Ivory Coast - The land reform and its meaning for the poor masses

Jan/Feb 1999

The following article was translated from Pouvoir aux Travailleurs (issue #261 - Sept 1998), the monthly journal published by our comrades of the African Union of Internationalist Communist Workers.

Nobody yet knows what the details of the new legislation on land ownership will be, not even the government, which initiated the move to reform land ownership law by replacing common law practices with the notion of private property. Sixteen delegations of MPs have been sent to the regions to test the water. This is because of the political sensitivity of the issue, especially in the run-up to the coming election. Clearly, the ruling party does not want to alienate itself from too large a proportion of the rural population.

We do not pretend, therefore, to be able to predict what the precise content of these laws will be, especially since customs relating to the land differ widely from one end of the country to the other as well as the conditions of production (and therefore the benefits to be gained by those in power as a result of imposing a new legal form).

However it is important to understand the direction taken by the evolution of the situation with regard to the land so far - as the government intends to provide it with a legal basis, apparently with the agreement of the opposition. It is also important to try to understand the consequences that the change in property law may have for the rural population, but also directly or indirectly for the urban working class.

The problem as presented by the government is that two systems of law coexist in the country: rights based on custom, which vary more or less between ethnic groups, and what politicians and lawyers call "modern rights", that is, the capitalist concept of private property.

Although custom-based rights are diverse, none of them recognise the private ownership of land. Neither do they recognise the alienability of the land, that is the right of the individual to sell, buy or possess land exclusively as an individual. Custom-based rights are therefore at odds with the concept of private property on which the prevailing capitalist economy is entirely based.

The general direction of the government's approach was summarised in a recent column in Fraternité Matin as being aimed at "turning all land plots into delimited, bounded and identified properties", and, consequently, at creating "a comprehensive legislation which takes into account acquired rights and formalises rental agreements in the same way as for urban property." The same article added that this would be "an enormous step on the path to modernisation."

If what is meant by that is that the new land legislation will fall into line with current capitalist law, then it is indeed a modernisation. But the claim that it will be "above all the law that the rural population will have chosen to adopt in order to protect its interests, security and future" is another story entirely. From this point of view, the alleged "enormous step" will be more like a funeral march for the vast majority of the rural population. Whatever form they take, these new laws will accelerate the elimination of the poor majority in the rural area, whether gradually or in a brutal fashion.

This funeral march in fact started a long time ago. We know that behind the apparent equality of land ownership law, there is a widening gap between rich and poor in the countryside.

Let us leave aside, for the time being, the huge modern banana, pineapple and rubber plantations, which are already run along capitalist lines and are often owned by large European companies. What is there in common between the richly decorated traditional chiefs one sees at official festivals, who are linked with local administration heads and MPs (or fulfill these functions themselves), who drive Mercedes cars and whose children go to study in France, and the mass of rural farmers who labour from morning to night to produce barely enough to live on? And as for the regions producing goods for the market - especially the cocoa and coffee producing regions - what is there in common between poor farmers for whom the sale of these products brings in just enough to buy the bare essentials, and large growers, whether or not from rural origin, who employ a significant number of agricultural workers?

Even if the traditional chiefs do not own land, they have social powers, which in the context of modern capitalist society naturally tend to give them opportunities to make money. The widespread and rapid introduction of monetary relationships in village life takes place inevitably at the expense of the poor farmers.

The previous custom-based system of land ownership had the advantage for the poor rural population of at least facilitating access to the land, which was an automatic right for all those born in the village. Access was even open to people who came from elsewhere, because the land chiefs often gave them use of fallow land.

However, the capitalist transformation has already begun to corrupt this system. At least this is the case in regions where land is fertile and productive, where it is situated near to towns, or where it is in demand for other reasons. Long before the sale of land has been legitimised in law, buying and renting of land has already become common practice in many regions. People are obliged to hand over money, either overtly or covertly, in order to settle on the land. The traditional land system has disintegrated even further as a result of the increasing employment of farm labourers by the richer farmers. This is not a new phenomenon: the labour of migrant workers from Burkino Faso, and latterly Malian, agricultural workers has been a major factor in establishing the Ivory Coast as an exporter of agricultural products.

Capitalist methods have, therefore, already been introduced in the countryside long before the adoption of the new capitalist laws.

The current efforts to officially introduce private property legislation into the countryside are not actually new either. Since the Land Ownership Act of 24 July 1906, the French colonial power has attempted to achieve this on several occasions. Among other things, this Act established the procedure of registration, whereby the private ownership of a piece of land could be recorded. This Act, which was later supplemented by others, was sufficient at the time to allow the capitalist European growers, with the support of the colonial power, to seize land which they wished to exploit themselves. However, they were not overly interested in the property practices which existed for the majority of land. The European capitalists did not make profits on cocoa and coffee directly through farming, that is through the exploitation of the rural working population, but through their monopoly on trade. And at the time very few local dignitaries took advantage of the possibility of land registration in order to become private landlords.

But the disintegration of the custom-based system, in parallel with the reinforcement of a local wealthy social stratum changes the nature of the problem. A growing number of notables, of high functionaries and of ex-ministers have already covered their backs by getting hold of land. The wealthier section of the rural population, in so far as they are distinct from the previous category, will be more and more tempted to consolidate their power by acquiring private property.

