IDS Bulletin Vol. 32 Nos. 4

Seeking Certainty and Aggravating Ambiguity

Published on 1 October 2001

Summaries The land tenure situation in rural Africa is often described as uncertain and insecure, and recent reforms have addressed this issue. Consequently, it is a paradox that measures taken to reduce the insecurity that rural people face every day in fact often increase uncertainty, or at least reconfigure it. Responses to this by local people and local political entrepreneurs vary and raise fundamental questions about public authority and institutional competition. The informal recording of property transactions on paper seems to develop proportionally to the states’ generally less than successful efforts to formally record the land tenure situation. In many African societies it is either illegal or practically impossible to acquire a formal deed to ‘one’s’ land, either because the state considers itself to be the sole proprietor or because overly formalistic and cumbersome procedures prevent ordinary people from acquiring such documents. Nonetheless, a wide variety of written documents recording property transactions exist in rural Africa. While these are not deeds or contracts in the formal sense, informal practices of public validation by a variety of politico?legal institutions have developed. In the case of Niger, the promise of registration of customary land rights under the land tenure reform, the Rural Code, created a huge popular demand for registration. However, the state agencies’ incapacity to meet this demand opened the terrain for local institutional bricolage and competition. Such local practices are technically non?legal but tolerated by the state, and are the way ‘property’ is produced. Consequently, the attempt to increase security of tenure has the unintended aggregate result of accentuating the uncertainty of authority: which institution can legitimately validate property?

Cite this publication

Lund, C. (2001) Seeking Certainty and Aggravating Ambiguity . IDS Bulletin 32(4): 47-53

Publication details

published by
Institute of Development Studies
Lund, Christian


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