Land is not in short supply in south Sudan, where Philippe Heilberg, a US businessman, has laid claim to 4,000 sq km of fertile territory in a deal with the family of a notorious warlord. But then neither was it when Cecil Rhodes extracted mineral rights from King Lobengula of the Ndebele and used these to push the frontiers of the British empire beyond the Limpopo river. Some 120 years later, Zimbabwe is still struggling to overcome a legacy of unequal land distribution.
Mr Heilberg is a former Wall Street banker whose private investment company, Jarch Capital, counts former CIA, State department and Pentagon officials on its board. He may be no Rhodes – his recent forays into Africa have yet to bear much fruit and include an acrimonious dispute over claims to an oil concession in south Sudan. His latest venture does, though, have a decidedly 19th-century flavour to it.
It is the largest private land deal in Africa yet – involving the lease of a huge tract of remote territory bordering the Nile. Because ownership laws remain vague in south Sudan, Mr Heilberg concedes that the deal depends as much on control exerted by Paulino Matip, the warlord whose son’s company claims rights to some of the land, as it does on legal title.
As such it could set a dangerous precedent. A certain class of businessman has thrived on a high-risk, high-reward formula in African conflict zones. Where state authority has crumbled, rights of ownership are murky at best but staking claims can prove lucrative.
Since the days of Rhodes, speculators have often been drawn to the minerals in which so much of Africa is rich. The scramble for their control has fuelled recent conflicts, while legal wrangling has often rendered valuable assets unproductive for years after conflicts end. It would be a tragedy for Africa if land, perhaps the greatest of all its resources, became a victim of the same dynamic.
Foreign investor interest has been sparked by the spike in commodity prices last year and the global concern about future food supplies that has followed. There are vast expanses of arable land in Africa lying fallow. Gulf and Asian countries as well as western businesses are taking note.
There is a need for investment if the continent’s full agricultural potential is to be achieved. At a time of growing shortages, there is also an obvious need for African governments to prioritise domestic supplies. If the continent is to avoid repeating history, the big deals and speculation should come later.