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New kinds of land conflict in urban Cameroon: the case of the 'landless' indigenous peoples in Yaounde.


The land disputes in Cameroon that are best known are between groups of local (indigenous) populations and people originating from elsewhere (incomers). This situation is fairly common in the cosmopolitan towns of Douala and Yaounde. The purpose of this article is not to revisit these types of conflict, but rather to explore conflicts over land between the indigenous populations and the state. This new kind of opposition demonstrates that it is not only the incoming populations who are dispossessing indigenous people of their land. In fact, in various and more effective ways, the state is playing a significant part in the expropriation of indigenous land heritage. This process may be witnessed in urban housing developments, as well as in areas set aside for public utility, or those that are too dangerous to be developed (slopes, piedmonts and marshlands). Through its policy of urbanization, the state is seemingly contributing to producing 'landless indigenous people' in much the same way as and probably more effectively than the incomers. This article reviews the historical processes of land expropriation from the time of the colonial state, analysing the grievances of indigenous people faced with this situation, as well as the strategies they have developed in an effort to take back control of their lost lands.


Au Cameroun, les conflits fonciers les mieux connus sont entre groupes de populations locales (indigenes) et personnes originaires d'allleurs (allogenes). Cette situation est assez courante dans les villes cosmopolitaines de Douala et de Yaounde. Cet article n'a pas pour objet de revenir sur ces types de conflits, mais d'explorer les conflits lies a la terre entre populations indigenes et Etat. Ce nouveau type d'opposition montre que les populations immigrees ne sont pas les seules a deposseder les indigenes de leurs terres. En effet, de maniere variee et plus efficace, l'Etat joue un role important dans l'expropriation du patrimoine foncier indigene. On peut observer ce processus dans les constructions d'habitations urbaines, ainsi que dans les zones reservees aux services publics ou trop dangereuses a amenager (pentes, piemonts et marais). a travers sa politique d'urbanisation, l'Etat semble contribuer a la creation d'<< indigenes sans terres >> de la meme maniere que les immigres, si ce n'est probablement que plus efficacement. Cet article examine les processus historiques d'expropriation fonciere depuis la periode de l'Etat colonial, en analysant les griefs des indigenes confrontes a cette situation, ainsi que les strategies qu'ils ont elaborees pour tenter de recouvrer les terres qu'ils ont perdues.


From the early 1990s, democratization in sub-Saharan African has given rise to a new era of urban conflict between autochthonous populations and groups of incoming peoples from elsewhere. Cameroon is a striking example of this phenomenon. At the political level, the transition in 1990 from a one-party state, in office from 1966, to a multi-party system unfolded against a backdrop of ethnic conflicts, often violent, in some regions of the country, notably in Yaounde, the political capital, and in Logone-Chari, a district in the Far North Province (Champaud 1991; Banock 1992; Tribus Sans Frontieres 1992; 1993). In most cases, at that time and since, battles for the ideological political space between supporters and opponents of the multi-party system, and, consequently between supporters of the ruling party and opposition parties, have extended beyond the political sphere to focus on the land question. This situation has led many observers of Cameroonian politics to establish a cause and effect relationship between the establishment of a multi-party system and the outbreak of conflicts with ethnic characteristics. However, an in-depth analysis of political developments in this period tends to show that the advent of multi-partyism is a pretext used to justify clashes between incomers and indigenous populations (Socpa 2003). To understand the fundamental causes of ethnic exclusion, we must turn to the land situation. Since the events of the early 1990s, the calm that has been observed in the non-electoral periods is in fact strikingly at odds with the feelings of exclusion, always explicit, though expressed to a greater or lesser extent, that dominate day-to-day major political events in Cameroon (Socpa 2006).

The transitory, indeed episodic, characteristics of the land conflicts between indigenous peoples and incomers are in marked contrast to the emergence of a new type of conflict between indigenous peoples and the state. To understand the dimensions of this opposition more clearly, data have been collected from secondary and primary sources. The primary sources are the outcome of observations and extensive interviews conducted between 2002 and 2006 in Yaounde, the political capital of Cameroon, where out research was based. During the course of the research, attention was principally focused on examining the nature of the land conflict between the state and the indigenous peoples. Analysis of the field data led to the present article, which articulates three main points. The first section presents a historical perspective on the evolution of the land question in Cameroon in general and in Yaounde in particular, with special emphasis on the role of the colonial and post-colonial states. The second section focuses on the actions of the expropriating state, whilst the final section examines the counter-strategies of the indigenous peoples.


The phenomenon of the state expropriating autochthonous peoples' land for 'reasons of public utility' goes back to the colonial period. It began in Cameroon when the Germans first settled in 1884. In this perspective, let us follow the case of Yaounde, where the first German military station was based ('Yaunde Station'). According to Nkou Nvondo (1998: 348), from the moment the Germans gained sovereign rights over the Cameroonian territory in 1884,
   [they] immediately effected the first partitions of the land. They
   only recognized the indigenous peoples' property rights on the
   plots of land where they had their villages and plantations. The
   remaining territory was considered, according to German
   legislation, to be 'empty unoccupied lands'. In reality these lands
   would be incorporated into imperial property, and it would be the
   German state that would be responsible for administering them. The
   distribution of the 'empty unoccupied lands' was arranged
   quasi-exclusively to the advantage of German agricultural and
   forestry companies.

