In the contemporary African context of rising competition and anxiety over access to land, neoliberal policy interventions designed to clarify property rights, broaden political participation and increase official accountability have frequently provoked rather than alleviated social and political conflict. Comparing case histories of local struggles over land and authority in selected rural areas in Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and Bénin, this paper argues that in situations where access to land has been linked historically to claims on authority and social belonging, pressures to privatize or clarify ownership have intensified debates over citizenship and governance as well as over land claims per se. Ensuing struggles over land and entitlement have intersected with national as well as local economic and political dynamics, reinforcing ‘traditional’ hierarchies, contributing to the proliferation of formal and informal governing agents and institutions, and frequently disrupting or subverting open governance and sustainable resource use, rather than helping to create conditions for sustainable development and democratization.