Burundi – The land « time-bomb »

In 2011, a new land code was adopted. But it didn’t defuse tensions around land access issues which are exacerbated by population growth and conflicts between current owners and returnees from exile.

As a result of demographic growth and land division, land has become an increasingly rare commodity, sparking an increasing number of conflicts which threaten peace consolidation in the country. In a study carried out in 2009, researchers from the Ngozi (Burundi) and Liège (Belgium) Universities found that in the Northern Kirundo province half of the farms are smaller than 0,25 hectare, in a context of decreasing land fertility, soil overexploitation and yields decrease. Besides, the climate has been spoiled by the political crises which caused the massive exodus of hundreds of thousands refugees..


The country has long been characterized by land insecurity, which can be partly explained by the conflicts between customary and modern, written law. According to the customary law, the Mwami (King) distributed land to the farmers who didn’t own it but could benefit from it whereas the second law is supported by the World Bank because it is in favour of private property and therefore accordingly creates the suitable climate to attract investment. After the abolition of monarchy in 1966, the state replaced the Mwami in that role but the customary practices lost their impact. The consequence was the land insecurity for the many farmers who did not hold land certificates. The non registration of most land farms and the absence of an inventory taking stock of all land titles has contributed to the fact that nowadays most court cases are over land disputes.

Restitution of the land to the refugees

This situation prompted the adoption of a new land code in 2011 whose purpose was to secure land access. One of the fathers of the project, the Bujumbura-based lawyer Vincent Ndikumasabo claims the new code has brought significant improvements such as the introduction of land certificates and the simplification of land property registration procedures.

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But in a report titled « Fields of Bitterness : Land Reform in Burundi », released in February 2014 the International Crisis Group think-tank deplores that the new code falls short of “a meaningful reform”. ICG expresses the fear that “the impact of the absence of a comprehensive change in land governance, especially on conflict resolution, will continue to fuel public resentment, especially for those who have been dispossessed of their properties or have limited access to land ownership. The sense of injustice and the pressing need for land will likely contribute to future conflicts unless the government adopts a new approach”. ICG also stresses “the absence of tight control over state prerogatives, which generates abuses and increases land insecurity”, the “ lack of independence of the judiciary” and “inequalities in land access”, especially for women and the for the Twa minority whose members mainly exploit the swamps areas (also for pottery) which traditionally are a sort of no-man’s land and are now being awarded as properties.

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Another sensitive issue is the restitution of their land to the refugees who fled the country after the 1972 massacre of more than 200,000 Hutus by the then Tutsi-led Burundian army. Since the Arusha agreement, the number of these returnees has reached 800,000, representing 10 percent of the population. In 2006, A National Land Commission (CNTB) was created to address land disputes. The problem however is that the current government policy is weakening peacebuilding efforts and is reviving ethnic resentment. It gives advantage to repatriate citizens to the detriment of current land owners, who were not all complicit in
land thefts during the civil war, analyses ICG who claims that the governement’s restitution policy is being perceived as “revanchist”

Fear among the Tutsi comunity

The National Assembly approved a law on the last 28 December, without any consultation, to revise the mandate of the National Land Commission (CNTB) and is also trying to establish a special court to address disputes arising from the commission’s decisions. The commission’s power has been considerably strengthened. Its decisions prevail over court decisions and it can even reopen court cases. This is creating fears, within the minority Tutsi community and risks undermining both restitution and reconciliation at the same time, warns ICG. Whereas parliament and presidential elections are scheduled for May and June 2015 respectively, the issue has become a serious bone of contention. The 17 MPs of the mainly Tutsi, party, the Union for National Progress (Uprona) boycotted the vote in protest.

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On the contrary, the MPs of the ruling National Council for Development and Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) consider that the new law is repairing an injustice while offering the opportunity of a land restitution to the returnees which had been deprived by new acquirers which were often close from the ruling power between 1972 and 1993. These tensions do not only concern land property but also houses: in May 2013, riots burst out in the Bujumbura mainly Tutsi neighbourhood of Ngagara, when young inhabitants opposed to the police’s attempt to expel a Tutsi family from a house which had been re-awarded to a dispossessed Hutu owner, forty years before. Several people were injured and the police arrested several individuals involved in the incidents. This has led ICG to describe the situation as “a time-bomb”.
Overall, some progress in land security could happen if the government manages to complete the complete inventory of state-owned land, with the support of the European Union. But the risk is that the empowerment of the state to recover the property of its own land could deteriorate the legal situation of those smallholders, which accessed to land use over the last decades, in circumstances that may be challenged from a legal point of view. In the long run, the main challenge is also to set up a land governance which is adapted to the context of overpopulation and food insecurity which threaten to exacerbate conflicts.

(F. M.)


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