Agricultural Reform in Rwanda: Authoritarianism, Markets and Zones of Governance

Agricultural Reform in Rwanda: Authoritarianism, Markets and Zones of Governance

by Chris Huggins


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International observers have lauded Rwanda as an example of an African country that has taken control of its own development trajectory, and thus as a market-friendly destination for investment. A key component of this has been an ambitious program of agricultural reform, involving private firms, NGOs, and international charities. The Rwandan government claims these reforms have been a resounding success, tripling crop yields and helping to combat hunger. But, as Chris Huggins argues, Rwanda’s liberal, modern image sits poorly beside the regime’s continuing authoritarian tendencies.
Featuring in-depth case studies of the effects of agricultural reform in three different regions, and drawing on hundreds of interviews, Huggins shows that the much-vaunted liberalization of agriculture has, in fact, depended on the coercion of Rwandan farmers, and in many cases has had a detrimental impact on their livelihoods. With the Kagame regime now coming under increasing international scrutiny, this work provides a timely look at the impact of this contradictory market-friendly authoritarianism in contemporary Africa, which will be of interest to students and scholars of development in the fields of sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786990013
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 05/15/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

ChrisHuggins is an assistant professor at the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottowa, an adjunct professor at the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, and a non-resident research fellow at the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS). His previous books include Conflict and Housing, Land, and Property Rights and From the Ground Up: Land Rights,Conflictand Peace in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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Contemporary agricultural reforms in sub-Saharan Africa

Agricultural reform is an important part of the agrarian question; the study of how changing relations between land, labour and capital result in ongoing reconfiguration of agricultural production, rural livelihoods and class relations (Harrison 2016; Akram-Lodhi and Kay 2010; Bernstein 2009). The agrarian question was addressed quite explicitly through reforms in some countries from the 1940s to the 1970s (Bernstein 2007: 32). However, the 1980s and 1990s were characterized by neglect of the agricultural sector and landownership questions within international development and domestic policy-making in most sub-Saharan countries. This was partly due to a perception that past agricultural interventions had not succeeded (World Bank 2007) and partly due to the Structural Adjustment Policies and other austerity measures. However, agriculture regained priority status for foreign development spending in the 2000s, as signalled, for example, by the World Bank's World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development (Akram-Lodhi 2008). In 2009, the heads of state of the 'Group of 8' (G8) political forum committed to giving US$20 billion for agricultural development over three years (Binswanger-Mkhizeet et al. 2010). In the African context, key events include the launch of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) in 2003 as part of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), an African Union initiative; the creation of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2006 with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and numerous bilateral and multilateral organizations; as well as the launch of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in 2012.

Contemporary emphasis on agricultural policy reform is based on the assumption that investing in agriculture in Africa – particularly in services aimed at smallholder farmers – can do more than just improve food security. Many organizations argue that agricultural policy reform and increased funding can stimulate macroeconomic growth; enable farmers and communities to adapt to climate change; and reduce environmental degradation (see, e.g., Munang et al. 2015; AGRA 2014; NEPAD 2013; Annan 2008). They may also see such efforts as a means of increasing socio-political stability and demonstrating the ability of the state – and the market – to intervene in the everyday lives of the poor; though these objectives are not necessarily explicit. It is often assumed that agricultural interventions in sub-Saharan Africa can have substantial multidimensional impacts because more than half of the population relies directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihood; with this figure rising to 80 per cent or higher for some countries. In addition, many people are food insecure: 23.2 per cent of the sub-Saharan African population were estimated to be undernourished in 2014-16 (FAO, IFAD and WFP 2015: 12).

When multiple food security, economic, environmental and political goals are pursued simultaneously, at different scales (e.g. individual, household, national or regional levels), it becomes important to examine how goals are prioritized and how trade-offs between goals are managed. It is particularly important to note that contemporary policy-making does not explicitly frame rural development in terms of an agrarian question. Redistributive land reform is no longer seen, by most multilateral, bilateral and state institutions, as viable; and economic differentiation amongst rural smallholder farmers (i.e. winners and losers from processes of agricultural transformation) is not comprehensively addressed. There is an emphasis on market processes and an underlying assumption that market dynamics will lead, over time, to positive outcomes for the majority.

These assumptions have not always been dominant, however. Before focusing on the details of contemporary agricultural reform in Africa, it is important to examine the historical background to state- or donor-led interventions, and changing trends in policy prescriptions.

Historical overview of major agricultural reform trends in Africa

The kinds of agricultural policies and large-scale interventions associated with the modern nation-state date from the colonial period. However, it should be acknowledged that the slave trade prior to widespread colonization had a tremendous human cost and also affected agricultural production, with social and economic relations becoming destabilized, leading to famine in some areas (Warnock 1987: 96; Rodney 1974).

European powers generally claimed formal colonial control over African states from the 1880s onwards. Colonial interventions in sub-Saharan Africa, by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom, had different characteristics. For example, some colonial countries became 'settler states', with settlers deeply involved in commercial agriculture; while in others, the colonial presence amounted to only a small administrative class. In all cases, however, the economy of the colony was harnessed primarily to benefit the colonial power. These systems were based on unequal economic and political relations maintained through a fiction of racial superiority and the threat, and not infrequent use, of violence.