France took possession of Cameroon following the defeat of the Germans in the First World War in 1916. After some years, it made considerable efforts to establish a regime of land registration. The Minister for the Colonies, Albert Sarraut, wrote in a 'report to the President of the French Republic' dated 21 July 1932:
   as indicated in the previous report of 31 October 1924, which
   reintroduced into Cameroon the provisions of the local decree of 5
   September 1921 pertaining to organization of land ownership in the
   territory, the transcription regime would be replaced by a system
   of registration as soon as some stability in property transactions
   could be achieved. The document ... authorizes, through the
   registration procedure, a complete purge of all actual rights and
   occult powers that are harmful to property and lead to precarious

A major concern of the French administration was to impose its laws and the rights of French citizens on the colonial land heritage. In conformity with the practice already in operation under the German administration, customary land rights were not recognized, and all land heritage was considered to be 'empty unoccupied land'.

Between 1932 and 1972, a series of administrative texts (decrees, orders, edicts) would regulate the organization of land and estates in Cameroon. (2) But it was not until 1974 (Order No. 74-1, 6 July 1974, consolidating land regulation) that Cameroon received a land regime that permitted more rational use of the lands for socio-economic development. (3) This period marked a theoretical break with the land procedures in place up until then, and the implementation of a land regime uniquely based on the principle of compulsory registration. But among the primary objectives of the order were the extension of administrative control of land and an almost systematic incorporation of lands said to be empty and unoccupied into 'national ownership'. (4) Moreover, plots of land under national ownership that were already exploited or occupied would be titled after occupation or development had been ascertained, whilst the non-occupied and non-exploited plots would be redistributed within the framework of concessions that permitted the appropriation of these plots once they had been developed (Mandessi Bell 1987: 269-70).

Thus under both the German and the French colonial administrations, all undeveloped lands were considered to be 'empty' and 'unoccupied'. In the wake of independence in January 1960, the expression 'empty unoccupied lands' was gradually abandoned in favour of the preferred term 'national ownership', which was enshrined in land law and took effect from 1974, as cited above. Armed with this new concept, the state appropriated plots of land that historically had belonged to local communities, who called them 'lands of the ancestors'. Thus a conflict was born between customary land law based on the idea of 'ancestral lands' and modern land law (in force under the colonial and the post-colonial states) founded on the notion of 'empty unoccupied lands', and then later 'national ownership'. It may be recalled that the notion of 'national ownership' is only a refined version of 'empty unoccupied lands'. Within the context of this research, it is worth dwelling on these two concepts to draw out the conflicting dynamics embodied within them.


'Ancestral land' can be defined as the place where the ancestors of a given human grouping have lived. Daniel Abwa (2001:10-11) explains that ancestral land is a function of the type of affiliation adopted by the group. In the case of patrilineal societies, 'ancestral land' refers to the forefathers. In the case of matrilineal societies, the same term refers to the land of the relatives of the mother. According to Daniel Abwa (ibid.) it is appropriate to graft on to this definition the idea of 'memory, bearing in mind the essentially migrant character of Cameroonian peoples' in the pre-colonial, colonial, and even post-colonial periods. In all these times, migrations driven by such diverse motives as famine, war, or flight from drudgery (especially in the colonial period) have led to populations moving, whether voluntarily or not, from their birth places to centres that have received or welcomed them. In the contemporary period, 'ancestral land' can be considered to be that which the ancestors had settled definitively before the Europeans arrived for the purpose of colonization; or else definitively migrated to and settled during the colonial period. Again, Daniel Abwa affirms that 'to this end, each person needs only one ancestral land: the place where he would like to rest at the end of his earthly life, where he would like to join together with his ancestors. This is what explains the seemingly interminable transfers of corpses from one region to another, which can be observed daily in Cameroon, and the use of the ritual phrase at burials: "may he find rest in the lands of our ancestors".' (5)

In traditional African society, land is a collective good: 'customary land law is one of the few things about which we almost never argue', wrote Stanislas Melone (1972: 43). This typically African representation of the soil amounts to the land being considered as a deity, as something sacred for which sacrifices must be carried out, and which must be respected. Chindji-Kouleu and David Foncho (2001: 10) remind us that 'amongst the Bassa peoples of Cameroon, land is never sold. It is revered to the extent that it is strictly forbidden to copulate in the bush, even on the bare soil, for fear of spoiling it.' From this perspective, it is to be expected that seizing the populations' 'ancestral lands', on the grounds of the principle that the lands are empty, indeed unoccupied and therefore without rulers (in other words, owners), is aggravating for the people thus expropriated. We shall now consider more closely the substantive meanings of 'empty unoccupied land' and of 'national ownership' from the German era until the present.


In an article on 'the rural land regime in black Africa', Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch (1982) analyses the impact of the colonial system on the land question. Different colonial administrations' land policies have been by definition 'policies of plunder' of the African peoples' land rights. Discussing specifically the French concept of 'empty unoccupied lands' in French West Africa, Coquery-Vidrovitch writes that 'from the outset, the legal problem was posed in terms of knowing who should be considered the owners of the conquered lands'. (6) She goes on to state that, from its beginnings, the legislation was characterized by a refusal to recognize the existence of an indigenous law. She explains that 'in traditional pre-colonial Africa, private property did not exist.... There was enough land. To live, a small clearing of burned forest was sufficient. The colonizers shored up their thesis using claims about the mobility of certain tribes [which implied they had no land] ... they were ignorant of the status of the land chief, whose presence however had been attested to by many explorers' (ibid.: 73).

