Somalis Need to Learn Lessons from the Legacy of land grabbing in Africa
by Bazi Bussuri Sheikh
“Aduunyo Jowhar Ka Joog, Aakhirana Janno” is one of the quotes Somalis use to describe the beauty of the country’s agricultural land. Today, Somalia’s farmland similar to its neighbouring countries is in danger of falling into the hands of transnational companies often in partnership with governments sometimes supported by the local elites. Many of these investors target low income countries with weak internal governance and their win-win language conceals the fact that most of the farmland acquisition occurs under bizarre and non-transparent circumstances making experts to warn of the consequences (Indirect Re-colonisation of Africa’s Resources) if the practice is not stopped. Many experts also challenged the myth that there is “unused” or “un-owned” land in Africa and most agricultural land deals target quality farmland, particularly land that is irrigated and offers good access to markets. Such discourses about empty land are deeply and dangerously misleading. This is not about anti private investment or belittling the contribution modern agriculture has made and continues to make, but a call for investments that do not harm and follow the ethical and sustainable business principles (Economics as if People matter).
Land grabbing is not new to the continent and for centuries, communities have been intimidated to abandon or forcibly removed their land by national and local authorities. However, the current land grab we are now witnessing is a new aggressive land grab driven by geopolitical arising from the 2008 food crisis, hedge fund bets on rising land prices. These led many including Gulf States, several East Asian Countries and Western multinational companies to re-evaluate their strategies and secure land and water elsewhere, essentially turning to “Offshore” food production to supply their growing populations. It seems implausible that the government of African country in a situation in which its own population was going hungry to preserve the right of a large scale agricultural land to export food to its lease-holding country. One might argue that African chiefs and tribal leaders in the Colonial era signed away their land not knowing what they were signing away. Today, unlike the African Chiefs in the colonial era, African leaders sign such contracts with the deliberation and calculation by performing the role of the gatekeepers of the rentier state.
It is also ironic that these changes are underway at precisely the time that the African Union, among others has embraced a vision of small holder-led agriculture commercialisation and a “green revolution in Africa”. The current farmland deals also has its political ramification as the world has seen the case of the land deal in 2008 between African Nation of Madagascar and the South Korean firm Daewoo logistics to sign 99 year lease on 3.2 million acres of land, representing half of the country’s arable land. This deal has generated more controversy and it led to the toppling of Ravalomana’s government. Therefore, we urge our national, federal and local Somali leaders not to voluntarily make us colony again by renting out the agricultural land of the country that should be utilised for the benefit of the ordinary people. This is bad not only because it takes the land away, but also because it implements a casino agricultural economic model which is socially, economically, politically and ethically unsustainable and unacceptable. This trend is as predictable as it is regrettable.
There is also growing grass-roots movement in the West against the dysfunctional food system in the Western countries that is now coined as “Foodoply”. They are campaigning for a complete structural shift to reshape the food system from seed to the table (The way the food is produced, marketed, distributed and sold). It is also important that we should not be naïve about the importance of business and industry. We can all point to many worthy features of modern agriculture, but on the balance we find modern agriculture (that is controlled, top to bottom, by a few firms and that rewards only scale) wanting. The Western corporations and investors from South need to re-evaluate their dealings with poorer African countries and fill the areas of the deal that is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content. For example, the WTO that dictates that competition is good and will weed out the inefficient producer. Meanwhile farmers in the West continue to receive agricultural subsidies that give them a head start in the game and are able to out price African farmers.
The way Forward for Somali Agriculture
Agriculture is the foundation of civilization and any stable economy. The stewardship of the agricultural land is on the people on that land, country or a nation. One of our biggest shortcomings is that our negative perception towards farming as a job and the farming community. We have neglected the truth that a farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist and contribute to the welfare of society in more ways than society usually acknowledges, or even knows. Majority Somalis do not show much interest in farming and consider it demeaning or dishonourable. We need to teach our children how to farm and feed themselves at early ages (Primary School) or fall into the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery. Many Somali intellectuals especially the poets and artists have warned against failing to safeguard the farmland and not giving the Somali farmers the respect they deserve. Among them was Maxamed Gacal Xaayow (Allaha u naxaariistee) whose poem “BEER HA LA OGAADO” listened by many Somalis on YouTube (Listen Below) called for a change on the negative attitude towards the farming profession and the farming communities.
