Wetlands are a vital resource, particularly in Africa where livelihoods are closely linked to natural capital. In recent years, extensive drainage has occurred to make way for agriculture. To gain insight into whether drainage is justified, we review the value of African wetlands dominated by Cyperus papyrus in relation to use, conservation and conversion. Evidence suggests that the value derived from low-intensity, multifunctional wetland use far exceeds the value derived from swamp reclamation and generally exceeds that of conservation. At a local level, the main driver of wetland misuse appear to be a breakdown in collaborative management regimes and the main constraint on wetland use, the value of labor and sellingtimes. Local drivers are linked to regional factors such as the lack of coordinated wetland policies and difficulties in ensuring that legislation is absorbed by all sectors of society. We highlight opportunities for ensuring more effective collaborative management and legislation communication, which capitalize on existing governance structures. In contrast to predictions by Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons model, we argue that effective wetland management is best achieved by preventing privatization and promoting common property management regimes. We also argue that poverty and income inequity are more important drivers of unsustainable resource use than environmental managers commonly acknowledge.