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Reviewed by:
  • Krijn Peters
Christian Lund, Local Politics and the Dynamics of Property in Africa. Cambridge and New York NY: Cambridge University Press (hb £47 – 978 0 521 88654 3) 2008, 224 pp.

Theories to explain the sudden proliferation of armed conflict in West Africa after the end of the Cold War often focus on national or even regional dimensions, such as the collapse of neo-patrimonial styled states or the regional spoiler role of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor. But ethnographers ‘on the ground’ know that these conflicts were all too often fed by grievances over [End Page 513] issues which play out on a more local level. In the West African region these are primarily land and labour issues: the control and rights over these remain highly contested and challenged, regularly provoking violence and occasionally an armed struggle. Christian Lund, in his detailed and rich monograph on the Upper East Region in Ghana, focuses on struggles over the control of the former. In this northern tip of Ghana – and most territories under the control of the British during the days of colonialism underwent a similar experience – Lord Lugard’s system of ‘indirect rule’ recognized the chiefs as native authorities, with authority over their people and thus by default (or so the British assumed) the custodians of the land. According to Lund, however, ‘Transactions in land . . . had never been the business of political chiefs in the northernmost parts of Ghana. This responsibility had been the domain of another group of customary authorities, namely the earthpriests’ (p. 19). Under both the colonial and Nkrumah administrations, the earthpriests (Tindambas, sing. Tindana) were hardly recognized – although Lund shows that some discussion took place among the different colonial administrators (pp. 40–5) – let alone endorsed to take up their role as custodians of the land. In 1979 this changed dramatically when a new national constitution was drafted, which stated that the land was no longer vested in the state (or President), but should be returned to its previous owners. This triggered a series of disputes, struggles, machinations and court cases between the chiefs and earthpriests over the question of who holds the allodial right – the strongest customary title – to the land. References to the past – with a repertoire including references to tradition as well as to historical events – are used to legitimize claims in the present and to the future. Claims to space, moreover, come in two (sometimes compatible, occasionally competing) forms: as territory (with certain political connotations) and as property in land (with connotations in the legal domain) (p. 68). Lund illustrates the complexity of these struggles – between the state and chiefs, between chiefs and families with customary freehold, between earthpriests and commercial companies, et cetera – with a number of case studies, which above all illustrate that land and property rights are far from consolidated or fully formalized, but instead are constantly negotiated and contested within a moving political terrain. Among these is the case of Bolgatanga Senior Secondary School – the biggest educational facility in the Upper East Region – which still does without a signboard (though it has a history of burned and vandalized ones) signalling the presence of the school to any passer-by. This is because of a dispute between the villagers of Winkongo, in which area the school is located, and the regional administration of Bolgatanga. Represented by a self-styled chief, the villagers feel that the school should be named ‘Winkongo Secondary Technical’, while the regional administration claims that Winkongo is part of the Bolgatanga area, and that the school is therefore correctly named. The case was not helped when in 2001 the school won the Amstel Malta Science and Math Quiz, the first prize being an illuminated signboard for the school (p. 100). So as not to reignite the conflict again, the headmaster had to refuse the prize.

Overall, Lund has provided a healthy antidote against those views which tend to translate different forms of indigenous land tenure as one-dimensional ownership. He has also showed how agendas in local politics are to a large extent determined by land and property issues. When land and property are so central (and controversial), ‘the constitution of property is in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-0184
Print ISSN
0001-9720
Pages
pp. 513-515
Launched on MUSE
2010-08-13
Open Access
No
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