Whose land is it anyway?

What contestations over land in urban Senegal tell us about political economy in the post-colony.

Ngor, Dakar, Sénégal. Image credit Slim Sacquet via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed.

Between mid-April and mid-May 2023, confrontations erupted between Senegalese political leaders, customary leaders, and the local citizens of the Lebu village of Ngor in the capital city, Dakar. The 6,300m2 at the center of this conflict was once a parking lot belonging initially to a religious leader, Cheikh Ahmed Tidiane Sy, and is now a part of the national domain. It has become the object of diverging interests regarding its use: the gendarmerie wanted to build a station to respond to security needs in the area, while the municipality planned to transfer it to the French retail group Auchan to build a shop. The residents of Ngor wanted the land to be used for a high school (because the village has none), and they refused to cede it for other purposes. Violent clashes took place between residents and the police, leading to 10 arrests, many injuries, and the killing of 15-year-old Adji Diallo, according to Amnesty International.

According to villagers, “the land does not even belong to the municipality;” “and even if it did, the mayor was elected by the populations of Ngor, but it is the state’s responsibility to manage the land. This begs for a critical analysis of the many issues at hand: first the question of how land is acquired, the question of legal pluralism, and considerations related to legitimacy and legitimation. It is important to understand how politicized dispossession and state brutality led to the May 2023 citizen protests in Ngor. Along with SOAS political economist Henry Bernstein, we ask four questions: “Who owns what?; Who does what?; Who gets what?; and What do they do with it? I also ask, as Ben White does: What do they do to one another?

The challenge of legal pluralism

In Senegal, the confusion between customary and traditional rights is still pervasive. The living customary conception of land tenure in the Lebu group is that any citizen who has used public land for 10 years could rightfully use it individually after that period; in the case of families, they must have used the land “productively” for 40 years. This customary law is the result of many decrees seeking to bring an end to traditional tenure, especially after Senegal’s subjugation to the French Civil Code in November 1830. French colonizers adopted individual property rights using the concept of “terres vacantes et sans maîtres’’ best known as the Terra Nullius theory, for such land to be managed by the state, which can claim eminent domain. This was to encourage land registration and formalization of land “ownership” by citizens. Holders of traditional rights hardly followed these prescriptions leading to further measures to withdraw land in case the state claimed eminent domain and lack of ‘productive use’ by previous holders. 

This statutory law marked a breakdown of the persisting traditional power vested in customary chiefs in Lebu society, such as Jal (President), Jaraaf (Minister of Agriculture and Finance), Ndey ji reew (Minister of Interior), and Lamaan (Master of the Land). More specifically, huge discrepancies exist between specific customary practices, including of the Lebu, and the national land governance framework. 

In the Wolof-Sereer system of land governance system, there are traditionally two ways of acquiring land: by “virtue of the fire” or “by virtue of the axe.” The power of the fire symbolizes the new alliance between the Lamaan, and newcomers in the village. The Lamaan’s powers are political and mystical; he is in charge of managing land allocations and transfers. The Lamaan is the heir of the person who first burnt down the forest to demarcate territory, with a fire lasting several days. This account of the role of the Lamaan is similar to that of the West African Earth priests, who first transformed unoccupied zones into places of habitation and farming. As an illustration of the importance of blood ties, it is the sister of the Lamaan and not his wife who is entitled to attend the burning of the bush. 

Land is also acquired by virtue of the axe with the permission of the Lamaan who receives in exchange a symbolic amount or in-kind payment traditionally millet. This use of the axe to clear the land of the trees that the fire could not burn is an arduous task.  

So, who is responsible for the “productive use” of the land? It was only in 1964 that Senegal adopted its National Domain Law followed by the creation of Rural Councils and the Family Code in 1972, and decentralization in 1996. One year after his 2012 election, President Macky Sall decided to further the decentralization process with a third major territorial and administrative reform: the Act III of Decentralisation targeting three objectives: i)“full communalization, to homogenize territorial levels irrespective of their nature (urban or rural);” ii) “departmentalization, which removed the region from the territorial and administrative architecture in favor of 45 départements;” and iii) “the establishment of territorial development hubs capable of correcting the economic, infrastructural and social inequalities that the regions have been unable to combat.”

