Even the continent's most functional governments can't always avoid violence.
"Up until recently, you would have said Kenya" was a model of successful land reform, says Donald Steinberg, deputy president for policy of the International Crisis Group. The violence that followed the 2007 election, he says, suggests generations-old land grievances – the colonial dispossession of the Kikuyu and the postcolonial dispossession of other tribes, in decades of tit-for-tat land policy – haven't been resolved.
Then, there are countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, where government is fragile – and corrupt. In those environments, says Ms. Nielsen, "you have enormous potential for elite capture. The minute you start [to] document [land] rights, the people who have the most power are going to have every reason to take rights from the people who have the least power." Tinkering with land policy – as in, say, Darfur – "is lighting the match, potentially, that causes the fire."
The TART SCENT OF MOLDY PAPER fills the archive of Liberia's national deed registry, a small room rimmed with bookshelves that hold crumbling tomes, some a half-century old. Inside the books, scribes have documented, with painstakingly clear penmanship, who sold what to whom. The books contain errors and contradictions and sometimes outright fraud; it's not uncommon for two people to produce paperwork they believe entitles them to the same piece of land.