In Cameroon, the text instituting land registration in 1932 (cited above) was largely drawn from French civil code, thus disregarding customary mechanisms for regulating the lands. (7) Under this legislation, all unoccupied lands were considered to be empty and without owners. (8) By virtue of the decrees of 23 October 1904 (organization of land tenure) and 24 July 1906 (instituting land property legislation), all lands were considered to be 'empty and unoccupied' that were neither registered nor owned by the indigenous peoples, according to the rules of the French civil code (ibid.: 74).

There were two significant amendments to this definition in 1935 and 1955. In the decree of 15 November 1935, the meaning of the expression 'empty and unoccupied land' was reviewed. An effort to define the limits of the state's domain and other collective entities (federations, territories, towns) is discernible. According to this decree 'all lands which are not legally titled or possessed ... are undeveloped or have been unoccupied for more than ten years belong to the state'. According to the terms of this decree, if the state grants a concession to an undeveloped plot of land, it is up to the dwellers (in most cases the indigenous population), who may oppose it, to provide evidence for the existence of their customary rights to that land. In relation to this practice, the decree of 20 May 1955 stipulates in article 7 that 'a concession is granted after an open public enquiry; if the enquiry has not revealed the existence of a customary right to the land, then the burden of responsibility is on the claimant to provide evidence for the absence of those rights' (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1982: 75).

However, despite the relative evolution in the content of the meaning of the expression 'empty unoccupied land' towards the end the colonial period, the customary laws of the indigenous populations would continue to go unrecognized during the post-colonial period. The massive expropriations of the indigenous peoples throughout the post-colonial period must be situated in this context. The new forms of expropriation orchestrated by the state hardly differ from what happened during the colonial period. The alienation of indigenous peoples from the right to use and enjoy their lands continues. Even in cases where there was effective recognition of the indigenous peoples' customary laws, these people would not necessarily be fully protected from expropriation for 'needs of public utility'. The post-colonial African state would thus appear to be the principal expropriating agent of the modern era, and its actions can be observed in the urban centres where the imperatives of urbanization require the permanent clearing and expulsion of indigenous peoples, whether for purposes of the construction of buildings and other administrative infrastructure, or to promote social housing.

According to the land tenure law of 1974 cited above, any plot of land whose self-declared owner does not have a land title belongs ipso facto to the national property of the Cameroonian state. The implementation of the provisions of this law clashes with customary law, recognition of which is still neglected by the authorities. Many problems persist in reality, with regard to the occupation, exploitation or development of these ancestral lands by the state, whose main concern is to integrate them under national ownership. So far, many forms of resistance have taken place throughout the national territory. Many customary collectivities have resisted the extension of national ownership to what they consider to be their ancestral lands. (9) Accordingly, 'the chiefs of customary collectivities continue to sell the lands they hold without land titles, because they nevertheless consider themselves to be the true owners', remarks Tjouen (1985: 94). It should be emphasized that the 1974 law formally prohibits the sale of lands belonging to the national domain by individuals or collectivities that cannot prove recognized legal ownership of the plots of land in question.

The problem may therefore be determined as the opposition between two different conceptions of land ownership rights: formal land law guaranteed by the state, and informal land law guaranteed by customary rights in the local collectivities. The social relations binding local populations to their land stand in opposition to the purely legal relationship between the state and the land. And the state has a tendency to impose its land law over and above the laws of local collectivities. That said, however, it is important to recognize that there are enormous variations in how the land is represented within any given socio-cultural group, depending on contextual, emotive and affective factors.

It is evident that the different expropriation operations, whether effected by the colonial or the post-colonial governments, have never received the backing of the people (Ateba 1988). Focusing narrowly on the post-colonial period and the case of Yaounde, endowing the capital of Cameroon with so-called social housing was paid for with the expropriations that affected many neighbourhoods in the town, including Longkak, Messa, Biyem-Assi, Nsimeyong, Hippodrome and Mendong. At the same time, the construction of public buildings (ministries, presidential palace, military camps, hospitals, urban highways and so forth) has also played a major part in the business of expropriating local collectivities. In general, dispossessed populations were driven out to the peripheries of the seized areas. When they met the requirements, they received either financial restitution, (10) or else plots of land in the resettlement areas as compensation. (11)

Familiarity with the text establishing the compensation procedures sheds light on the mechanisms of expropriating individuals and local collectivities in the area of Nsimeyong where we carried out our research. It should be noted that right up until the time of their expropriation at the end of the 1970s, the customary collectivities living in the south-east area, including Nsimeyong, could only lay claim to customary property rights. Now, according to Order No. 74-1 of 6 July 1974, setting out land tenure regulations, the lands here that had not been subject to registration procedures thus far were considered to be under national ownership, for the use of the state as and when it saw fit. In the case of Yaounde, many owners did not see the point of engaging in the process of registering their land, whether through ignorance, or scorn and rejection of the regulations. They therefore continued to claim ancestral rights on their plots of land. Worse still, these customary owners continued to sell these plots of land contrary to the formal ban prescribed by article 8 of Order 74-1 cited above.


This article states that 'Constituent, transferable or extinctive deeds relating to actual property laws must be established by a solicitor; otherwise they are void. Urban or rural property that is not registered in the name of the seller or landowner is also void of legal status.' It continues: 'the sellers, landowners, as well as the solicitors and their clerks underwriting these deeds are liable to be fined French CFA25,000--100,000, and to imprisonment of fifteen days to three years, or to one of these two punishments'.

Further important aspects of study are changes in the ways in which land has been transferred from indigenous peoples to incomers in post-independence Cameroon.


