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The Potential of Africa’s Property Rights Remains Largely Unrealised

Perhaps 90% of rural land in Africa is not formally documented. Just 4% of African countries have mapped and titled the private land in their capital cities. Well-meaning reformers have often neglected the myriad other factors affecting whether titles are useful or not, such as custom, other laws and the capacity of the state to enforce people’s legal property rights. They have also underestimated the ability of vested interests, such as traditional leaders and urban elites, to obstruct reform. Poor administration compounds the problem. On average in Africa it takes 59 days to register a property. Transferring deeds costs 9% of the property’s value, more than twice the share in the oecd, a club of mostly rich countries. Land surveyors are scarce and monopolistic. In reality the potential of new laws, like that of titling efforts, has been undermined by vested interests. Control of land rights is so lucrative that Africa’s ruling parties and traditional authorities are reluctant to let it go. State landlordism is an urban problem, too, especially as cities have grown to encompass erstwhile farmland. A report published in 2019 by enact, a research group funded by the EU, suggested that drug-traffickers are small fry compared with criminal landlords. “Land allocation, real estate and property development”, it wrote, “may be the largest type of organised criminal activity in Africa”.