The power of land administration: Zambia

Land is a very important means of subsistence, status and identity for many Africans.  But due to the power politics of both the colonial and post-colonial periods, where the issues of land administration and domination have figured prominently, many African countries have ended up with a very uneven distribution of land ownership. Zimbabwe and South Africa are obvious examples that are relatively well reported in the news. Less well known, however, is the case of Zambia where land distribution has proven equally problematic.

Zambian history

Generally, Zambia’s post-independence experiences were not unlike those of other African countries, the country focusing on nation building and trying to create a sense of national identity amongst the 73 tribes and languages that comprised the country. The country also experienced the usual results of consensus-seeking and state centralisation, culminating in president Kaunda declaring Zambia a one-party state (referred to as a “one-party participatory democracy”) in 1972, after having warned the opposition that they should not “bite the hand that feeds them”. After food riots in the late 1980s, a coup attempt, and donors withholding aid money, Kaunda restored a multi-party constitution and held elections that were won by Chiluba‘s Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). According to Bizeck Jube Phiri, senior lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Zambia, however, “although the government had changed, and rhetoric had changed, the basic patterns of Zambian politics was the same … mobocracy slowly replaced democracy”. The editor of the independent Post newspaper has more recently claimed that the MMD leadership was seemingly creating a de facto one-party state. Chiluba spoke warm-heartedly of neo-liberal economist, Milton Friedman, and claimed “the private sector … [to be] the best hope for an improvement in the levels of needs satisfaction”, but the structural adjustment programmes that Chiluba and the IMF imposed upon Zambia meant huge privatisations and cut-backs on public services that ended up causing mass unemployment and poverty. By the end of the century Zambians had to a large extent turned on the MMD, as more Zambians were now living in poverty than when the MMD had taken over from Kaunda. As in many other African countries, there was no credible or united opposition to oust the MMD from government, and the MMD has therefore managed to hold onto power through increasingly narrow election victories.

The most recent overall government outline and aspiration for Zambia is “Vision 2030”, a document prepared by government of the late MMD President Levy Mwanawasa in 2006, that “sets out the goals and targets to be achieved in the various spheres of [Zambia’s] social-economic life over the next generation”, including a steadily increasing growth, good governance, respect for human rights, accountability, reduction of poverty and income inequalities and, perhaps most interestingly in regard to this article, devolved political systems and structures. The overall goal of Vision 2030 is to see Zambia becoming a middle-income nation by 2030 and becoming free from donor dependence. According to critics, however, “little has been achieved in the area of accountability and transparency with widespread abuse of public money reported”, and when one reads lines such as “the nation Zambians aspire for, should be characterized [by] … a macroeconomic environment conductive for growth” in Vision 2030, or that private-public partnerships are an underpinning principle of the vision, it is seems probable that the goals are to be attained in partnership with business and not Zambians in general. Zambian civil society has indeed claimed that the government seems more interested in protecting the interests of business and foreign direct investment than that of poor Zambians.

Land tenure

Land in Zambia has always been an important means of subsistence for the large rural population, and small scale farming is still a major means of occupation and income today due to a lack of formal employment opportunities. There are two tenure systems in Zambia: Customary tenure is an indigenous form of tenure that is controlled by chiefs and leasehold tenure is mainly state land that it centrally regulated, although the boundaries between the two are somewhat unclear. Most of the poor people live on customary land as they cannot afford to obtain a leasehold tenure. Both of these forms of tenure are problematic in the way they are administered, however. The customary land tenure system is open to chiefs selling the land – mainly to the Zambian elite and non-Zambians – without the consent of the people who cultivate it, whereas the leasehold land is often privatised and sold to multinationals by the government. Either way, the smallholders that depend on the land for their livelihood and subsistence have little control over the land, and there is often discrimination and no protection in either tenure systems for marginalised groups such as women, youth and the poor. This is particularly unfair because is it often these groups, particularly women, that work the land. Furthermore, some have been displaced due to the land grabbing of large-scale international investors.

Land legislation

Although the current legislation is therefore inadequate in terms of protecting the poor, it is nevertheless important for smallholders in the rural areas to understand both the present legislation and how it can be improved. Land administration policy in Zambia is guided by the 1995 Lands Act, an act that proclaims that all land is to be held in trust by the president, that customary land is administrated by chiefs, and that the state must agree to all transactions of both government and traditional land, all of which leaves land administration open to illegal sale, abuse and corruption. Although these are obvious overall negative implications of an overtly centralized land administration, there are also other more down to earth issues that need to be rectified, one of which is that the central administration in Lusaka and Ndola is physically too far away for rural peasants to be able to be part of any communication or decision-making. The government initiated a decentralisation policy in 2004, but little progress seems to have been made and the  decentralisation secretariat is based in , irony of ironies, Lusaka.

The Zambia Land Alliance

As current land legislation and policies are inadequate and a cause for centralisation and corruption, and given that the present government is either unable or unwilling to properly address these problems, a strong Zambian civil society and an informed public is necessary to help bring about the necessary changes.

The Zambia Land Alliance (ZLA) was formed in 1997 to try and fill this role and contribute to solving land-related problems. It works by lobbying and advocating for pro-poor policies, conducting research on land related issues, and generally raising awareness about land issues. The ZLA is a alliance of seven NGOs, Zambia Civic Education Association, Women For Change, Catholic Commission for Justice and PeaceLaw and Development Association, Association for Land Development, Zambia Alliance of Women, and the Justice for Widows and Orphans Project, but also works with other Zambian civil society organisations on land rights issues.

The ZLA had criticised both post-independence and present land legislation as being inadequate, of not listening to the poor that to a large degree tend the land, and of focusing too heavily on liberalizing land markets.  The ZLA has identified several areas that need to be improved for the system to benefit all, including a decentralisation of land administration to village level, the introduction of anti-corruption mechanisms and other safeguards to stop the corruption in e.g. the Ministry of Lands, sustainable agriculture, the monitoring of the implementation of land legislation, and minimum land quotas for women and the poor. Women are particularly disadvantaged as less than 30% of land titles in Zambia are owned by women, as they are culturally discriminated against in land acquisition and ownership.

In doing so, the ZLA also works to collect, simplify, translate, and distribute legislation on land issues to enable the population at large to be able to participate in the democratic process on land issues, as well as producing newsletters and holding sensitisation workshops on related issues. The ZLA’s vision,“a Zambia in which the rural and urban poor have secured access, ownership and control over land development”, is also an obvious and necessary challenge to the present legislation and government policies, as is its inclusive focus and insistence upon land rights being a fundamental human right.


Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia shall be free

Frederick Chiluba, Democracy – the challenge of change

Bizeck Jube Phiri, A Political History of Zambia

One Response to The power of land administration: Zambia

  1. click says:

    A lot has to be done to ensure that the administration of land is improved in our nation. With the winds of change that have blown in Zambia, the new government must take this as a major priority. Indeed, a lot of studies have been done, now it’s time for action to be taken. A simple suggestion would be the use of a computerized system amongst others.

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