Two successive methods of transfer have thus far been instituted. The first is through letting; the second, currently in force, is through sale. In the earlier discussions, it was illustrated that the colonial powers spared no efforts in alienating African populations from their customary rights to ancestral lands. In Cameroon, it goes without saying that the people were unable to sustain resistance to the seizure of their ancestral land by the colonial powers for long. (12) In Yaounde, since the French settled, expropriation measures, often with retrospective segregation, have been taken to force the indigenous population to resettle in outlying areas of the town. (13) To gain an appreciation of the passive resistance of the autochthonous populations faced with expropriation from the time of the colonial period onwards, we need look no further than to the origin and meaning of the names of certain areas of Yaounde--such as Mokolo ('far off place, situated on the other side of the world') (14) or Obili (this noun comes from the [French] verb 'obliger' [English: 'to force or compel'], with the implication that the inhabitants had been forced to go and live there). In spite of the low intensity of their resistance, the constant concern of these peoples nevertheless remained to conserve those lands that they still considered to belong to the ancestors. These efforts at preservation were not wholly directed by opposition to the French, whom the people thought of as 'those foreigners who would one day fatally depart'; rather they were a hostile reaction to other Cameroonians who, notably in the urban areas and on the massive plantations (the Moungo plain for example), were taking advantage of the French presence to settle on or seize the ancestral lands of others (Abwa 2001: 10). Therefore, although the local people demonstrated little resistance towards the colonial occupier--who considered their possessed lands to be a mass of 'empty unoccupied lands'--it becomes clear how these same people would forcefully affirm their sovereignty rights once the colonial power had left. Such claims would be made to the disadvantage of the people originally from other neighbouring regions or from regions distant from the metropolis.


As part of its housing development policy, since the 1960s the Cameroon government has entrusted the management of urban housing to several state bodies including the Societe Immobiliere du Cameroun (SIC, 'Building Society of Cameroon'), the Mission d'Amenagement et de Gestion des Zones Industrielles (MAGZI, 'Office for the Development and Management of Industrial Areas') and the Mission d'Amenagement et d'Equipement des Terrains Urbains et Ruraux (MAETUR, 'Office for Planning and Development of Urban and Rural Areas'). (15) SIC builds stand-alone houses (bungalows) or collective blocks of flats, which it lets or sells to qualifying citizens of good standing. MAGZI and MAETUR develop plots of land which are sold on to individuals who then build their own houses. (16) It is indisputable that these bodies are vital to the development of social (that is, low-cost) housing in urban Cameroon. However, their activities go hand in hand with the alienation of people from ownership of the lands that have been requisitioned and developed by these building societies.

In the south-west of Yaounde, where we carried out our research, building (by SIC) of social housing and designation of the land for development (by MAETUR) have contributed to the expropriation of numerous indigenous families since the early 1980s. (17) The following accounts are intended to give a better sense of the lived reality and the perceptions of the indigenous peoples who are victims of expropriation.


Onana is 43 years old. He is a sports and physical education teacher in a school in Yaounde. He lives in the Obili District, in the south-west of Yaounde, on the outskirts of Nsimeyong and Biyem-Assi. Onana is married and the father of two children. He lives in a rented two-bedroom house. If he had a plot of land, he would love to be able to build and live in his own house. But at the moment, he does not have any land.
   My parents had a large plot of land in Nsimeyong. My mother also
   has a field there. We went there often to grow cassava, groundnuts
   and corn. But one day we were dispossessed through forceful means.
   MAETUR forcefully seized the lands, which it developed and resold.
   At that time, to pacify the people, the government promised that
   new land would be granted to the people who had been expropriated.
   But to this day, we have not had anything. It may be perhaps that a
   few people who had houses in those areas have received
   compensation. For the people who had nothing there, it is rather
   more complicated. They said that we had no rights to these lands
   because empty or unoccupied land belongs to the state.

      Now, those of us who are originally from Yaounde do not even
   have a single square metre of land to build on. If I want to build
   a house, I must pay for the land like everyone else. I was thinking
   of going to Simbock, but my heart is not really in it. (18) If the
   government could look into the situation of the indigenous people
   again, that would be an improvement. What has happened is that
   people who are not from Yaounde have invaded our ancestral lands. I
   understand that they bought their plots from MAETUR or from private
   individuals, and that they therefore do have a certain ownership
   right over this land, but I also wonder whether it is right to take
   the ancestral lands of other people, even if the justification is
   having poured money into it.... I don't think that you can put a
   price on land. In my opinion, the government did a very bad thing
   by seizing our lands. It is as if we are orphans in out own village
   ... which is abnormal....

We took the opportunity to ask Onana what he would propose as a solution to improve the situation. He responded:
   [I]t is too late now to say that we are going to expel the
   foreigners and reclaim our lands. That would provoke a bloody war.
   Even the land reforms advocated by some are not working. It is too
   late. The state should probably pay a compensatory sum to the
   indigenous victims of the expropriations so that they can also buy
   plots like the other city dwellers in this town. It would be
   illusory to think that we are going to expel the foreigners,
   especially as they did not steal the land. They bought it, even if
   in some cases the price was not always fair.... I am against the
   idea of expelling the foreigners who have bought land in the
   neighbourhoods of Nsimeyong, Mendong, Maison Blanche,
   Biyem-Assi.... We, the indigenous people, must complain to the
   state that dispossessed us.

