Dr. Abiodun Alao of King’s College, London, told the Leadership and Society conference organised by the African Leadership Centre in Nairobi that while oil was the cause of conflict in Nigeria’s Delta Region, the same natural resource had worked well for Norway.
He said that while diamonds were linked to the past conflict in Sierra Leone, the precious stones had ensured that Botswana was a relatively stable and rich country.
Presenting a paper on conflict and natural resources governance in Africa, Dr. Alao noted: “Very few subjects have underlined conflict and inter-group relations in Africa as much as issues involving the ownership, management and control of natural resources.
“Among others, controversies surrounding resources like land, pastoralism, water, solid minerals and oil have torn societies apart and have even raised issues in some of the countries about the continued existence of their current national structures.”
Dr. Alao explained that the structure governing the management of natural resources in Africa today was flawed because it was a throwback to colonial days when these resources benefited the colonial governments rather than the people of the colonies. Cocoa Boards today, for example, were still operating a system that was skewed, he said.
His paper argued that most of the natural resource-related conflicts that had affected African societies had been rooted in “the complete defectiveness or the selective efficiency of the structure of political governance”.
But he noted that things were still not bad given that there could have been more conflicts over natural resources in a resource-rich Africa. “Why are there not more conflicts in Africa given the inconsistencies in natural resources governance on the African continent?”
Dr. Alao said land was the most important natural resource in Africa where, in a country such as Nigeria, it had spiritual, political and economic relevance.
But the structures of land governance on the continent were complex, as Africans had to deal with customary and Western legal interpretations of land ownership in Africa, as well as an Islamic context, although the latter was not widespread, he said.
“These land governance systems in Africa are problematic,” Dr. Alao said. “Some are discriminatory against women and young people and open to corruption.
“There is a dichotomy between legal and social rights over land ownership in Africa.”
Dr. Alao went on: “You may have a legal document saying that you own a piece of land but you may not have the social right to own that land.”
He noted the long list of land-related conflicts in Africa, recalling the constant battles over land in Northern Ghana that have led to thousands of death over the years.
He said that the new phenomenon of governments selling land to foreign entities would create more problems.
In all this, Dr. Alao said governments in Africa were coming up with ad hoc policies to govern land ownership instead of proper structures that would lead to a reduction of conflicts.