Africans have an obsession with land. And rightly so. At the heart of the liberation struggle was the issue of land and Africans understand its importance in the spiritual, political and economic sense.
A discussion with an English colleague a few years ago was quite revealing. He felt that Africans over-obsessed about the land issue. He argued that in modern economic times, ideas, technology, capital and legal frameworks were far more important. But what about the link between collateral and capital? I enquired. For instance, if you followed the Sunday Times Rich List which has been depicting the 1,000 richest people in the UK since the 1970s, you would be able to appreciate the enduring importance of land ownership, even in so-called modern economies.
Over the years, as my colleague rightly observed, different industries and their leading figures have made an appearance on the list. There was a time when, with a lot of innovation in music and modern retail, the owners of these companies made the top ten, then innovations in banking, finance, tech and mobile companies began to be seen, with their owners replacing the old innovators in the top ten.
Of interest, however, is that the one category of people who have never been out of the top ten despite the changes in industry, technology, fashion, etc are the huge British landowners like the Duke of Westminster and the Queen. The importance of land has remained constant during this period whilst other industries have come and gone.
Africans understand this importance [of land] in the spiritual, political and economic sense. It is interesting for example, that the proper name for the Mau Mau is actually the Kenya Land and Freedom Army and in Zimbabwe the key issue for the liberation struggle was the issue of land. As Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe once noted about the country’s freedom struggle: “It was always about the land. It is today about the land, and it will always be about the land.”
So why the African obsession with land?
The Mau Mau were deliberately named the Land and Freedom Army, because African notions of freedom are inextricably linked to the land. There is a much-quoted saying: “People cannot eat freedom”.
In my own Igbo community in Eastern Nigeria, the land or Ala was traditionally at the heart of the political economy of the people. A farming-based society structured itself and guaranteed that all blood-linked members of the community had access to a portion of communal land to work while alive. They did not own this land, which passed on death to their male descendants, or into communal ownership.
The elders who managed the allocation of the land were the political and judicial leaders of the community. In fact, the concept of a free person in Igbo culture, “an Amadi”, is a peer with land. In other words, as the Africans say, freedom is not an abstract concept. It cannot be separated from the capacity to make a livelihood. You need to be able to literally eat freedom.
The social system that the Igbo created meant that within the beloved blood-linked community, there were no poor people, or beggars. Each blood-linked member had the potential to make a living.
The system did of course have its problems – what happens if you are not part of this community and don’t have access to land? What happens when members even of the blood-linked community suffer crop failures and are not able to reproduce their own livelihoods, or if they are lazy and do not want to work the land? If the definition of a free man is a person with land, then everybody else who is land-less is potentially a person of lower status and at the lowest end of this spectrum – a slave.
Igbo land was at the heart of the Transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. As African Remembrance Day was commemorated on 1 August, to remember the victims of that vile trade in humans, it was time for us to really ponder how we conceptualise the issues of freedom and human rights.