      Normally, the revenues earned through the sale of these lands
   should be returned to the indigenous peoples, but that did not
   happen.... The people who sold their lands themselves to foreigners
   and who have quietly eaten the money only have themselves to blame.
   For those whose lands were seized from them by SIC or MAETUR, their
   target should be the state. We are constantly drawing the attention
   of the political and administrative authorities to this situation.
   I think that the traditional chiefs have already written to the
   Head of State about the matter. We discuss it frequently during
   local committee meetings of the CPDM party. (19)


Atangana lives in Efoulan. He claims to have taken part in the 'expulsion of the incomers' from 1991 to 1992, organized by gangs of indigenous youths from the Nsam and Efoulan districts against the inhabitants of Nsimeyong. Now, standing back from those events, he tells of his participation in these violent night-time campaigns targeting the property and belongings of the incomer inhabitants of the Nsimeyong District.
   [T]he objective was to force the incomers to depart from the land
   which they were occupying. They were to leave as they came, that
   is, with their hands empty. During meetings we held with the
   elders, the elders told us that if we
   did not expel the foreigners, we would have nowhere to build in the
   future. We agreed with this, and every night we carried out acts of
   'terrorism': destroying houses, throwing stones at the houses and
   rooftops, also dropping pamphlets. The objective was to frighten
   the incomers, and finally to force them to leave. But it did not
   turn out to be easy, as these people fought back. They organized a
   watch committee. Now, with some detachment, I wonder whether I did
   the right thing. We were mostly attacking people who had settled
   around the MAETUR housing development. But if we had succeeded in
   uprooting them, I am certain the operation would have spread to
   other housing areas, as it was the same kinds of people whom we
   encountered there.

      Thus, as you can see, there are two types of invaders: those who
   invaded by themselves through buying the houses from the indigenous
   people at scandalously low prices, and those who invaded with the
   assistance of the state. In my opinion, this is a pressing problem
   which must be resolved as quickly as possible. In the case of my
   family, for example, my mother has already showed me where the land
   of my late father used to be. My mother told me that MAETUR had
   given my father symbolic compensation of about French CFA300,000.
   But this money was largely inadequate, since if he had sold his
   land to incomers himself, he would have had more. Some people who
   had been informed that they would be expropriated took care to sell
   their land a long time ago. When the moment of dispossession
   arrived, it was the new owners who were ripped off. I wonder, had
   my father known, whether he would have sold before MAETUR came and
   took everything.... Here, where I live, I have no idea where I can
   build for myself a house in Yaounde. All that I will be able to do
   is to buy a plot of land, if one day I can find a job. Otherwise, I
   will stay in my father's house, or rent a house ... belonging to an
   incomer. At the Universite de Yaounde II in Soa, where I am
   studying at the moment, already my landlord is a Bamileke. (20) I
   believe that the responsibility for the abusive expropriation of
   the indigenous populations must lie with the state. In my opinion,
   the government did not offer any protection. It let everything
   happen and then expropriated the people itself. Whatever the nature
   of the case, compensation cannot fully restitute the rights of the
   people alienated through expulsion from their ancestral lands.

These two accounts are illuminating. They roundly condemn the role of the state in expropriating the land of the indigenous people, to the benefit of the incomers. The second case study is even sharper than the first, angrily recounting in minute detail the vengeful operations carried out to recuperate all the plots of land where there has been a change in ownership rights, including the plots of land sold to the incomers by the building societies.


In the preceding case study, our informer acknowledges that if the indigenous people were to succeed in dislodging the incomers from the traditional housing areas, the movement would spread inexorably into the urban housing areas. This attitude is striking in the sense that it introduces a new dimension to the debate about the nature of land conflicts, deserving of particular attention. A close reading of the land question in Cameroon over the last three decades leads to an identification of two phenomena, important and striking in their originality: the demand for urban housing and the reoccupation of publicly owned land.


The following account, which flows from our research in the Nsimeyong District, is a good example of how some indigenous people covet the lands of others.


Jules Kouam is a bank manager in Yaounde. He owns a house in the Nsimeyong District. His house was built on a MAETUR plot which he acquired in 1985. Following the purchase of his 300 square metres, Jules got a mortgage from his bank to begin work on building his villa. In 1990, he left the house he was renting at SIC-Messa to move into his new house. The building work was not yet complete, but Jules thought that by living in the unfinished house, he would put pressure on himself to finish it quickly. From 1990 to 1992, expropriation threats targeting incomers were the order of the day in some districts of Yaounde, notably in Emana, Efoulan and Oyomabang. But Jules and his neighbours had no idea that they could be affected, and felt all the more secure because the plots they occupied had been sold to them by MAETUR. This assurance was deceptive: they too were to be the victims of expulsion threats. In this case, it should be noted, the threat of expropriation came from the former owners, and not from the state.
   It was about 11 p.m. when suddenly we heard stones thrown at the
   shutters, walls and roof. We were busy celebrating Christmas with
   friends on the balcony. Just in time, we managed to hide inside the
   house. From my bedroom window, I caught sight of a group of about
   ten hooded youths. I wondered what was wrong. I wanted to telephone
   the police because I assumed I was dealing with robbers. After
   throwing stones, they dropped scraps of paper, and left shouting
   'Invaders, invaders! If you do not let us in on the party, you will
   get it in the neck.' I immediately understood that the phenomenon
   of 'expelling foreigners', which was on record in certain areas,
   had reached us. That day, a couple we had invited over were forced
   to sleep at our house because we did not know if the youths had set
   an ambush. I took the trouble to telephone my neighbours
   straightaway, who were in the same situation as me. One of them,
   Albert, a guy from Kribi, told me that one of the projectiles had
   broken the windscreen of his car, a Mercedes 200. On the anonymous
   pamphlets dropped in the district, the youths complained that we
   were living on their relatives' land. Anyway, I don't remember
   anymore what insults they shouted, but terms such as 'invaders',
   'land thieves' and so on were bandied about. We organized an
   emergency meeting in our block. The police were alerted, and acted.
   During the meeting, we suggested approaching the indigenous chief
   of the district. Since the problem posed by the youths was clear,
   we had to take a stand. My stance was Eat these people should
   complain to MAETUR, which had expropriated them. I had bought my
   land quite properly from the state and did not know to whom the
   plot had belonged previously. I did not want to have to negotiate.
   But, in the end, the meeting decided that we would contribute
   something to the youths so that they could take part in the
   celebrations. If my memory serves me well, we gave them French
   CFA105,000 which was remitted to the chief of the district.
   Meantime, we asked other young people in the district to identify
   those responsible for the attack of 24 December. We got the police
   on to them and they promised not to resort to such acts of
   vandalism again. From time to time, some of them call by to demand
   aid directly for some problem or another....