The international food regimes literature (Friedmann and McMichael 1989) identifies the diverse colonial approaches to agriculture and land use. One of the objectives of the imperial project, in many cases, was to export cheap agricultural goods from the global South to feed the new working classes in the industrializing West (Patel 2007: 57). In some places, rural inhabitants were encouraged or forced to convert their previously diverse livelihood strategies to the production of a single export crop, such as rubber in Congo; cocoa in Cote d'Ivoire; coffee, tea and sisal in Kenya; and peanuts in Senegal (McMichael 2008: 32, 35). Cash crops were chosen for their industrial value (e.g. cotton or sisal) or commercial value, not necessarily their nutritional value (Warnock 1987: 102). The production of non-food crops left less labour and land available for subsistence production, and hence may have had negative nutritional impacts (ibid.).

Modes of production in colonial countries varied but in settler states tended to be split between, first, intensive corporate plantation agriculture; second, farming by European settlers using African labour; and third, more extensive smallholder agriculture producing crops for export. Warnock (ibid.) differentiates between West Africa, where small-scale production of commercial crops was prioritized; western Central Africa, where emphasis was placed on natural resources (timber and wild rubber); Southern Africa, where the mining sector was prioritized and cash-cropping by African peasants was discouraged to encourage men to work in mining; and East Africa, where plantation agriculture, peasant production and white settler farming were all significant (p. 100). Extensive frameworks of regulations, laws and punishments were established to ensure that smallholders produced the desired crops. In Burundi and Rwanda, for example, every household was expected to plant coffee, and uprooting coffee bushes was a criminal offence (Oketch and Polzer 2002). Social relations were altered, as men migrated to work on plantations, and women took over new roles on the farm; the spread of a Western notion of private property often resulted in the loss of access to land by women in particular (McMichael 2008: 34.) The introduction of commercial wage relations and other financial arrangements generally 'weakened social networks as tools for access to resources' (Ponte 2000: 1019). Owing to the introduction of new smallholder relationships with settler plantation agriculture or commercial corporations, 'a peasantry emerged in colonial Africa where it had not already existed, i.e. in Ethiopia, northern Nigeria, and Uganda' (Lubeck 1992: 527, citing Post 1972; Cooper 1981a, b).

In settler colonies such as Zimbabwe and South Africa, the colonial agricultural system was based upon massive forced displacements of African communities to unfavourable agro-ecological zones, and the accumulation of high-potential land for large-scale commercial farming and ranching by European settlers. Migration towards mining areas, particularly in southern Africa, put food production systems under strain owing to a lack of farm labour (Chabal 1994: 185). Land, the terms of agricultural labour and other agrarian concerns were major drivers of anti-colonial sentiment in settler states, where the dispossession of Africans and the systematic bias towards commercial farm activities that benefited whites were particularly visible. Many anti-colonial liberation movements made commitments to redistribute land and restructure rural production systems.

However, while access to land often changed in many rural areas across Africa, colonial rule did not involve a comprehensive structural change in terms of agricultural technologies and practices. There was very limited agri-processing within African countries, and the agricultural sector was not transformed through yield-increasing, labour-saving or value-adding technologies (Warnock 1987: 101). As Moore (2005) points out, colonialism often involved 'a linking of a "communal" mode of production with capitalism's circuits, bureaucratic administrators and plantation owners' (p. 251). Although smallholder farming has changed over the last fifty years, remnants of customary modes of production arguably persist today, and much debate around agricultural reform in Africa concerns the ways in which smallholders might be 'integrated' into networks of commercial, state and non-governmental actors involved in processing, marketing and developing new varieties of commercial crops.

Colonial agricultural production in Rwanda

Unlike many African regions, the area we now call Rwanda had a well-established hierarchical power structure in place when European explorers arrived in 1894, though this was by no means uncontested. The Rwandan monarchy, led by the Mwami (king), had expanded its control over land and labour in the decades prior to the arrival of Europeans. In agricultural systems, land rights were initially vested in individuals recognized to have cleared the land, known as abakonde, who then granted parcels of land to members of their kin groups (lineages). The abakonde could also grant land to individuals outside of their kin group, who were known as clients, or abagererwa. In this case, access to the land often depended on regular payments in kind, especially through labour, from the clients to the abakonde (Des Forges 2006). With the expansion of the Rwandan state, much land came under the control of the Mwami, and was administered by his representatives. Access to this land depended on political allegiance to the Mwami as well as the payment of tribute, often in the form of labour. Access to land could be withdrawn temporally or permanently, and was in general quite insecure (André 1998); the indigenous Batwa minority, in particular, lost their customary rights to land in many areas (Huggins 2009b). At times, especially in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, labour requirements associated with this tenure system became extremely arduous and a cause of much anger. Women's control over resources, in particular, was constrained under this system: for example, the land held in common by the lineage, which could often be accessed by women, came under central control and was hence no longer widely available (Jefremovas 1991).

