By Mading Ngor
JUBA (Reuters) - With hundreds of thousands of ethnic South Sudanese returning home after South Sudan became independent last year, land disputes are intensifying and a dearth of land laws means the new country is unable to cope, a senior land official said.
Chairperson of the South Sudan Land Commission Robert Ladu said the influx was fuelling violence and threatening security in the new nation's capital Juba.
"Juba is swelling too much because returnees are coming by roads, they're coming by river, and they're coming by air," Ladu told Reuters in an interview.
South Sudan seceded from Sudan under a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war. The new government is struggling to build state institutions and impose the rule of law, while the judicial system lacks trained judges and lawyers.
Ethnic southerners who had been living and working in north Sudan - many for their whole lives - have returned in droves since the country voted to secede in a 2011 referendum promised under the peace deal.
Few of the returnees own land or have enough money to buy it and they face squalid living conditions in the South, where they have thronged urban centers and strained already scarce services and resources.
Those who can afford to buy land have tried to do so as quickly as possible, exposing them to "conmen" who sold them plots without proper papers, Ladu said. Disputes erupt when the original owners come to claim the land, he said.
"The outcome of that has been conflict over land," Ladu said. "They are many. Imagine, I have just seen two near my house."
Some 80 percent of cases involving land disputes are not being heard, Ladu said, recommending the government set up a temporary tribunal to handle the backlog, a step he said would help prevent parties from rushing for quick fixes.
"The land tribunal is very important. The cases related to land are not handled expeditiously," he said.
Some foreign investors are also being tripped up by the lack of legal structure because some entered leases without adhering to proper procedures, Ladu said.
He said South Sudan will not honor pre-war contracts which were awarded to foreign companies by Khartoum, except ones which dealt with oil.
Ladu added that the country's parliament also needed an overall policy on the use of land over the longer term.
"We want to give land for foreign investments. With the land policy, we even would be able to legislate laws like the lease law," he said.
"What are the periods of leases; in which areas; if it's for investment, agricultural purpose, residential purpose for foreign leasing - all these have to be specified in accordance with the law," he said.
(Editing by Alexander Dziadosz and Myra MacDonald)