Thursday, June 20, 2024

Stemming the illegal land development quagmire


A field of cotton plants thriving in Milanzi. Peasant farmers are greeting paid peanuts by private buyers for their efforts in growing the cash crop

Illegality in land allocation has been in the news lately with the Vice President expressing concern about the rampant encroachment on land on the Copperbelt. In the Daily Mail of 11th November the President through the Presidential Affairs Minister has also weighed in on this and warned developers to follow procedure in land development.

Is this awakening by the politicians too little too late? It must be said that Illegal land allocation became endemic since the early 90s when we liberalised the economy and made land an economic commodity without seriously putting in place policy that would guide land administrators on how land allocation should be done in an equitable and just way. We also allowed cadres to administer and demarcate land with impunity. The Ministry of Lands has flimsy guidelines concerning land alienation. Specifically, with respect to allocation of land it merely states that “once the land is numbered and surveyed the local authorities may advertise the stands in the news media or any transparent medium, inviting developers to apply to the Commissioner of Lands through the local authorities, using a prescribed form. On receipt of the applications, the local authorities will select the most suitable applicants for the stands and make recommendations in writing to the Commissioner of Lands, giving reasons supporting the recommendations. This recommendation letter will be accompanied by the full set of Council minutes”. The guidance to the councils is to select the most suitable applicants and make recommendations. How do they measure suitability? This is not clear and allows subjective selection of applicants.

Recent Land controversies

We recently saw PF cadres haranguing the Copperbelt minister at Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe airport apparently because he had started talking tough on illegal land allocation on the Copperbelt. Although the PF on the Copperbelt have come out and stated that the difference with Bowman Lusambo is to do with him setting up parallel structures and not the issue of illegal land allocation, it would appear that the land allocation saga has ruffled a number of PF feathers- to the extent that one CK has purportedly been sucked in the quick sand and lost all his feathers. Lately, we have also heard of the “self-allocation” of land by Kabwe councillors who in their wisdom decreed in biblical fashion thus: “Let us give ourselves plots before anyone else for it is not good for councillors to compete with mere mortals”. And they saw that it was good!

We have also seen cases where settlers at Star Cottage in Lusaka West have been ordered to vacate land that some have occupied for a long time. Similar news items coming from Kasama about a degazetted forest being shared by senior civil servants and those with connections. Clearly there are challenges in the land allocation system in the country.

Firstly with regard to the Copperbelt land saga especially the one around the Kafubu river and Levy Mwanawasa stadium, councils have lamentably failed to contain the upsurge of illegal developments because land allocation and development control has been handed over to political patronage-cadres or as Bowman puts it ,criminals have been let loose to be planners, surveyors and commissioners of land.

Those in the political space belonging to the ruling party (sometimes merely waving the party flag) have tended to usurp the power of allocation and development monitoring rendering councils impotent to do anything. We cannot have people building in designated car park spaces, play park areas and protected ecological areas with impunity and with tacit acquiesce of the local councils. Further, the councils’ building inspection units are more or less non-existent and cannot cope with developments taking place in full glare of the public. It is not uncommon therefore to see that most developments do not have building permits. Councils can even claim they did not see that there was this or that development as if such developments happened at night and was erased in the day!

Secondly for the Kabwe case we see a situation where councillors in their sincerity believe that they are entitled to be allocated land without competition (Ubomba mwibala alya mwibala). Similar problems have arisen in Kasama at the degazetted forest. Government officials conniving with Ministry of Lands officials have gone ahead and allocated themselves pieces of land without the due process being followed. This is because there is no criteria on how land allocation should be done. The Land Circular of 1985 which forms the basis of the guidance earlier quoted does not go far enough to advise councillors that they are not entitled to land allocation by merely being councillors. Even if they are the ones who are going to conduct the interviews they must subject themselves to criteria that should be set out clearly.

On the issue of Star Cottage land belonging the office of the president, which was partly invaded by illegal squatters, it would appear there are also others who have been on that land since the early fifties whose eviction is grossly unfair. While we do not recognise undocumented occupation of land in state land areas we should appreciate that if someone has occupied land for a period such as over 20 years without contestation there has to be recognition that that person has a legitimate right to claim that land. We understand that section 35 of the Lands and Deeds Registry bars ownership through adverse possession where land is held on title by someone else. However, in the case of the Star Cottage it appears the earlier settlers might be disadvantage by this law and there is need for equity in determining this case. Going forward we need a prescription law or law that allows for adverse possession so that the poor and vulnerable in our society are protected from unnecessary evictions. This will protect those that have genuinely settled on land for a long time and have no contestation from anyone including the owner. One would expect that a matter like this need to be addressed by the Lands Tribunal so as to ascertain and arbitrate for those who genuinely made this land their village and those who took advantage and squatted in the area. Those that took advantage of the community and settled amongst them illegally recently do not deserve to be spared eviction.


We therefore propose
1. Guidelines must be formulated on land allocation procedure which not only talk about advertising and interviewing but also consider equitable distribution of land to the youth, women and vulnerable in society. Otherwise we now find that land is being held and allocated to the same people with connections to the system.

2. As a first step towards decentralisation large councils such as Lusaka and Ndola need to be have offices in the suburbs where monitoring and control could be better effected. It didn’t need the Vice President and Lusambo to notice that illegal building activities where taking place in Ndola. Mere issuance of demolition notices is not enough as these are easily ignored. We need to enforce the notice by actual demolition so that people begin to see that we are serious in what we want to achieve in protecting our land.

3. Councils need to be capacitated with skilled manpower in land survey, planning and administration who will ensure that land is properly zoned, planned and surveyed according to planning ethos. We do not lack laws- we lack implementation. The number of Building inspectors is very small and as result we are not coping with development control issues in our cities and towns.

4. Our new constitution spells out the principles on which land shall be held. Among these principles is that there shall be equitable access to land and that security of tenure for all who hold legally shall be guaranteed. Equitable access therefore suggests that the poor and vulnerable must have a means to access land without them perpetually being tenants to the elite and the powerful. However, as is known land use takes on the most economic use and often those who are poor are often “convinced” to sell their land to those with the financial means who are better able to use that land for financial gain. This pushes the poor to the fringes. Even as we debate the ever evasive land policy we must take cognisance of the need to be equitable in our dealings on land and ensure that we protect this resource for the future generation. We owe it to ourselves and our children to correct the chaos that has beset the land administration sector.

By E.Tembo


  1. That’s why your name is Mzungu, Government should instead focus on serious economic instead of wasting its time on making Zambians moor poor

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