One of the greatest books that were ever inked from the nib of an African pen was “Things Fall Apart” by the late Chinua Achebe. This book has not only served as a watering hole for modern African Writers, but has also inspired others, epitomised genres and like the River Nile, provided the source for the topography of the African Literary landscape. What makes this book great among others is the value of its contemporary nature; which has stood the test of time and across generations. As themes go, Achebe paints the picture of a once UNITED community that “spoke with one voice”. Then the “White man” visited this once united land and things fell apart. From a thematic point of view, the book “Things fall Apart” is a cauldron of all that is native to Africa. From rituals to proverbs, fables, beliefs, religion, ego, to failure, etc. One theme that stands out among all these is the theme of “change”.
Africa has been experiencing a period in its history that will change it for better or worse for years to come. It is no secret that the continent is fast becoming a nectar point for “big business”; following the significant Chinese emergence. It is no coincidence though, that this has followed a period of recession in the Western world. The recent and rapid influx of such economic interests has led many to see it differently; depending on the kind of focal lens one is wearing. People with “negritudinal” persuasion will see this influx as economic colonialism, while the socialist will see it as regeneration. The venture capitalist will translate it as investment, while the democrat may see it as trade freedom.
Like during the slave trade and the colonial period, Sierra Leone has not been left out in the equation. In those days, we had the “unholy luxury” of supplying able bodied and well fed “cargo” (slaves), watering holes, sea fronts, and the audacity to exchange “goods” with the conscience of a chain saw. Today, we have gold, diamond, iron ore, bauxite, etc; but above all, LAND. These have been known to induce the exchange of bank account numbers at the drop of a hat. But it is the land issue in Africa and Sierra Leone in particular, that has captured the writer’s random musings.
In Sierra Leone today, land disputes form the bulk of the gridlock in our legal system. They have swamped every legal artery of our judicial system, from the local Headman’s “barray”, to the local, magistrate and right up to the High court.
When the “white man” visited Onitsha in “Things Fall Apart” for the first time on his “iron horse”, the consequences were far reaching. In Sierra Leone today, the “iron horse” has been replaced by diggers, massive earth movers, articulated Lorries and trains. In spite of the technological shift, the rippling effects remain the same; as once cohesive societies disintegrate at the seams.
In those days, land tenure was communal. The batter system was the currency with which trade was conducted. Large swathes of land were given to “strangers” as encouragement to settle in new found lands. No documentations were required as large acres of land were passed from family to family and right through to generations. There were no surveyors, no deeds or crooked land ministry officials. The desire to cultivate a piece of land was all that was required to own one. It was the land that defined whole communities. Those were the days when you believed that it took a man and a woman to bear a child, but it took the whole community to raise that child.
But times have moved on and Africa has now become the subject of what many see as “land grabbing”. While used broadly throughout history, land grabbing as used today primarily refers to large-scale land acquisitions following the 2007-2008 world food price crisis. It is the contentious issue of large-scale land acquisitions; the buying or leasing of large pieces of land in developing countries, by domestic and transnational companies, governments, and individuals. By prompting food security fears within the developed world and newfound economic opportunities for agricultural investors and speculators, the food price crisis caused a dramatic spike in large-scale agricultural investments, primarily foreign, in the Global South for the purposes of food and bio-fuels production.
Initially hailed by investors and some developing countries as a new pathway towards agricultural development, investment in land has recently been criticized by a number of civil society, governmental, and multinational actors for the various negative impacts that it has had on local communities ( Stop land Grabbing, 2013). “When they first came they told us an investor was coming and we would develop the land alongside one another. They didn't say the land would be taken away from us entirely.”(Farmer Gemechu Garbaba | Channel 4 »). Stories like these are becoming familiar; as the rules of engagement keep changing and the goal posts keep shifting.
At face value, large scale investments in Africa, especially in the agricultural sector should be seen as manna from Heaven. Africa is richly blessed in undeveloped and underdeveloped land. It is no secret that the continent invented the word “famine”; a term that we have since held an unenviable monopoly on. Live Aid and countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and other regions in the Sahel region have lent credence to that. It is therefore logical to expect that any hint of large scale investments in developing the land would be greeted with open arms.
But with Human Rights Watch saying that “it has evidence that some 70,000 indigenous people in the western Gambella region (in Ethiopia) were relocated against their will to new villages that "lack adequate food, farmland, healthcare and educational facilities. (BBC); it is easy to see how the land issue, just like the diamonds in Kono District is becoming a “Resource Curse”. In Kono District, whole communities are “uprooted” from their ancestral habitats to make way for geological exercises. Homes that used to house extended families are swiftly replaced by hurriedly assembled chalets with nuclear family specifications. Is it any wonder then, that the “local content policy” is becoming the buzz word in government and certain Civil Rights Organisations circles?. Because somewhere, somehow, people feel cheated in this whole bonanza; and that the “agenda” is not filtering down to them.
People have always held on to the belief that “history always repeats itself” and there can be no truer example than the current situation in Africa. Slavery and the Slave Trade were abolished, among others because of a change in economic interests. Britain no longer needed slave-based goods; as it was not cost effective. The country was more able to prosper from new systems which required high efficiency, through free trade and free labour. It was a question of “why do you bring the cow home, when you can have milk?” So in 1884, a “few good men” thought it wise to atone for their crimes against humanity during the “Berlin Conference;. a moment that led to the partition of Africa and its subsequent colonial era. Talk about déjà vu.
In today’s Africa, that shift of focus has been prompted by the threat of the 2007-2008 food price crisis .But like during the Industrial Revolution; products like ethanol and bio-fuels are not targeted for Africa but for the markets in the West. Unlike 1884, we pass for partners, represented by paramount chiefs, politicians, venture capitalists, etc. Sadly, the real owners of the land are not invited to the high table. They are left to fight over the few crumbs that fall from these tables with their brothers and sisters. A four room clinic here, a three room school there, a bore whole tap and a graded feeder road is all it takes to fulfil the requirement of corporate responsibility.
Like in “Things fall apart”, “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
― Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
This time, the investor is very clever. He has come quietly and peaceably with his dollar. We are bemused by his opulence and are allowing him to stay. Now he has bought our leaders and politicians and whole communities can no longer live as one. He has bought the lands and putting a knife on the things that hold us together and we are falling apart. Today, it is brothers fighting brothers, families fighting families over lands that used to be everybody’s and nobody’s.
Land that we love our Sierra Leone