After this incident, Kouam and his neighbours undertook to erect barricades at the comers of the side-roads leading to their houses. They also hired security guards who were stationed at the entrance of their block from dusk. All suspects were questioned and interrogated. These forms of dissuasion partly assured their protection from attacks by the sons of the former owners who had been expropriated by the state. This led the insightful observer Mongo Beti (21) to remark pertinently: 'The Bamileke owners, particularly in the far-out suburbs [and also in the urban housing areas of Yaounde] barricade themselves in, at great expense, enclosing their plots within high walls, spiked with fragments of broken glass' (Mongo Beti 1993: 63-4).


The shanty towns of Yaounde can be seen as the revenge taken by the indigenous people against the expropriating state, and as representing a 'new approach' to the production of informal urban housing. For the majority of indigenous people, it is simply a matter of engaging in a counter-attack--reappropriating the areas the state has declared cannot be built on. These lands, which are mostly unfavourably disposed, are sold back by their customary indigenous 'owners' to the incomers--who soon put a value on them, notably by building houses.

An aerial view of the Yaounde landscape shows a perfect juxtaposition of the residential districts and the shanty towns. The hills surrounding the town are covered in huts tightly cramped together. The situation is analogous in the low marshy wet lands, which are completely covered over with huts. In Yaounde, as elsewhere in other towns in the country, each district has two faces, one 'courtyard side' and one 'garden side'. The courtyard side corresponds to the district as it presents itself to the observer who strolls along the main streets, mostly asphalted, which lead to the various luxury villas and properties. The 'garden', or rather 'rear', side represents the other face of the district. This is in reality the reverse of the front-facing side. Here, the huts are piled on top of each other and access is a real challenge, particularly in the rainy season; humans are sometimes living together with domestic animals; access to running water is irregular; latrines are mostly built on rubbish heaps near streams into which wastes flow. This situation is common, a few subtle difference notwithstanding, in almost all the districts of Yaounde--including, of course, Bastos, the residential areas for the majority of expatriates, and both African and Western foreign embassies. In addition to these stretches of marshy sub-districts, the hillsides such as the mountains of Mbankolo, Carriere, Mvog-Betsi and many others, on which houses continue to be built, should also be mentioned.

However, the important point is not so much the architectural style of these islands of the impoverished sub-districts in the urban areas. Rather, it is the methods of acquiring land ownership. In fact, access to a plot of land in these areas is not free. (22) These lands, because of their being inappropriate for building houses, are declared as such by the state. Consequently, they fall under national ownership. But for some years indigenous people have taken it upon themselves to sell these marshy lands to incomers, who soon enough build houses on them, which they either live in themselves or put up for rent. Both in the marshy zones and on the hillsides the price of a square metre of land is excessively cheap, varying between CFA500 to no more than CFA2,500 per square metre.

The determination of the indigenous people to sell their lands situated in the marshy areas or on the hillsides is a form of negation of the property law that the state has applied by taking the lands into national ownership for the reasons described above. Sometimes, customary owners re-sell their lands without any scruples, knowing perfectly well that they have been requisitioned by the state and that the compensation procedure is under way.


Joseph was an administrator at the town council of Yaounde from 1970 to 1980. He was told about the expropriations to be carried out in the south of Yaounde for housing purposes. As he was knowledgeable about the difficult situation of expropriations, which were often carried out without substantial compensation being paid, he decided to sell some of the land which his family owned.
   I thought that I had to make a little money for myself from the
   plot of land that came to me after the sharing of the family
   property following the death of my father. I even advised my
   brothers to sell, as the Bamileke, whose wives worked in the fields
   there, were already vying to buy the land. I sold almost 1,500
   square metres, and I kept 500 square metres for myself. When we
   were expropriated, I did not lose too much, since compared with the
   others who had nothing, just a few morsels from the fruit trees and
   food crops, I had managed to pocket French CFA500,000, as I'd sold
   each square metre for French CFA500.... When the government
   announced the expropriation, the people to whom I had sold came to
   see me ... they told me that I had swindled them and they even
   demanded repayment ... there were some problems, but afterwards
   they passed. It seems that as they had connections with the
   Ministry, they used them to request land titles. They were also
   compensated, probably by quite a lot of money, as some of them have
   built modern villas....

This episode and many others show that owing to the uncertainty around compensation for land expropriated by the state, some customary owners are developing strategies that are aimed at reducing their losses, while others transfer the losses on to third parties. Equally remarkable are the practices of some individuals. Although they are clearly informed about the likelihood of expropriation in the future, they nevertheless insist on buying plots of land which are either targeted for housing by the building societies, or for public utility by the state, or are situated in areas which have officially been declared as unsuitable for construction.

