South Sudan

Stakeholders in Central Equatoria state agree on need for land rights reforms and conflict resolution

“You live in a house which rests on land, and you will not live long without a house. So, land is life and without it you will die in a heavy storm, from extreme heat or at the merciless hands of diseases like malaria,” said Dr. Geri Raimondo Legge, a Law Professor at the University of Juba.

The academic spoke during a three-day consultative workshop held under the theme “Land is Life” in Juba. He may have added that land matters are also a lot like life: complicated affairs with uncertain outcomes.

That is particularly true both in South Sudan as a whole and in the booming capital Juba, which has seen its population explode in recent years.

What to do when there is not enough land for everyone, or when too much of it is controlled by too few a hand? How to handle disputes over land when documentation of ownership is dubious or non-existent? What should happen when someone who has fled armed conflict returns, years later, only to discover that their previous plot of land now has somebody else living on it?

These and a myriad of other land-related conundrums were pondered by a wide spectrum of stakeholders from all the six counties of Central Equatoria State, including county commissioners, lawyers, state ministers and members of parliament. The approximately 70 participants had been invited by the Civil Affairs Division and the Rule of Law Section of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, in collaboration with the state’s Land Commission.

“Respect of community land rights is critical to preserving our unity and social fabric and for peace to prevail. We fought because of greed and the unequal distribution of powers,” Dr. Legge said, referring to South Sudan’s long struggle for independence and highlighting the need to revise and enact laws to clarify matters of ownership and the allocation and use of land.

For this reason, workshop participants required the state government to quickly establish a Law Review Commission at all levels of governance to concretize laws related to town planning, land surveys and the registration of plots. This, according to Dr. Legge, is a practice that could be replicated by the other nine states in South Sudan.

Another resolution reached by those in attendance was the establishment of a special state land court to investigate suspected crimes of land-grabbing. An independent land assessment and valuation body to calculate adequate compensation for anyone forced to resettle was also agreed on, as was the decentralization of land management and enhanced law enforcement mechanisms with regards to customary land rights, including for farming and grazing.

“We need concerted efforts to ensure that all discriminatory land management policies are addressed in a way that quells disputes over land,” affirmed Emmanuel Adil Anthony, Governor of Central Equatoria State, who was pleased with the inclusiveness of another resolution reached: the explicit rights for women and people with special needs to acquire and own land in the state.

The Governor also advised those in possession of land to make the most of it, for example by producing their own food and become “the masters of your own economy”. Whenever such small-scale farming is not possible, he suggested that citizens lease rather than sell their land to investors, thereby being able to reclaim it if need be.

For Flora Gabriel Modi, State Minister of Land, Housing and Public Utilities, the end of the workshop indicates the beginning of work for her ministry.

“Now it is up to us to translate the outcomes here into action points, starting with the formulation of the necessary laws, passing them on to the State Council of Ministers for further deliberation and then forward them to the State Assembly for enactment,” she said.