Land grabbing has hit harder many times the farming communities in Somalia, firstly they lost out on colonisation, secondly victimised by many of policies and practices of Siyad Barre years in 1975 and 1980s the liberalisation prescription given by the IMF and finally the state collapse tragedies. The land grab by the Italians had been based on overt military force, even though translated into treaties and agreements. The second land grab of the Barre years proceeded under legal forms, but force clearly behind it. The state collapse in the early nineties, the land grab was continued by naked force and the militia of different clan groupings competed for control with far more lethal consequences. It is also worth mentioning that global geopolitics and late twentieth century political economic transformations (development aid as an arm of Cold War geopolitics, the arrogance of development wisdom and state agendas for maximising control and elite efforts to accumulate wealth) contributed far more to Southern Somalia’s destruction than “ancestral clan tensions”.
However, it is time we Somalis stop moaning about the past mistakes and get back on track to rediscover the way forward as we say ((Mindi calool gashay maxay u gashay lama yiraahdo, sideen u daaweynaa baa la yiraahdaa). Therefore, Somali farmers are yearning for an effective and just agricultural land reform to short circuit the cycle of negativity surrounding the continuing land tenure controversy. It is worthwhile to face a short term pain for the greater gain in the future. Below is a summary of recommendations and the readers with the knowledge of agriculture must contribute their ideas via commenting so that the future Somali generation can read:
- Genuine reconciliation between those involved in internal agricultural land dispute via Qudhac tree based approach as the customary negotiations between elders had long kept the violence to a minimum in rural areas. For example, the current conflict in Lower Shabeele, no one side is getting any closer to achieving its goals and no one is happy with the situation (It is un-winnable). The only way forward is through face to face talk (Rag waxaad walaal uga waydid waran ugama heshid). It is difficult to address the danger of agricultural land grab from outside if we are still indulging in political infighting and inability to get out of clannish self.
It is also important to note that Somalia had long standing Customary Law in solving land related disputes in rural areas. Most of the laws relating to agricultural land tenure have been derived from the Islamic law. In agriculture, Islam has not laid down any hard and fast rules to govern each and every affair so as to restrict the freedom of action of the people. Rather most of these matters have been left to the discretion of the people of each age and each place to decide the same according to their ever changing socio-economic situations. Only a few general instructions have been issued in the fields of land-ownership, land cultivation, reclamation of dead lands, peasant-landlord relationship, and irrigation. Many Somali intellectuals have made extensive research on Somali Customary law including (Alle ha u Naxriisto) Abdulkadir Aroma. He summarises his findings on below interview with Universal TV:
- Establish land committees with full support from the government based on mass participation (rhetoric free) to constructively debate and discuss the way forward and come up with workable, fair and just land reform.For example, Taiwan’s reform that was hailed as a success, 5 of its eleven committees were tenants or small peasant farmers elected directly by other tenants and small peasant farmers. The remaining six spots consisted of two elected representative from the landlords and the farm-owners, one land officer and the president of local farmer’s association. Somali farming communities, given the opportunity and capital can be as productive as the Taiwanese and there was a period the country was self-sufficient in food. Somalis are also able to set up a successful committee and have demonstrated this as shown by committee of Literacy Campaign the successful Literacy Campaign that was launched on the seventh March 1974.
- Set up goals, guidelines and principals to follow by the committees.Main goals such as reducing poverty and inequality as well as achieving sustainability, stability and legitimacy. Growing evidence links within-country asset inequality to slower growth and such inequality are not due to markets, but to inheritance and privileged access to the power to self-assign rewards and subsidies.
Finally, the aim of this piece of writing was to create awareness of the current land grab in Africa, to safeguard Somalia’s agricultural land and to encourage a constructive debate about the solutions and the future of the agricultural sector in Somalia and its farming communities. Every child birth has a labour and Somalia has gone through a painful labour (the nightmare of collapse) and will eventually give birth to a healthy country that is centralised by heart and federalised by land.
Bazi Bussuri Sheikh