“I now feel honored and happy for what I did for my neighbor” said Rémy Maniragaba, a resident of Mugerama hill in Nyanza-Lac commune in the province of Makamba. Like 600 other persons in the province, Rémy has accepted to voluntarily share his property with its owner who has just returned in the country after many years of exile in Tanzania.
“I did it after having followed trainings and attending theatres facilitated by Tubiyage Association to help in peaceful conflict resolution of land-conflicts”. Rémy went on saying that Tubiyage taught both local people who didn’t flee and returnees about tolerance, mutual understanding and equitable sharing of resources as citizens of one nation. “When one returnee came to me telling that I was occupying his land, I consulted local leaders and the community and publicly accepted to share the land; we signed an agreement which is now deposited in the commune office. We now live peacefully in the same place and we meet regularly and share everything” added Rémy, very proud of his action as an act of reconciliation.
The province of Makamba is in the extreme southern part of Burundi near the Tanzanian border. Most of its population fled during different crises that have torn apart Burundi. Repatriation began in 2003, and increased after the successful general elections in 2005. Thousands of camp-based refugees from Tanzania decided to return to their home country and properties. This repatriation has been followed by a rising of land-based conflicts throughout the country. Everywhere, returnees found out their properties occupied by others, an unacceptable situation as land is so much valued and represents a unique resource for survival for more than 90% of Burundians.
Resident Renate Niyungeko (right) explained her fears that if land conflicts are not well managed they will generate a new kind of war between those who come from other regions and those who were born in Makamba. Hagai Mbonyimana, a former returnee of 1972, explained that the context in Makamba was explosive. Returnees were impatient and local people were refusing dialogue. An atmosphere of mistrust, hostility and even violence was characterizing almost every hill of Makamba. I asked him how he would have reacted if local residents have refused to give him back his piece of land, Hagai answered that he would have surely used force to solve the problem.
In 2008, Tubiyage Association, in partnership with UNICEF, launched a project for peaceful resolution of land-conflicts in Makamba. According to Niyongere Scolastique, one of the grassroots facilitators of the project, their approach consisted in three phases: trainings in peaceful conflict resolution, theatrical representations and dialogue sessions. Their work operates as a useful alternative to the work of the National Land and Other Properties Commission (NLOPC), a governmental body established in 2006 to resolve conflicts resulting of the massive return of refugees and IDPs in their homes. The commission encourages people to amicably resolve their conflicts, but when it’s not possible it refers cases in courts or takes its own decision.
Gilbert Kwizera, former manager of the project explained that they have trained 20 persons called local facilitators in each commune who were asked to train at least 5 persons in each village of their respective communes to facilitate theatres and dialogue at grassroots level. In total 600 people were involved in this programme as facilitators.
“We invited both local residents and returnees to attend these theatrical representations where we showed that it’s possible to resolve land-conflicts without turning into courts or National Land and Other Properties Commission (NLOPC)”, said Niyongere. She went on saying that effects of theatres are immediate. “After having assisted to a play, participants discussed and even argued angrily; then we intervened and offered our services as facilitators.” And as result of this work, 600 people have accepted to share their lands and 155 voluntarily given back entirely their lands to returnees.
Cohabitation of different political parties in Makamba: their offices are side by sideI asked Gilbert Kwizera, the former project manager if their initiative didn’t interfere with the work of NLOPC. He said that Tubiyage Association’s action is to assist NLOPC and courts to deal with land-conflicts. “We just help the community to solve voluntarily and amicably their problems through dialogue and mutual understanding”.During the implementation of the project, Tubiyage faced some challenges, especially mistrust from local residents who thought that the project’s aim was simply to help returnees to be reinstalled in their lands. Many of local residents feel disappointed and discouraged. A resident who has entirely given back the property he was occupying said: “We were expecting significant reward as result of our act. Instead of this, a big reconciliation party was organized and we were just given a hoe. This is good but far from being enough for someone who has entirely given a property”.
Helène Vyumvuhore, an old woman of Mabanda regretting that those who gave back fully their properties to returnees have not been treated and rewarded as they imagined before. Although some dissatisfaction is reported here and there, Tubiyage has achieved a lot in this area given its resources and time-frame. The association has contributed to reduce cases normally treated by the NLOPC.
Having an alternative to the government-directed resolution of these land conflicts is imporant as the NLOPC is not always well viewed by people. "Whether or not you are present, the NLOPC agents accompanied by a strong contingent of policemen can come and divide your property! This is what happened to me. I went into the provincial office looking for a document and when I came back, I found that my property has been divided. Such a solution, imposed by force, can not be sustainable”, regretted Ciza Evariste, a former mayor of Nyanza-Lac. He added that such division of property does not take into consideration composition of families. “Whether you have a small or big family, they simply divide the property in two equal parts”.
One of the roles of NLOPC is to identify all state lands and share them to those who have entirely gave back properties to returnees. But this has not been done and is causing a lot of frustration for those who found themselves with very small pieces of land.
For Vital Ndoricimpa in charge of statistics in NLOPC, the commission identified 9,873 hectares of state lands throughout the country. However, he stressed that there is a high demand of land from diverse categories of vulnerable people, and the identified land is far from enough to meet the need.
In total, 15,114 cases have been referred to the NLOPC throughout the country and 7,600 successfully settled. However, Vital Ndoricimpa suggest that gathering rural people in villages might provide a lasting solution to land-based conflicts.
In a country where over 90% of the population is dependent on agriculture, the successful resolution of land disputes is vital to prevent a repetition of the violent conflict of Burundi's recent past. The experiences of Makamba indicate that these disputes can be solved in way that brings people together - or divides them.