Returning to the statement of one of the Ngor villagers is important and summarizes the reality of legal pluralism: “The land belongs to the village of Ngor. It does not even belong to the municipality which is a part of the State. The municipality found the land here, and the mayor was elected by the villagers who defend the interests of the Ngor villagers.” Indeed, this poses questions of legitimacy and legitimation when local populations still refer mostly to customary law, while recognizing that they entrusted or vested the political (state) and administrative leaders (municipality) by virtue of elections with their powers, to manage the national domain on their behalf. In addition to customary practices and statutory law, religion (in particular Islam) is the third source of legal pluralism as it has strongly influenced the family and succession laws that have been applied in Senegal since 1972.

Policing and protests 4.0

In relation to the protests of May 2023, the questions of who gets what and what they do with it are strongly related to those previously explored: the state, whom the citizens have entrusted with the control and management of the national domain is supposed to be responsible for the monopoly of legitimate physical violence. Yet, it was to be expected that the hyper-presidentialism of the Macky Sall regime, which time and again violates this regalian duty and blurs the separation of powers would have the last word as to how the contentious piece of land was to be used. This is because the state is the only political actor that can invoke eminent domain.

It is important to analyze the many processes and actors in this land deal. The land was transferred from a religious leader to the national domain. The fact that the central state (the political authority), the administrative authority (the municipality) and local populations had diverging views on what should be built on the land is also telling about the current neoliberal state’s priorities. The interest of the government to build a gendarmerie to respond to “security and safety” prerogatives reflect the current state of affairs in Senegal with the rise of policing and police brutality, which has led to as many as 23 people arrested and 390 injured in the summer of 2023, following several reports of the presence of state-hired thugs targeting civilians. The Ngor villagers claim that: “There are 23 people who were arrested and charged with serious acts that endanger public safety. However, the charges against them appear excessive and can be seen as a crackdown on land and human rights defenders.” Ousmane Aly Diallo, West and Central Africa Researcher of Amnesty International called on the Senegalese government to “investigate the use of lethal weapons by law enforcement in Ngor on May 9 and during previous incidents (in 2021).”

The municipality’s priorities reflect the dire quest of administrative authorities for providential investors, such as Auchan, to encourage youth employment and boost the local economy in their neighborhoods in the quasi-absence of the neoliberal state. On the other hand, the Ngor inhabitants’ demands for education infrastructure also reflect the current crisis of the education system in Senegal, and the divergence of priorities between the political leaders and their constituents. Thus, rather than becoming the providential state it once promised to be, with the pledge of Yokkute (growth), the Senegalese state is finding resources in its deeply colonial and postcolonial history of violence and policing to punish its youth and to not address the employment and agrarian crises, now taking to the boats for the sake of rosier futures, if they make it alive. 

In the words of legal scholar Ambreena Manji, there is nothing past about land injustice in Africa. The late Marxist economist Samir Amin insisted that auto-centered development and sovereignty of the ultimate electors is non-negotiable, and Lyn Ossome, Awino Okech and Marianne Asfaw argued that the shrinking of civic spaces on the continent is a question that needs urgent addressing. We need to interpret the current waves of protests in Senegal and violent repression as evidence that “dispossession does not mean accumulationand the ecologically destructive and dehumanizing architecture of our global economic system provides further evidence to condemn any variant of capitalism.

The land conflict in urban Senegal is but one of the many emerging facets of the agrarian crisis in Senegal, illustrating the widening gap between political leaders and citizens (as recent research by Hughes-Alexandre Castanou on the real estate boom in Dakar has shown). According to the Ngor villagers: “It is important to emphasize that they have been facing forced evictions and land seizures for years. It must also be emphasized that the reaction of the police was very brutal and disproportionate, causing very serious injuries and trauma. The demands of the Ngor villagers  have often been ignored, leading to growing tensions between the population and the authorities. The protest actions are therefore understandable, especially in the current context where high school is a social demand.”

It appears that nothing has changed much since Safi Faye’s 1976 Letters from my Village (Kaddu Beykat), and before that several treaties (including the 1819 Ndiaw treaty targeting “agricultural colonization” between the local leaders and France. The colonial roots of the land question in Senegal are deep.

Further Reading

Sanctioning the regime in Senegal

After defying the state apparatus in March 2021, Senegalese voters sent a strong message of disobedience and sanction via their ballots in January 2022 and signaling their readiness for another regime change in 2024.