Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 2 September 2009

The madness of land and property values in Khartoum (1-2)

By Ahmed Elzobier

September 1, 2009 — Despite poor infrastructure, poor social services and lack of leisure activities, Khartoum remains one of the most expensive cities in Africa in term of real state value. Call it madness, but with a price of ordinary house in Khartoum you could buy three or two apartments in Cairo. But why?

Sudan is the largest country in Africa with an area of one million squares miles, ten times the size of the UK. But the country’s estimated 37 million population is densely concentrated in its centre and more specifically around the capital city Khartoum, where current estimates indicate that about thirty percent of the nation’s people live. This situation means that the various problems associated with land distribution in the capital are a major cause for concern.

Khartoum has a relatively short history. It was first established as a military base for the Turko-Egyptian colonial administration in 1821 and grew rapidly in prosperity during the boom years of the slave trade, between 1825 and 1880. In 1834 it became the capital of the Sudan. After 1898 the British began to rebuild the city and designed the layout of streets in the shape of the British flag, the Union Jack, which they hoped would make it easier to defend.

The land and property ownership official legislation dates back to Sudan’s British colonial administration in 1905 and 1925. However, the 1925 Land Act was drafted by British administrators who were influenced by their motherland’s tendencies where land was often granted to those who had influence, or links to the British royal family. Consequently, Sudan inherited a semi-feudal legal system of land tenure. The Sunday Times newspaper reported in its 2006 Rich List survey, that land and property owners are considered among the richest people in the United Kingdom – “there are few cities that look like London in that they’re owned by single large families”, observed one property development specialist.

Bizarrely, land and property issue in Khartoum emulated what was reported in London. The British administration distributed land and property with a colonial ethnic hierarchy set-up in place, where priority was given to the Europeans and Egyptians, and traders who are mostly Greeks, Syrians, Jewish and Copts. Then to Sudanese families with colonial connections and influence, in some part as political favours. After independence, downtown Khartoum was owned exclusively by very few families, notable among them was the Abdel Monaiem Family, Abu Al Ela, Shiekh Mustfa Al Amien, and of course the two dominant sectarian families, Al Merghani and Al Mahadi. The rest of the city was offered to the junior Sudanese officials working in the colonial administration offices, while the workers and labourers were offered small pieces of land south of the railway station at the time.

Today’s Khartoum has expanded exponentially to accommodate a rapidly-growing population. According to the “Adil Mustafa Ahmad and Ata El-Hassan El-Batthani paper on Poverty in Khartoum (1995)”, this migration to Khartoum began after independence 1956, when laws restricting movement inside the country were abolished and areas previously declared “closed” were opened. However, much of the migration to Khartoum in recent years has been a response to a series of natural and non-natural disasters. The civil war that has been waged in the south for over four decades has destabilized life and displaced a great number of people. According to recent a publication by the Ministry of Urban Planning and Public Utilities, Khartoum state now has an area of 22,122 km2 and an estimated population of approximately eight million.

After independence new laws concerning land tenure were developed on the principle, introduced by the British, that unregistered land is assumed to be owned by the government unless the contrary is proven.

Suleiman Rahhal and A. H. Abdel Salam observed in their paper “Land rights, natural resources tenure and land reform”, that Sudan has many problems of land ownership in common with other countries in Africa. It has customary systems of land tenure for farmers and pastoralists, existing alongside “modern” land law. Customary systems are varied, including the historic land charters of the Nubian, Funj and Fur states, the semi-feudal systems developed close to the Nile, especially in the areas dominated by the Al Mahdi and Mirghani families, and the unwritten land ownership traditions of communities such as the Nuba and Southern peoples.

In the 1980s and 1990s vast tracts of land in rural and urban areas have been allotted to investors. The end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century witnessed an unprecedented scale of land commercialization in both the registered and unregistered land sectors. In the registered sector, poor subsistence farmers are being pushed to sell their title without full awareness of the implications of doing so. In the unregistered domain, land grabbing – by Government officials, the military, private investors, land speculators, religious groups and urban residents – is increasing, as observed by the ODI Land report in 2007.

The 1990 Land Allocation Act specified clearly the direct involvement of the government in the commercialization of land in Sudan, in the selling of land to those who can afford it in public auction. Furthermore, the Act gave unprecedented powers to the Minster of Urban Planning to distribute land as it suits him, an open invitation for frenzied corruption as has been the case since 1990.

Rahhal and Abdel Salam also observed that successive governments’ policies on housing for city dwellers have always been based on simply allocating land for the needy with the assumption that the recipients could somehow build their own residences. This was given the name “housing plan”. These housing plans have rarely been implemented in the way that was envisaged, partly because the high cost of construction means that the recipients of land allocation have not been able to build houses of the anticipated standard.

Ahmed Elzobier, is a Sudan Tribune. journalist He can be reached at ahmed.elzobir@gmail.com.