The new land ownership laws certainly do not reflect "the aspirations of the farmers", neither do they correspond to farmers' objective interests. These laws reflect the aspirations of the notables, of the rich section of the countryside, of the traditional chiefs of the capitalist layer of the peasantry, or even of the bourgeoisie and of the well-off petty bourgeoisie of the towns who have nothing to do with agriculture but who aspire to be land owners.

It is the interests of these people that will be served by the new law, and it is to these people that the delegations of MPs have addressed their information campaigns. The touring MPs certainly did not go to the poorest settlements to try to find ways to relieve the poverty of the people living there. Instead, they held discussions with the notables, the traditional chiefs, the heads of the local administrations, and with the mayors. In other words with the rural bourgeoisie and its spokesmen.

True, in order to win popularity they will say that the new laws are designed to protect the whole of the country's rural population. They will say that the laws have been drawn up to defend the rights of the Ivorian peasants against the "outsiders" who are already living on village land, or against those who may try to move onto these lands in the future. The announcement of the new law is already accompanied by xenophobic rhetoric, and even by threats of expulsion. Naturally, the argument rests on ethnic demagogy. The lack of land, whether real or imaginary, can be used as a tool to deprive certain categories of rural workers of the right to cultivate land on which they have been working for a generation or several generations.

In the name of these laws farmers of Burkina Faso or Malian origin, or even Baule farmers living in the Bété or Yacouba regions will be deprived of the land they cultivate. But the same laws will be used in the future to take land from the poor rural population and hand it over to the local dignitaries and urban bourgeoisie.

As for the xenophobic rhetoric, it is only aimed at poor people, who are not even necessarily outsiders. The new law obviously is not aimed at preventing rich French, Canadian, Italian or Lebanese outsiders, who already own factories, businesses and banks, from buying land, without even the intention of cultivating it.

The new land ownership system is a sign of the times, because it is the consequence and the legal expression of a trend which goes back a long way. But it is also a factor that will accelerate this trend in the future.

It will be in the interests of the most powerful villages to transform the maximum amount of land into private property, even if they do not intend to cultivate this land, in order to secure the possibility of renting or selling it. They will also benefit by acquiring land, even in regions where land is plentiful now - because they can bet on the fact that it will be scarce in the future.

This is why it is a false argument to say that the land reform is an answer to the new situation created by a growing rural population and a reduction of available land. With private appropriation of land, there will be less land available in the future, not more.

Those who have money will be able to buy land, even if they do not cultivate it, and those who do not have money will no longer be able to work on the land, except as agricultural labourers.

Of course, the change in land ownership laws is still far from being completed. It may not be easy to implement and the future victims of these laws may react against them. In addition, the passage from one form of ownership to another may be rejected even by those in the dominant social strata in the countryside. Not because they are attached to tradition, because tradition means little when compared to solid material interests, even for those who have become rich on the back of tradition. But who exactly will benefit from the privatisation of land in a given region or village? That is a question that cannot be resolved by laws, but only by the balance of forces. The most powerful elements will cheat the less powerful, and together they will crush the poorest. Those who vote for these laws, those in charge of their implementation, and those who will oversee the entire process will look after their own interests and the interests of their families and friends. Neither will the new land ownership system lessen ownership disputes: it will exacerbate them. It is not difficult to predict that the change will create a greater number of conflicts between individuals who consider themselves to have a right on a particular piece of land, and this will divide villages and families. But although it remains to be seen who the individual beneficiaries will be, it is not difficult to guess who will be the losers on a social level.

The social significance of the move is, therefore, perfectly clear. The legal aspects of the issue will add to the pressure of material facts and of economic trends, which have been aggravated over the past several years by falling cocoa and coffee prices. It all adds up to a worsening of social division in the countryside and the increasing poverty of the poor among the rural population.

Ivory Coast is unusual in Africa, in that it has retained a large rural population. This is set to change, because a growing number of poverty-stricken peasants will have no choice but to become wage earners. A minority will become farm labourers and the majority will be forced to leave the countryside to join the poor population of Abobo and Koumassi.

The social upheaval and the individual crises caused by this change in the law may be made worse by ethnic conflicts. The political caste is so corrupt that it will put all its weight behind transforming social divisions into ethnic or national divisions.

As for the content of this evolution, however, it is not in the political interests of the workers and proletarians to embark on a hopeless attempt to oppose the current changes just in order to preserve the previous state of affairs. They should not try to struggle against private property in order to preserve the custom- based law system, nor should they oppose capitalist organisation of society in favour of tribal society, nor the present in favour of the past.

The past died long before those leaders who claim to defend it have had a chance to bury it. It is capitalism that has shattered the village and its customs. It has destroyed not only the obsolete aspects of village life, but it has also replaced aspects that were human and community-minded with the hard laws of capitalist economy and the notion of "every man for himself".

Yes, private property is a bad thing and a catastrophe for society. It must disappear and it will. This, however, should not be achieved by means of a return to past communal relations, but by marching toward a new kind of communal relations, those of the future. The future for humanity will be based on the replacement of private property with communism, that is the pooling together on a world scale not just of the land, but of all wealth and the means to produce it. Then and only then will social inequalities disappear, as well as the gap between the towns and the countryside. They will disappear not due to a general impoverishment of all sections of the population but on the contrary by sharing out equally all the goods and commodities that can be produced by a modern economy, which is organised rationally and freed of private property and the pursuit of individual profit.