OpEd, Politics

South Sudan’s Land Policy Controversy: A Threat to Community Rights and a License for Land Grabbers

By Gama Hassan Oscas

The recent decision by the South Sudan cabinet to declare that “land belongs to the people of South Sudan” has sent shockwaves across the nation, shaking the very foundations of land ownership rights. This seismic shift from the earlier constitutional provision that land belongs to the community is not only contentious but also threatens to plunge the country into further chaos. The implications of this policy change are vexatious, as it not only creates confusion in the public but also serves as an implicit license for land grabbers to plunder communities of their ancestral lands. The consequences are dire, and it is essential to dissect this policy change comprehensively.

The central tenet of South Sudan’s earlier land policy was enshrined in the constitution, which recognized that “land belongs to the community.” This principle was essential in safeguarding the rights of communities to their ancestral lands. It provided a clear and stable framework for land ownership, acknowledging the historical claims of communities to specific areas. However, the recent change to the policy, which declares that “land belongs to the people of South Sudan,” represents a significant departure from this constitutional provision. This change raises concerns about the erosion of community rights and the potential for land grabs.

The choice of wording in the new land policy, specifically the assertion that “land belongs to the people of South Sudan,” is inherently vexatious. This phraseology is ambiguous and fails to provide a clear definition of who these “people” are. South Sudan is a nation characterized by a multitude of ethnic groups and communities, each with distinct historical claims to specific territories. In this context, the term “people” is overly broad and open to misinterpretation. It is essential to recognize that “people” can refer to the original owners of a specific land or area. The policy’s vagueness creates the perfect storm for land-related disputes and conflicts.

South Sudan’s history is marred by ethnic and tribal conflicts, many of which have been fueled by disputes over ancestral lands. The new land policy fails to address this critical issue. Without a clear framework for recognizing and protecting claims to ancestral lands, South Sudan risks further escalation of disputes in areas that have historically belonged to specific communities. The policy provides no mechanism for resolving these disputes, and this void leaves the door open for opportunistic land grabbers to exploit the uncertainty.

One of the most alarming aspects of the new land policy is its potential to be exploited by land grabbers. The ambiguity surrounding land ownership in the policy could enable unscrupulous individuals and criminal organizations to forcibly acquire land, even in areas with established historical claims. The absence of robust safeguards and regulatory measures in the policy further increases the risk of land grabs. This poses a severe threat to the livelihoods and well-being of the nation’s citizens.

The government’s role in this policy change is also a significant concern. While the policy purports to empower the people of South Sudan, it appears to prioritize the government’s authority in land management. The policy stipulates that “land is administered and managed by the government on behalf of the people.” This phrasing raises concerns about the concentration of power in the hands of the government, potentially leading to biased decision-making and a lack of accountability in land allocation and management.

For a land policy to genuinely serve the interests of South Sudan, it must be characterized by clarity and transparency. Ambiguity in land ownership and management can only fuel disputes and hinder the country’s development. South Sudan should consider adopting a more comprehensive land policy that clearly defines who the “people” are and outlines mechanisms for addressing disputes over ancestral land. Additionally, it is crucial to introduce safeguards to prevent land grabbers from exploiting the policy’s ambiguity and ensure that land allocation and management are conducted in a fair and equitable manner.

South Sudan’s history is intricately tied to issues of land ownership and distribution. Decades of conflict and civil strife have exacerbated land-related disputes, many of which remain unresolved. The land policy’s failure to provide a clear framework for addressing historical claims to ancestral land has far-reaching ethnopolitical implications.

In a nation where ethnic divisions are still a significant source of tension and conflict; it is essential to address land disputes in a manner that acknowledges historical injustices and aims to promote reconciliation. The current policy’s ambiguity in addressing these concerns serves only to exacerbate existing tensions and fuel ethnopolitical conflicts, which could undermine the fragile stability South Sudan has struggled to achieve.

To rectify the issues raised by the South Sudan land policy, it is imperative to consider several potential solutions:

Reverting to the earlier constitutional provision: Reconsider the change to the land policy and reinstate the principle that “land belongs to the community.” This would help safeguard community rights and clarify land ownership.

Defining “the people”: If the government insists on using the phrase “land belongs to the people of South Sudan,” the policy should provide a clear and comprehensive definition of who these “people” are, accounting for historical claims to ancestral land.

Dispute resolution mechanisms: Establish effective mechanisms for addressing land-related disputes, including those involving ancestral land. These mechanisms should be transparent, impartial, and capable of promoting reconciliation.

Regulatory safeguards: Introduce robust regulatory measures to prevent land grabbers from exploiting the policy’s ambiguity. This can include stringent registration and approval processes, with a focus on transparency and accountability.

Community involvement: Empower local communities in land management decisions. Community input and consent should be integral to the land allocation and management process, ensuring that the policy genuinely benefits the people of South Sudan.

Historical claims: Address historical claims to ancestral land through a transparent and just process. This should take into account the grievances of communities that have suffered land dispossession and strive to promote reconciliation.

Transparency and accountability: Ensure that the government’s role in land management is clearly defined and regulated to prevent undue concentration of power. Transparency and accountability measures should be implemented to guarantee fair and equitable land allocation.

Therefore, in conclusion, the recent shift in South Sudan’s land policy is not only contentious but also threatens the rights of communities to their ancestral lands. The vexatious connotation and ambiguity in the policy’s wording, coupled with the potential for land grabbers to exploit the situation, create a volatile mix that jeopardizes the well-being and stability of the nation. South Sudan must reconsider and revise this policy to safeguard its future and the rights of its citizens. The nation’s leaders have a responsibility to provide clarity, transparency, and justice in land management to promote lasting peace and development.

The author of this opinion piece is an advocate and can be reached on email at: oscarsgama@gmail.com


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