Land-ownership in Juba – Time to fashion a better way forward

Category: Writing aboard the Kenya Airways: A story on coming to Rwanda for the first time
Published on Thursday, 08 March 2012 05:03
Written by Parek Maduot, The New Sudan Vision (NSV),
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Washington DC - Close to a year since independence, disputes and recriminations around acquisition and parceling of land in South Sudan, and Juba in particular, continue unabated and are even getting more violent as witnessed recently around Gudele. This issue has simmered and percolated since the signing of the CPA and the move into Juba in the second half of 2005, and nothing we have seen since suggests that there are any resolutions considered or anticipated that will go beyond resignation, frustration and finger-pointing. In the specific and controversial case of Juba, the issue is both related to the severe need for the expansion of the physical footprint of the central government across the city of Juba, and the related but separate issue of private citizens needing access to parcels of land for their private abodes as residents of the city. These two needs have consistently been hard to satisfy because of disputes between the two levels of government over the scope and pace of the expansion of GOSS around Juba, and because indigenous communities around Juba also have grievances over the principle of government domain over the allocation of what they consider their ancestral land to other citizens. This last grievance is of course exacerbated further by documented cases of land-grabbing and intimidation visited upon many land-owners around the city.

I will not bore the dear reader with the well-worn back story to the issue of community ownership of land after the CPA and the legal and constitutional implications of all these dueling claims, but it is fair to say that we have a situation where everyone feels they are being victimized, and no one wants to grant the other party any measure of legitimacy. The jurisdictional tussle between the central and state governments was presumably settled by the decision of the cabinet to order the relocation of the capital to Ramciel from Juba. The rationale of course went beyond the difficulties with expansion in Juba, and enumerated other advantages that a new capital will provide in the form of centrality of location and flexibility to build from scratch without major constraints. I believe they have made a good case, even as we cautiously acknowledge that the fiscal and geopolitical difficulties brought about by the continued rows wit Khartoum will surely slow its implementation.

The problems between citizens living in Juba, both from within and without the indigenous communities have however festered without any serious and consistent attempts to resolve them. We must first acknowledge that people grabbing other people’s land is a concrete fact in Juba, and we should not shy away from condemning these instances as illegal and corrosive to the stability and peace of all residents of Juba. There are those who take advantage of the general sense of frustration with the slow, or most often, snail pace of land allocation by the authorities in Juba as license to squat on someone’s land and hurriedly build a structure with impunity. These have happened even in the old city wards of Juba, where most plots of land were distributed more than 50-years ago. These should not be allowed to stand or rewarded. Nonetheless, it is also important to disabuse some of our fellow citizens of the toxic provincialism that is at the heart of the hostility against those living in Juba, but hailing from any of the nine other states. I say some, because not everyone prescribes to these notions among the residents of Juba, and in fact, many who hail from Juba extol its virtues as our singular metropolis where the best of our diverse people come to commune and work together. It is therefore important that we reach a more nuanced appreciation for the different grievances, both legitimate and illegitimate, that are at the root of this festering conflict if we are to have any chance of resolving it to our collective satisfaction.

Even more critically, this problem needs to be approached more holistically and urgently at the highest levels of our government, because land tenure has explosive implications that may not be readily visible to many of us. These disputes between our people in Juba, Malakal, Rumbek and countless others that we see as small brush fires stoked by over-ambitious local politicians, are really the seeds of future perpetual pain and suffering for our people if left unaddressed. Our government therefore needs to outline a vision for land development that acknowledges and anticipates these grievances, and addresses them within a comprehensive framework that can be understood by all citizens. More importantly, this vision must be collectively developed by all stakeholders in a transparent manner to ensure its implementation. It should enshrine modalities for the protection and disbursement of the three categories of land outlined in the Transitional Constitution of 2011, and those are community land, private land and public land.

The disputes around Juba are borne out of fear and suspicion, and can only be addressed if they are taken out of the closed-door leadership huddles, and brought out into the open with all parties having a say about the future of these and other cities. They occur even in the most prosperous corners of countries like the United States, where the building of a corner store is subject to public hearings and open debate. Once the basic principles are restated, including the government’s right to expropriate and disburse land for the public good, and the right of every citizen to timely and effective redress from judicial authorities when their land is encroached upon or grabbed, the government should outline how all these people looking for land can get it without trampling on someone else’s rights.

There surely can be designed a humane and efficient process for land allocation that will return significant revenue to the local governments, compensate local communities with amenities and a share of the lease fees, and allow all these multitudes of fellow law-abiding citizens who want to buy land have access to it in a safe and peaceful manner. These will put all the dirty tricksters selling land they don’t own out of business, reduce all this tension among our people, and most importantly, allow the expansion of Juba and other towns to occur in an organized manner. The public institutions of our government, to which many of the people from outside Juba belong, such as the GOSS, the SPLA, the SSLA, JOSS, BOSS, among others, are critical stakeholders in the resolution of these problems too. They can internally organize to pool the resources of their members in some fashion, such as a home mortgage program for example, and then work within the overall framework of the city’s development to get access to land legally for their members. This would ensure that their officials and officers are not desperately out there encroaching on other people’s property because they are unable to find shelter even as they work in the city, all while contributing to the orderly expansion of their new hometowns.

Juba provides an opportunity, even amidst all the anger and sadness over the recent clashes and deaths, for a more sustained intervention by our government and civil society, to fashion a way forward that can accommodate all the aggrieved. Mine are just suggestions that I am sure can be enormously improved upon by others in and outside our various levels of government, but the essential ingredients here are the needed sense of urgency and a complete respect for the right of each of our fellow compatriots.. In a land spanning over 640,000 sqkm, and a population a little north of 10 million people, that is the only way we can surely satisfy our twin challenges of shelter and food security for all our people.

Parek Maduot is a South Sudanese commentator based in Washington DC. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.