Following the landslides in the rainy season in 2005, which led to deaths and to the submersion of several houses situated on the slopes of Mount Mbankolo, the government delegate to the Yaounde city council undertook a series of steps with the aim of destroying the shanty towns and informal residences. To set a clear example, he began with the destruction of the fences and houses around the marshlands of the Bastos area. This was made known everywhere, and widely publicized in the private and public media. The houses of former and current ministers, senior state officials, and members of the central committee of the ruling party were amongst those destroyed or scheduled for demolition. Some days later, the operation, which had been widely publicized, came to a sudden halt without an official explanation. According to the municipal authorities the other areas that are nationally owned, but occupied 'illegally', are situated on the hillsides of Mount Mbankolo, and in places known as 'natural quarries'. The inhabitants of these areas are used to injunctions to clear them off the land. They expect the worst every time, but things calm down and normal life resumes--and so does the sale of the remaining hillsides.

Even more interesting is the case of the basin of the Mfandena area down from the Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium, which was initially intended as the site for the Yaounde sports complex. Today this has become one of the new fashionable areas of the Cameroonian capital. Here, customary owners, who are said to be angry over inadequate compensation, have been selling their land for several years. It is striking that the clients rushing to buy these plots of land are amongst the new political, administrative and financial elites of the second post-colonial government. With significant financial means they are able to build grand Western-style villas, most of which are erected on the hillsides, whilst others are constructed on concrete piles since they are situated on the fringes of the marshy areas.

In other cases where land has been made the property of the state, the process of reappropriation by the indigenous peoples, which began some years ago, is proceeding quietly, and without unleashing any immediate reaction from the appropriate state authorities. (23) 'Nature abhors a void', goes the saying. It seems entirely normal for the indigenous people to recover their land, and, even better, to earn a profit by selling it to potential buyers for development. If it subsequently came about that the state wanted to exert its ownership rights on these lands, it would come up against the new owners whom it would not find so easy to expel, in so far as these owners belong to the high realms of the political-administrative apparatus and represent a significant electoral weight or counter-weight for the governing party.

By all accounts, the municipal authority's procrastination about clearing the people who are illegally occupying private state land shows that the handling of this matter is sensitive. In truth, the authorities are reluctant to stir up an issue that could easily trigger a popular uprising, which would very quickly be harnessed by the opposition parties, or could lead to the loss of current or potential electoral bases. Thus, with or without titles to land that has been invested in and developed, the occupants are not prepared to be cleared without financial compensation, or, in the best case scenario, to be rehoused elsewhere around the town. If the state decided today to clear the illegal occupants from public land, the most concerned group would be the incomers; but they would only be victims by proxy, paying the price for their persistence in building everywhere, and in any manner, with complete disregard for the town planning regulations.


In summary, the main objective of this article was to explore the perspectives of indigenous people on the expropriation of land. These people have been and are still victims of compulsory requisition of the 'land of their ancestors', or of the land heritage that belongs to them, for public purposes. The case studies analysed above provide some selective insights into people's perceptions of land expropriation by the state. Furthermore, the case studies elucidate the strategies employed or envisaged in order to resist this form of authoritarian land expropriation.

Almost half a century after the independence of Cameroon, the land question remains even more elusive than we might think. The phenomenon is of critical importance in the towns, where rapid urbanization has commercialized the land into a commodity like any other basic consumer good. The significant question is no longer to know why indigenous people are selling their 'ancestral lands' (in any case, they no longer have a choice). The important questions now relate to the future, and also to the identity of the indigenous minorities in the villages that have become towns. In the final analysis, the land question is truly a ticking time bomb, which is threatening security, social cohesion and political stability in urban Cameroon.


This article was written with the aid of a research grant I received from the Dutch foundation NWO-WOTRO. This enabled me to spend the summer of 2006 at the African Studies Centre (ASC) of the University of Leiden in the capacity of a guest researcher. I am grateful to NWO-WOTRO for this financial support. My thanks are also due to Professor Peter Geschiere (Amsterdam University) who supervised my studies during my post-doctoral research in the Netherlands. Finally, I would like to thank Professor Piet Konings, who let me share his office during my stay, and the Centre of African Studies, for access to its rich library on Africa.


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Abwa, D. (2001) 'Terre ancestrale et domaine foncier: du conflit a la complementarite' (contribution to the debate on 'Gestion de la terre ancestrale et du domaine national dans une societe multiethnique'), INPAGT Tribune 18 (September): 10-11.

Banock, M. (1992) Le Processus de democratisation en Afrique: le cas du Cameroun. Paris: l'Harmattan.

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Coquery-Vidrovitch, C. (ed) (1974) Le Congo au temps des grandes compagnies concessionnaires, 1898-1930. Paris and The Hague: Mouton.

--(1982) Histoire des villes et des societes humaines: villes colonials. Paris: Laboratoire Connaissance du Tiers-monde, l'Harmattan.

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(1) Translated from the original French by Stephanie Kitchen, International African Institute.

(2) For an idea of these numerous texts, see those collected and edited by Hubert Ngabmen (n.d.).

(3) Cf. Cyprian Fisiy (1992: 23-53) for a detailed analysis of how laws on land reform have evolved in Cameroon.

(4) Mandessi Bell stresses that these newly demarcated lands would be 'owned by the Cameroon nation and administered by the state, which would be responsible for their redistribution in line with the economic and social development objectives in the country'.

