ASR Forum: Land Disputes and Displacement in Post-Conflict Africa. Questioning Boundaries and Belonging
Conflict-related displacement is increasingly central in shaping land claims, property relations, and modes of belonging in the African continent. In settings of forced mobility and resettlement, land property claims define the continued struggles over community membership and access to resources. The new African Studies Review Forum “Land Disputes and Displacement in Post-Conflict Africa” (guest editors: Daivi Rodima-Taylor and Lotte Meinert) explores territoriality, belonging and boundary making in plural sites of public authority in African communities that have become particularly pronounced in conflict-affected environments.
The discussions in this Special Forum reveal how political authority and norms of belonging are constituted and reproduced in conflict-related settings by establishing and exercising rights of resource access as well as community governance. The articles investigate the ways in which issues of land conflict impact structures and practices of authority at different levels of social interaction. Ethnographic and historical studies from Uganda, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa analyze the consequences of various forms of forced mobility such as mass displacement, resettlement, and land restitution, and explore their impact on local land use, social hierarchy, political authority, kinship, and personhood.
As elaborated in the Introduction (Meinert and Rodima-Taylor), the focus of the Special Forum lies on the issues of scale – ranging from intimate levels among generations, neighbors or kin to broader inter-ethnic or national levels. The Forum also explores the nature of arguments and evidence revolving around land boundaries and land use, with their impact and convertibility in different co-existing legal systems, and the symbolism of possession and belonging through various forms of land-related materiality.
Boundaries – Malleable and Intractable
The article by Whyte and Acio illuminates recent inter-generational tensions in Northern Uganda’s Acholiland where patterns of generational governance became complicated in the two decades of civil war and forced resettlement in displacement camps. Novel, individual-centered ways of land access intermingle with those guided by Acholi tradition and statutory law in the contemporary post-conflict situation, offering new perspectives on the classical anthropological concerns with gerontocracy and patriliny.
Post-conflict generational conflict in Acholiland is featured also in the article by Meinert, Willerslev and Seebach that draws comparisons with the neighboring Ikland. The article explores how cemented graves and cement pillars are used in those societies affected by conflict and displacement for signifying land claims, and how articulations of belonging and authority are created through the specific materiality of cement that signals modernity and inflexibility.
Land as a Medium for Authority and Personhood
Casting light on the role of land in the expanding African refugee economies, Bjorkhaug, Boas and Kebede discuss the complicated integration of Gueré conflict refugees in Grand Ghede, Liberia. The article explores the social anxieties and narratives of belonging and autochthony which accompany the integration of the displaced. Here the customary mechanisms of inclusion can become tools for systematic exclusion on broader levels, and the article describes the mediation of these power dynamics through land relations. The examination of constitutive relationships between land property, authority, and citizenship continues in Amanda Hammar’s discussion of urban displacement in Zimbabwe. The article highlights the role of power and authority in fashioning new forms of property and norms of proper citizenship within chaotic urban dislocation. It reveals the ambiguous consequences of the attempts of restoring social order through manipulating housing property that can disempower the marginal and deprive them of property and personhood.
Placing the ethnographic studies of the Forum in a longitudinal perspective, Sara Berry’s article provides a historical view of the role of land tenure institutions in migrant integration in African communities. Drawing on historical and ethnographic evidence from Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and South Africa, Berry suggests that in the current conditions of ubiquitous land competition, peaceful resolution of conflicts may be determined less by broader normative and institutional dynamics and depend more on the willingness and capability of local adjudicators to listen to all sides of the conflict and find mutually satisfactory solutions in the conditions of constant change.
With its attention on people occupying new spaces between countries, institutions, and social and material boundaries, the Special Forum advances new perspectives on African displacement economies. The Forum is an outcome of a triple panel of the African Studies Association annual meeting (Indianapolis, Nov. 2014), co-organized by the guest editors, who continued these discussions at the symposium on Land and Conflict at the Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies, Gulu University (Uganda, Jan. 2015).