Land tenure in Bouaké (Côte d’Ivoire) and Kumasi (Ghana): Past and present – Fellows’ seminar by Aïdas Sanogo

28 May 2024

“Urban land tenure is a grey (spatial and social) space where many different and diverging claims and interests overlap. Land tenure in this space is often as precarious as the political framework in which it has to situate itself,” said Iso Lomso fellow Aïdas Sanogo of the Department of Socio-Anthropology Philosophy and Psychology at the Centre Universitaire de Manga /Université Norbert Zongo, Burkina Faso.

STIAS Iso Lomso Fellow Aïdas Sanogo

Sanogo’s project, which is still in the early stages of data collection (“when I can get away from teaching”), is about trying to understand the different regulations around land access, use and ownership in two cities – Bouaké in Côte d’Ivoire and Kumasi in Ghana – as well as analysing how the colonial era affected how people access and use land in these two countries and how this is changing.

“Many former British colonies (like Ghana) officially recognise two or even more legal orders and thus openly accept a legal pluralism that many former French colonies (like Cote D’Ivoire) would formally deny.”

“The vast majority of the actors may not care about historical backgrounds and just muddle through the constraints and hurdles that exist here and there,” she continued. “I’m focused on urban land tenure as a politicised issue that is deeply related to discursive formations about claims, interests, ‘imagined’ and ‘real’ rights and last, but not least, to urban politics more generally throughout time.”

Sanogo explained that she wants to fill some of the gaps in ethnographic work on land in this part of the African continent by comparing the two cities as well as Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso. She hopes to publish articles on Bouaké and Kumasi by the end of her Iso Lomso fellowship with a much longer-term plan to publish a book comparing land tenure in three cities (Bouaké and Kumasi, and then Bouaké and Bobo Dioulasso) “maybe by the end of my academic career because ethnography requires time!”.  She described her methodology as ‘patchwork’ ethnography because the luxury of long-term total immersion in a community is difficult and no longer a reality in the field.  She also pointed to how the gender identity of the researcher can sometimes limit access – “my identity sometimes closed some doors in understanding traditional ways of doing things”.

Second and secondary cities

Sanogo described the two cities she is studying as both second and secondary cities – the second most-populated and second most-developed in the two countries. But the concept of ‘secondary’ is also more complicated and based on the behaviour of the inhabitants – Sanogo’s interviewees described primary cities as being inhabited by ‘super or hyper hustlers’ while secondary cities are inhabited by ‘simple hustlers’.

She also explained her preference for working in cities “because they are a melting pot, full of diversity and dynamism, not as homogeneous as rural areas, bringing people from all over, and allowing one to interact with different backgrounds, understandings and world visions”.

“Cities are also a place of social ascension,” she added. “Where one can dream. People mingle, live together and make life happen one way or another.”

She highlighted aspects of the shared histories of the two cities. The Baoulé people – the largest subgroup – having migrated to the Bouaké area from Ghana in the 18th century and further dividing into the Allanguira and Assabou. Under French rule different villages combined to form the city of Bouaké and ’official’ rules and regulations for land tenure were inherited from the colonial administration.

Grey political and social spaces

She described the work as falling into a convenient and inconvenient grey zone – “authors refer to interdependent processes and how people draw on these to ensure land access. It’s not black and white, many factors and reasons determine why people decide where to live and whether and how to pay for land. Many factors also determine good and bad where there is conflict – it depends on perspectives, time and interests. There are many ambiguities, and agency and flexibility are used. It’s a physical and social space within which people navigate”.

“In these areas ownership and understanding of rights is fluid. Many people believe we borrow the land from our children. We die and leave it behind us. It’s not ownership as the Western world portrays it – you may have rights to access and use but ownership remains fluid. The land belongs to those who are dead and those not yet born – so we preserve it so that those who have passed on will be proud and not quarrel with us when we join them. People are sometimes willing to die for these beliefs.”

She also highlighted some of the superstitions around land – especially about showing the limits of land – “many believe if you show the limits, you will pass away so this is kept very vague.”

“There are also distinctions between land and earth with earth as a sacred entity that does not lie,” she explained. “People talk about going back to the original earth owners whom you identify by observing what happens if they are not involved.”

She explained that in the pre-colonial era land ownership relied strongly on networking. “Colonisation changed that. The biggest change was the introduction of title deeds. But some still consider they have been robbed by title deeds and want to get rid of them. In many interactions they say money has spoilt everything.”

“Access is no longer through networks. In Cote D’Ivoire access is via the Prefecture. In Ghana there is an indirect rule system but the chiefs are still at the centre and more powerful than in Cote D’Ivoire. In Ghana also it’s a renewable lease, not permanent.”

She described the complicated, long, six-step process in Cote D’Ivoire including Construction Ministry Approval, the determination of limits by certified surveyors, attributions by the Prefect and the establishment of individual title deeds. The actors involved include the propriétaires terriens (landowners) or chiefs, intermediaries and the state.

“Fees are payable for each step so it’s costly, time-consuming and confusing” – which sometimes means people resort to fake papers depending on their resources.

“In Ghana there is lots of customary land and official recognition of customary land, but there are often multiple attributions and conflicts.”

“Often the names of neighbourhoods reflect who lives there, how the land was acquired and the different perceptions of land use,” she continued.

But Sanogo also pointed to the changing ideas of the younger generation and the influence of modernity. “Most of my interviewees were over 30. Some spoke in parables and even used music to make their points. They often spoke of being confused by the state’s use of ‘big French words’ and in some instances referred to the state a monolithic entity.”

“Most of my interlocutors involved in land disputes rely on technology for archived information. Some of them don’t identify with previous agreements and don’t want to suffer due to past decisions. They attempt to contest some land transactions made a couple generations before them and do anything to get back what they perceive they were robbed of.”

“Inheritance rules are also changing to be more hybrid due to intercultural marriages and modernisation. It depends on who you talk to. People draw on what benefits them.”

“When I was doing my doctorate, I was told by some Bouaké landowners that Ghanaians are better at dealing with modernity while conserving traditions,” she added. “It will be interesting to see through further ethnographic fieldwork if this is true and to what extent it is or not.”

“You have to expect the unexpected when it comes to land,” she concluded.


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph:  Ignus Dreyer





Share this post:

Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Subscribe to posts like these:

STIAS is a creative space for the mind.