The Mwami (king) died in 1885, and the ensuing succession struggle allowed Germany to claim the area as its colony. At this point, the territory that is now known as Rwanda was administered as part of a larger entity known as Ruanda-Urundi. The colonial regime supported the Mwami, and helped him to expand his territorial control through conquest and political manoeuvring. The Mwami and his local subordinates (chiefs and sub-chiefs) continued to wield considerable power over all land during the colonial period. Different Mwami adjusted the powers and responsibilities of chiefs and sub-chiefs to enhance control by the central aristocracy (Jefremovas 1997). Each hill (the most common descriptor of the micro-level spatial environment in Rwanda) would typically be under the control of two or three sub-chiefs, each with different responsibilities (for example, for military recruitment; managing land tenure issues; or for organizing cattle grazing) (Pottier 2002; Mamdani 2001). However, the forms of land tenure over which they presided, control over labour, abilities to mobilize local men for warfare, and other characteristics of rule fluctuated over time. The Germans, and later the Belgians, exercised their power largely through existing institutions. However, they did intervene in these institutions to shape local governance.

At the end of the First World War Rwanda became a Trust Territory under the League of Nations, which mandated Belgium as the administrative authority for Ruanda-Urundi. The years 1926-33 are associated with the major administrative and economic changes imposed by the Belgian authorities. The Belgians codified some customary practices regarding land and cattle, transferring some customary practices into written form. The Belgian administrators gave enforcement powers over these regulations to local officials and to a system of 'native' courts. This had the result of creating serious land tenure insecurity for the vast majority of the population.

The gendered distribution of labour was altered during the colonial period, when women were largely excluded from the increasingly important cash economy, and men were forced to integrate further into the money economy (Jefremovas 2002). The colonial authorities drained marshes for agriculture, and promoted cultivation of cotton, coffee and oil palm for export, while also insisting on production of root crops for household consumption (as Rwanda had previously been affected by famines) (Takeuchi and Marara 2000). Chiefs used the unpaid ubureetwa labour of the local Hutu population to meet colonial quotas for production of coffee and other export crops, as well as to work on the chief's own private farms (Newbury 1988: 142). Anti-erosion terraces and other soil-and-water conservation approaches were made mandatory (Takeuchi and Marara 2000). 'Almost all the surplus generated by men's labour was appropriated by the elite and the state, through corvé, taxes and wage labour ... it was primarily women's labour and women's activities that maintained and reproduced the household' (Jefremovas 2002: 382). Though some changes were made in the post-colonial era, women were not generally able to access land through customary land tenure systems as they had in the past (Pottier 2002; Jefremovas 2002). While men tend to enjoy control over the financial benefits of cash cropping and other commercial activities, 'women are still responsible for daily subsistence and still do most of the heavy labour' (Jefremovas 2002: 382).

Post-colonial agricultural policies in sub-Saharan Africa

While the experience of each country was different, the decolonization process in Africa did not necessarily lead to major changes in state agricultural policies. In the 1960s African countries were considered food secure, and 'there seemed to be no great need to pay special attention to the food sector' (Holmen 2005: 88). Many countries continued to rely upon a few key exports, such as tea, coffee or minerals, for foreign exchange. This changed during the 1970s, when several countries experienced food insecurity (ibid.). There was a 'broad consensus' during this period, not just amongst African governments but many donors as well, that 'government intervention in agricultural markets could spur production' (Wiemers 2015: 106). However, policies shifted over time, in response to international economic conditions as well as domestic politics and donor influence. This section addresses key patterns in agricultural policies from the 1960s to the early 1980s, while a following section looks at the 1980s onwards.

Agricultural marketing boards, through which the colonial state set farm-gate prices of commodities, remained in place in most countries. So did state controls over the import and distribution of fertilizer and other agricultural inputs, which were generally subsidized. Market food prices were often regulated by the state, and tended to favour urban consumers, not rural producers. African governments also accepted food aid, which they distributed to build loyalty among urban citizens and support the growth of urban working classes (Friedmann 2006). This urban bias was seen more generally in agricultural policies (Bates 1981) and mirrors similar anti-agricultural economic policies in low-income countries in Asia and Latin America (Krueger et al. 1991). Direct taxes on agriculture (such as export taxes) were less significant than indirect mechanisms, such as artificially high foreign exchange rates (Birner and Resnick 2010). In countries where elites were heavily involved in agriculture, this bias was less evident and there tended to be fewer mechanisms to keep food prices low (Bates 1981).


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Table of Contents

1 Contemporary agricultural reforms in sub-Saharan Africa
2 Theorizing governance in post-genocide Rwanda
3 An overview of the political economy of agricultural reform in Rwanda
4 Rwanda’s engagement with international aid and foreign direct investment
5 Systems of governmentality and discipline in Rwanda
6 Agricultural cooperatives in Musanze District
7 Pyrethrum production in Northern Province
8 Maize production and ‘fugitive farmers’ in Kirehe District

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