The endorsement of two important land bills by the National Assembly on 11 February has generated mixed reactions among commentators on land reform in Tanzania. Much to the delight of women Members of Parliament, the Land Bill and the Village Land Bill recognise equal access to land ownership and use by all citizens -men and women ­and give them equal representation on land committees. The new legislation also prevents the ownership of land by foreigners, and recognises customary land tenure as equal to granted tenure. Other issues covered by the bills include leases, mortgages, co-occupancy and partition, and the solving of land disputes.

Several commentators took issue with the short time available for consultation and debate in Parliament of the nearly 900 pages of text contained in the bills. Now that they are endorsed, special pamphlets and periodicals are to be prepared and distributed in villages to ensure that people are conversant with the bills’ contents. Land offices in the regions will be provided with essential equipment and facilities to prove quality of administration, and functionaries will attend training courses to sharpen their skills on handling land issues more effectively.

Customary ownership of land among peasants and small livestock keepers is now legally safeguarded and recognised as of equal status with the granted right of occupancy. Livestock keepers will now be able to own pasture land either individually or in groups. Rights to own land allocated by Village Assemblies, and land obtained under the Villagisation Programme during the 1970s, will also be recognised and protected. According to Mr Gideon Cheyo, Minister for Lands and Human Settlement Development, “This villagisation exercise should be taken to have been legally implemented and with good will. Problems that emanated here and there [during its implementation] will continue to be solved administratively” .

Investors, including foreigners, will have no right to own land, in order to safeguard villagers’ interests. Instead, land will be issued to investors as tenants under special tenurial arrangements. Whereas the time limit on the customary ownership of land will be open, the granted right of occupancy will be for specific periods depending on the nature of business undertaken. This stipulation appears to have been made in response to strong objections by MP’s and non-governmental interests, to the provision ofa 99­year lease to investors as originally stated in the Land Bill. Such a long period would effectively have meant giving land to foreigners, their children and their grandchildren. Shorter periods were considered sufficient to encourage investments such as private tree planting operations.

Dr John Shao noted in the Sunday Observer that there is a continued reluctance among policy-makers to accept the principle of private land ownership, a position which he dates back to Nyerere’s paper on “National Property” of 1958, despite the move towards privatisation in almost every other sector of the economy. While acknowledging the concerns that privatisation may lead to significantly more foreign ownership and control of the economy, he asks why Africans should continue to be excluded from owning their resource base. It is not yet clear the extent to which the new legislation will increase security of land tenure in practice.

MP’s and NGO representatives cautioned that the legislation to encourage equal rights for women would fail unless attitudes of people changed accordingly. At a seminar in January, Ms Gemma Akilimali of the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme criticised customary law, the Marriage Act of 1971, and the Islamic law, accusing them of being the basis of discrimination against women, the youth and children. She argued that, for this reason, it would be a major flaw if the bills were to recognise customary land tenure.

The approval of the two bills brings to an end a process which started in 1991 with the formation of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Land Matters led by Dar es Salaam Law Professor Issa Shivji. The Commission’s report was considered by many as an extremely well researched and argued document. It recommended an innovative model for a new tenure regime which, if implemented, would decentralise land administration and raise the status of customary smallholder tenure in the interests of the people. However academics have argued that the process of policy development has been hijacked by a small elite of senior civil servants who ignored or selectively appropriated the evidence and recommendations of the Shivji report and views of other non-governmental interests. In doing so, they managed to side-step political pressure for reform.

In contrast, Mr Cheyo has claimed that the Shivji report was utilised in the preparation of the National Land Policy in 1995 as well as the two bills, and that the whole policy process was greatly enriched by the participation of various local groups. Similarly, Grantiana Rwakibarila argued in the Daily News that the reform process “tested and extended frontiers of positive activism”. In his opinion there was a fair degree of give and take between the government and non-government interests, and the process has brought state and civil society closer together.

Yet the President remains the custodian of all land on behalf of the people, and for some commentators the fear of “dispossessing” the President lies at the heart of the problem with land policy: “Who is going to take that ownership away from the President and give it back to the people when leadership positions are so dependent on presidential good will?” asks the Sunday Observer. Under the Village Land Bill, the management and administration of land in villages will be placed in the hands of Village Councils under the approval of Village Assemblies. But the Bill also stipulates that the Minister for Lands and Human Settlement Development will be entitled to decide on the amount of land which could be owned by a single person or a firm, based on their ability, and the need for justice and sustainable development. Clearly the central issue of control over the allocation of land rights will continue to feature heavily in forthcoming debates once the new legislation is being applied and its effects begin to impact on the livelihoods of ordinary Tanzanians.

David Edwards

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