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Burundi: New Land Law Raises Controversy

(Jan. 27, 2014) Burundi recently issued a decree on the structure of the National Commission on Land and Other Assets (CNTB), increasing its authority; the move has been criticized by members of one political party and by outside organizations. Those opposing it have said it is unconstitutional and in violation of the 2000 Arusha Accord for Burundi. The Accord, designed to end years of conflict and signed by many parties to that conflict, was negotiated by the former president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. (Devon Curtis, The Peace Process in Burundi: Successful African Intervention? 24 GLOBAL INSIGHT (Sept. 2003). The issue of land rights is particularly divisive in Burundi, an agricultural country where refugees who were forced to leave the country over decades of ethnic conflicts have returned to find others working their land and often have difficulty re-establishing their rights. (Burundi Coalition Chairman Says Land Dispute to Be Settled After Reconciliation; RADIO ISANGANIRO ONLINE [in French] (Jan. 10, 2014), translated by Open Source Center online subscription database; Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi (Aug. 28, 2000), PEACE ACCORDS MATRIX; Constitution de Burundi (2005), CONSTITUTION FINDER.)


The problem of land disputes in Burundi is extensive, and such issues make up 80% of the disputes that are brought to the courts. (Land Governance in Burundi: Reform of the Land Code to Allay Conflicts, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation website (last visited Jan. 24, 2014). About 500,000 people have returned to Burundi in the last ten years, and lack of resolution of land issues has been an obstacle to their reintegration into society. About 60,000 refugees came back following expulsions from Tanzania in 2012-2013, and thousands more are expected to return from Uganda. (Burundi’s Land Conundrum, IRIN (Nov. 14, 2013).)

The CNTB, established in 2006, is authorized to resettle refugees who return and to resolve land disputes. Once a claimant for a plot of land files a case with CNTB, officials in the province conduct field visits and hearings. According to Serapion Bambonanire, the chair of the CNTB, the provincial officers “help people to reach an agreement. They are not judges, they are mediators.” He added that the provincial team’s decision can be appealed to the national office of the CNTB or to a court and that 38,000 cases have already been handled. (Id.)

There is an ethnic element to the issue. Political analyst Pacifique Nininahazwe described the situation, saying:

The restitution of land and other properties to the victims of the 1972 war is getting complicated. At the time, many Hutus left the country and their land was given to the Tutsi with official land titles. The question now is, should the commission just restore the land to its original owners 40 years later, leaving present occupants without land? … The commission’s problem is that the returning Hutus are getting back their land without restitution to those who got the land legally. Those who got the land legally from the government should be compensated. You cannot solve the problem of a landless person by making another person landless. (Id.)

Adding complexity to the problems of returning refugees, under Burundi’s land law, after 15 years of legal use of land, the occupant’s right to that land is protected; the same thing is true after 30 years, regardless of how the occupant obtained the use of the land. (Id.; Loi Portant Code Foncier du Burundi [Land Code of Burundi] (Sept. 1, 1986), DOING BUSINESS.)

Current Criticism

The major complaint about the recent new law on the CNTB has been that it increases the power of the CNTB in dispute settlements. Although most of the political parties represented in the legislature support the new provisions, the Unity for National Progress party says that the authority of the CNTB has been stretched too far. (K.O. Peppeh, Burundi’s Opposition Criticizes New Land Law, ZEGABI (Jan. 6, 2014).)

In addition, Vital Nshimirimana, who chairs the Burundian organization Forum for the Strengthening of Civil Society, argues that the controversy about the new CNTB law could increase ethnic conflict in the country, and he suggested that the President should reconsider the decision to promulgate the decree. He proposed a broad debate on the matter, so that a CNTB can be established that will be acceptable to all parties. (Marc Niyonkuru, Burundi Civil Society Boss Asks President to Reconsider Decision, RADIO ISANGANIRO ONLINE [in French] (Jan. 19, 2014), translated byOpen Source Center online subscription database.) The European Union, the United States, and the political opposition groups in Burundi that are outside of the legislature have also urged the creation of a broadly accepted infrastructure for managing land issues in the country. (Id.)