Senegal airport row shows land right tensions in West Africa

le 18/08/2015

The piles of concrete and twisted metal in the Tobago neighbourhood beside Dakar’s international airport were home to Senegalese families until bulldozers arrived last month without warning.

A line of six homes remain, given a reprieve until the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Looking at the rubble of their former homes, the head of the residents’ association says he does not believe the government’s explanation that the houses were a security risk.

After all, said Daouda Mbengue, the airport was due to move to a new site outside Dakar next year.

« If you say the airport will be closed in six months, why demolish homes that have been there for five years? » said Mbengue, 47, an economist by training. « We’re convinced there is another reason that people cannot say. »

The demolitions come amid a bitter dispute over who owns the vast airport site, pitting the government against the local Lebou tribe who laid claim to the land before France colonised the narrow Dakar peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean.

Occupying more than one-fifth of Dakar – a fast-growing and chaotic city home to a quarter of Senegal’s 14 million people – the land may be worth tens of millions of dollars. Its use will likely determine the future of the capital for decades to come.

The Taanka tribe, a sub-section of the Lebou, say they ceded their ancestral lands to the government only for the purpose of an airport and now they want it back. A protest led by the Collective of Taanka Youth led to clashes with military police in May and three arrests.

« Our villages are very crowded. There is not enough space, » said Mame Birane Mbengue, 35, the coordinator for the Taanka Youth Collective. « We want to take these lands to build schools, hospitals and houses too to give to the three villages. »

The row highlights growing tensions over land rights in West Africa as the region’s economies turn to statute law to enshrine investment, often placing governments and foreign investors at odds with long-established tribal customs.

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Source : farmlandgrab