(5) Douala Rene Bell, paramount chief of the Sawa, used to declare that in the town of Douala, 'the Bamileke have the land and the Duala have the soil', in other words, 'the ancestral land'. Put differently, the migrants, a majority of whom are of Bamileke ethnicity, who bought much land in Douala, and 'invaded' this Cameroonian economic metropolis, can only claim a restricted right over the town. Despite their clear economic domination, the indigenous soil or 'ancestral lands' of the Bamileke are elsewhere, notably in the west of the country, where they 'go every weekend, for burials, to make sacrifices to the ancestors, and for funerals'.

(6) With respect to French Equatorial Africa, Coquery-Vidrovitch has also discussed the thoughtless alienation of the indigenous people from their lands to the benefit of the big concessionary companies. See Coquery-Vidrovitch 1974.

(7) The same procedure was used in Senegal, another French colony in West Africa, where on 5 November 1930 the Civil Code of the French Republic was applied in literal terms (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1982: 73). From this point onwards, French law determined land transactions between the French citizens and the Senegalese.

(8) It is useful to note at this point that the colonial lands were considered to be simply an extension of France's national domain. Consequently, French citizens had an entitlement to them, in conformity with French law. The following example is illustrative. In a draft law on the extension of the French state's domain to the colonies presented by Guillain, the Minister for the Colonies in 1898, it was explicitly stated that 'the vast territories of our colonial empire, which are an extension of the French nation, constitute the common property of all French people, and as a result, must be considered as part of the national domain, and not constitute local dominions in each colony'.

(9) Two recent occurrences illustrate the vigorous resistance of the indigenous peoples of Yaounde and the surrounding areas to the public authorities' brutal compulsory land acquisitions. The first was the camp of the Nsimalen people on the landing strip of the international airport built in that locality. In response, the Nsimalen denounced the expropriation of their ancestors' land, and demanded compensation for damages. The second protest action was mounted by the Ngousso people of a neighbourhood in the north-east of Yaounde, who repelled with stones and machetes a delegation of the Prime Minister of Cameroon that had come to lay the foundation stone of a dispensary sponsored by a partnership with the Chinese. In both cases, the populations succeeded and received compensation after they had withdrawn.

(10) In Yaounde, the minimum price of a square metre of land is fixed at CFA2,500. Cf. Circular No. 0001 of 22 March 1994 by the Deputy Prime Minister, responsible for urban planning and housing, setting minimum sale prices of the land.

(11) See Order No. 73-4 of 6 July 1974 'relating to the procedure of expropriation for purpose of public use and compensation mechanisms', which explains the compensation procedures in articles 7, 8 and 9.

(12) A good example of a defeated act of resistance was the hanging of Rudolf Duala Manga Bell, Chief of the Duala, and his secretary Ngoso Din shortly after the Germans settled in Cameroon. In effect, according to the treaty of 12 July 1884 signed by the Duala and the Germans, which made Cameroon a German protectorate, the Cameroon territory was taken into German national ownership. The chiefs of Duala expressed rive objections, the third of which denounced the German state's claims over the Cameroonian lands. This reservation stipulated that 'The lands that we cultivate and the sites of villages should be the property of their current owners and their offspring.' For the case of Yaounde, see Ateba Yene (1988).

(13) See the general literature on the history of Yaounde for accounts of the segregationist policies of the French administration as applied to the distribution of the urban areas in Yaounde between the white and black populations.

(14) In fact, 'Mokolo' is a remote small town in the Far North Region of Cameroon, about 800 km from the capital Yaounde.

(l5) The Societe Immobiliere du Cameroun was formed in 1958, MAGZI in 1971 and MAETUR in 1977. These institutions are involved directly and indirectly in the development of housing in urban Cameroon (Pettang et al. 1995; Pettang 1998).

(16) The development and equipping of a plot of land involve allocating the plot and the installation of water supply, electrification, telephone infrastructure, road and service connections. Land equipped with this infrastructure is valued more highly than land without these amenities, as in areas without existing housing.

(17) This area includes the neighbourhood of Nsimeyong, where we carried out our fieldwork.

(18) Simbock is a quarter on the periphery of Nsimeyong. Most of the people forcibly cleared off their land by the state authorities have piled into this area.

(19) Cameroon People's Democratic Movement, the ruling political party in Cameroon.

(20) Soa is situated in the suburbs of Yaounde, about 15 kilometres from the city centre.

(21) Mongo Beti, whose real name is Alexandre Biyidi, is a renowned Cameroonian writer. He is from the Beti ethnic group.

(22) It is highly unlikely that an incomer could simply demarcate a piece of land and start building his hut on it. The indigenous people sell these lands to the incomers in a proper fashion.

(23) The area south of Ngoa-Ekelle, where the university campus of Yaounde I is situated, has been resold by the indigenous people even though the land was under the ownership of the Universite de Yaounde I. The new owners quickly built student accommodation there. In the present climate, it would be unthinkable that this area would be demolished, under any pretext. Any such initiative could spark protests on the campus, or indeed even in the capital city.

DOI: 10.3366/E0001972010000768

ANTOINE SOCPA obtained a PhD in Social Anthropology at Leiden University in 2002 and is the author of Democratisation et autochtonie au Cameroun (Leiden University Press, 2003). He has also published several articles in international journals in the fields of medical and political anthropology. He is presently affiliated to the Department of Anthropology, University of Yaounde I and has served as Executive Secretary of the Pan African Association of Anthropologists (PAAA) since 2004.
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Date:Sep 22, 2010
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