The Failure of Large-Scale Land Acquisition in the Land Governance in Cameroon

INTRODUCTION​

Land policies are of crucial importance in the development strategies of States because they deal with essential issues: the definition of property rights over a land, the modalities of land management, as well as the distribution of this essential resource between the different economic and social actors ( 1 ). Land governance, by regulating access to natural resources, arbitrating between competing uses, and involving stakeholders in decision-making, is a key instrument for dealing effectively with complex land-related issues. In Cameroon, Article 1 paragraph 2 of Ordinance No. 74-1 of 6 July 1974 provides that “the State is the guardian of all land”. Consequently, it is the State that organizes and encourages large-scale land acquisitions with the ultimate aim of accelerating economic growth (2) . Indeed, large-scale land acquisitions are contracts for sale or rental of land at very low prices with a view to carrying out a project (4) . However, these land acquisitions sometimes do not fulfill the objectives for which they were assigned (5) , and therefore end in failure (6). This failure reflects the inability of investors to carry out projects on the land that has been leased or contracted. The frequent failure of mega land projects raises the question of the causes and consequences of the non-development of acquired land. Beyond the socio-economic aspects, this study reveals more broadly the challenges surrounding the reconciliation between public interest and protection of legitimate rights of populations affected by expropriations. This paper aims at studying the explanatory factors (I) and the repercussions (II) of the failure of large-scale land acquisitions under the Cameroonian law before examining how to remedy it ( III ).

I – THE EXPLANATORY FACTORS OF THE FAILURE OF LARGE-SCALE LAND ACQUISITIONS

In general, the failure of large-scale land acquisitions is explained by poor governance and non-compliance by the concessionaire with its contractual obligations.

Firstly, the excessive prevalence of “public interest” often conceals private interests. The acquisition of land theoretically intended for projects of general interest often violates the legitimate rights of populations. For instance, the Douala Administrative Court annulled on May 25, 2023 the Prime Minister’s decree of 9 January 2020 relating to expropriation for reasons of public utility on the grounds that the construction of the Marriott hotel (2) did not meet the conditions of public utility, but rather aimed at “the satisfaction of a purely private interest and commercial profitability for the investors concerned”.

Secondly, concessionaires frequently fail to meet their contractual obligations. These include obligations arising from the concession as well as obligations external to the concession. The first are contained in a set of specifications (7) established between the concessionaires and the State. This often includes respect for the rights of populations, namely respect for their natural environment, their right of use and their means of subsistence. The latter is based in Article 8 (1) of Decree No. 2015/3580/PM of 11 August 2015 to establish the modalities of registration and the regime of insurance and guarantees applicable to concessions and leases which provides: “The holder of a state concession or lease who has stood surety or guarantor in a transaction may, in the event of non-compliance with his commitments, be temporarily or permanently divested of this title in favor of a creditor”.

Thus, the explanatory factors for the failure reside both in ethical failures of governance and in the inability or unwillingness of concessionaires to honor their multiple obligations. Article 8 of Decree No. 76/166 to establish the terms and conditions of management of the national lands lists the conditions under which the concession may be terminated: non-compliance with the obligations imposed on the concessionaire, voluntary abandonment; alienation of land without the consent of the granting authority etc.

II THE REPERCUSSIONS OF THE FAILURE OF LARGE-SCALE LAND ACQUISITIONS

The failure of these acquisition projects has repercussions both on the evicted populations and on the State.

On the one hand, the evicted populations generally return to their lands. However, along with their property rights, they have sometimes lost their homes. Their settlement is therefore often carried out in precarious conditions and major health risks when they return to abandoned sites. (8) .

On the other hand, the State is faced with a dilemma. It can exercise its right of pre-emption over any facilities built, but doing so undermines the legal certainty required to attract the foreign investment that is vital to development ambitions. Indeed, according to Article 86 of Law No. 2004/003 of 21 April 2004 governing town planning, “the right of pre-emption is a right which allow public authorities to become the priority purchaser of real estate that an owner wishes to sell. It applies in areas where the public authority wishes to ensure control of the land, wants to control the evolution of land prices or acquire certain built or unbuilt buildings, without however having recourse to the expropriation procedure. The other legal option is to return the land to the private domain of the State through reintegration. This is a legal operation which allows the land to return to its original patrimony once it has been put to some use. This does not solve the problem of legal security for investments.

III THE URGENT NEED FOR BETTER LAND GOVERNANCE IN CAMEROON

In its economic development and emergence agenda for 2035, the Cameroonian State greatly needs to attract foreign investors. If the risks of arbitrary dispossession persist, they will turn away from Cameroon. The credibility of this ambition for emergence depends on strong guarantees for land transactions. This is why the broader notion of land governance is so important. Optimal land governance requires coordinated action on a number of different levers:

The regulatory lever : land management and acquisition procedures under Cameroonian law are regulated by outdated texts which no longer reflect current reality. It therefore seems imperative to finalize the land reform initiated in 2011 to fill these dissuasive regulatory gaps. This reform will finally have to adapt the legal framework to the country’s contemporary challenges to facilitate investments.

The administrative lever: we must increase the efficiency of the administration responsible for land issues. Transparency and accountability must be established as principles of administrative management of land issues.

The community lever: citizens must be included in decision-making processes on land.

Only the virtuous combination of all these factors will make it possible to establish a balanced land system, conducive to investments and social justice ( 10 ).

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the failure of large-scale land projects affects all stakeholders and compromises inclusive growth. Only an in-depth overhaul of land governance practices would ensure that such investments serve the common good. This overhaul requires a virtuous circle involving the State, populations and investors.

The State must manage this responsible governance through procedures for consulting local populations on land acquisitions, as well as fair compensation for displaced persons. The business climate must also be improved while ensuring compliance with the economic and social commitments of investors. At the same time, populations must refrain from returning to sites which they have been evicted from. Finally, it is essential for companies to implement their corporate social responsibility, respect human rights and support local development.

It is through this integrated and concerted approach that large-scale land investments will be able to fully participate in sustainable and equitable growth.

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JENGU Guy Beaudry est doctorant à l’Université de Yaoundé II, Soa et chef du département tendances et conjonctures du Centre Africain de Recherche en Sciences Morales et Politiques (CARES-MP). Il est particulièrement intéressé par les questions de sociologie des relations internationales et les études stratégiques.

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