texas.

South Sudan encompasses grassland, fertile soils and marshes. An estimated 80 percent of its territory is arable but because of insecurity and lack of road access only 4 percent of it is currently used to grow crops.

When a man tells you he has no land, you associate him with poverty but when another tells you of acres of land, you know he is wealthy.”
Gwada Ogot
In South Sudan, land is close to citizens’ hearts, providing much more than nourishment: When a man tells you he has no land, you associate him with poverty but when another tells you of acres of land, you know he is wealthy,” said activist Gwada Ogot.

Land ownership in the two-year-old nation is split into three categories: community land, public land and private land in the possession of individuals.

In reality, the government has the upper hand. Officials have the right to community or individual land when it is in the public interest”, for example, to use it for education, water and health projects.

However, there are loopholes in the current system. Right now, leaders can sell or allocate land with no or little consultation with the actual land owners. Ogot argues that the South Sudanese need clarity regarding their rights to land, a key source of social status. Any land policy should be all inclusive,” he said. There is need for dialogue and compensation as evictions are inhumane and lead to conflict and violence.”

Cases of land grabbing and illegal exploitation of land abound. In Lainya County, in Central Equatoria State, for instance, local chiefs were reportedly involved in illegal land allocation to an investor until communities teamed up and forced the transaction to be revoked.

Tempers Flare

Such incidents have become increasingly common in recent years. Before the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement all land belonged to the government, meaning conflict was limited. But after the peace deal, which ended over two decades of north-south conflict, the southern government transferred land rights to the communities, sparking competition for land.

Land grabbing, disputes and illegal transactions are now frequent in the capital Juba and other urban areas.Since 2011, disputes have escalated as the relative peace enabled many South Sudanese to return home, to settle and start rebuilding their lives after decades of civil war. This influx of returnees, as well as the keen interest of developers, means that demand for plots of land is running higher than ever. Land grabbing, disputes and illegal transactions are now frequent in the capital Juba and other urban areas.

Without proper guidelines and adequate judicial powers, local chiefs take the reins and settle land disputes. This solution is not entirely successful: Some people end up angered by their decisions and take the law into their own hands.

Among the regional controversies, headmen in Yei River County, Central Equatoria State, have been blamed for the increasing land disputes due to their involvement in illegal transactions. Sebit Ben, a resident of Mahad area, said the local leaders were violating lawful procedures regarding selling and buying of land.

Worse still, he described intimidation and violence. Despite South Sudan’s attempted disarmament process, there are cases of people using guns to threaten land owners, he said. Such clashes have left people killed, injured and displaced. Sebit urged authorities, national, state and local, to appoint qualified people to handle land issues to avoid disputes among communities. However, beyond empowering people to oversee land, many say the root cause is the absence of a water-tight legal framework.

Murky Laws

At present the main legal reference point is the 2009 Land Act. The details of this document, however, are largely unknown to the public in general – and to many officials.

In South Sudan, the judicial systems have been largely based on customary legislation. They are, however, characterised by a high degree of legal ambiguity and large gaps in the regulatory framework remain. The few laws that do exist are poorly disseminated and under-enforced. Without rules to guide their activities, government institutions tend to function through a combination of discretionary decision-making and preexisting practice. The lack of clarity often gives rise to power struggles, particularly in Central Equatoria.
Enhancing the legal ambiguity, provisions within article 170 (1) of the Transitional Constitution stress that land belongs to the people. The government, however, has the mandate to regulate its use, creating a large grey area which can give way to violent conflict.

Robert Ladu Luki, Chairman of the Land Commission, the institution which deals with land issues, has admitted that his organisation is in a weak position to deal with conflict because of the absence of legal structures. He said land related problems need to be fundamentally addressed through legislation.

It is clear that the Land Commission, civil society organisations, legislators and citizens need to come together to create a framework to steer the country regarding land ownership issues.

Civil society organisations, such as South Sudan Land Alliance (SSuLA) have taken up the initiative to fight for the land rights of citizens. SSuLA, a national body headed by Therezine Filbert from Western Equatoria State, has a network of land alliances in all the states and representatives from the contested Abyei area.

Cultural barriers also exist in South Sudan’s approach to land. Women, for example, are often prevented from owning land despite their role in agriculture and feeding their families.

The Waiting Game

Meanwhile, citizens should do more to protest against the scourge of land grabbing, the Land Administrator in the Yei County Department for Land and Physical Infrastructure Selestino Poru Wuka said. Some 24 land cases have been forwarded to the county court for settlement this year while 10 others were handled by the land department after aggrieved parties realised their mistakes.

‘Many people have made the mistake of selling off land too cheaply since independence.’
Nina Pedersen
Nina Pedersen, Manager for the Norwegian People’s Aid development programme, said many people in South Sudan have made the mistake of selling off land too cheaply since independence.

She urges civil society organisations to monitor legislation and ensure nobody is cheated nor forcefully displaced. Meanwhile, she said, it was essential to sensitise people about their rights to land through civic education. But Pedersen and representatives from the other organisations are still waiting for legal clarity on the contentious land issue. Like other draft bills still under debate in the National Legislative Assembly of South Sudan, a draft Land Policy is being scrutinised by politicians with a view to turning it into law.

But in a country in which up to seven million people are facing food insecurity and which relies completely on oil, land remains a key resource to tap into. Right now, most of the food consumed by South Sudan’s hard-pressed citizens has been imported from beyond its borders. Hopefully more than four percent of the young nation’s arable land can be farmed in the future, putting more on to the plates of its citizens.