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land ownership in Nigeria

History of Land ownership in Nigeria

Land ownership in Nigeria can be quite a rigid process due to the very complex land tenure system in Nigeria. As a result, there have been calls from various quarters for a review of Nigeria’s land and property law and invariably a complete overhaul of the country’s land reform system. This article turns searchlight on the history of land ownership in Nigeria. 

Real estate has continued to play a significant role in man’s evolution. It is not a coincidence that food, shelter and clothing believed to be the three essentials that sustain mankind, also have some linkage to land. Food grows out of land while shelter is affixed to it, and man’s clothing is made largely from what grows out of land.

Indeed, whether in ancient times or today’s modern system, land constitutes a significant index for man’s wealth and as economic activities have assumed more sophistication over time, land has continued to play a central role in their development.

There is hardly any business venture that does not require to be supported by some form of real estate; from the small business that requires real estate as offices from where its business can be organized, to the major venture that needs it for its factory.

Economics and management studies have long established that production is dependent on four factors, out of which land is one along with labour, capital and machinery.

It therefore simply stands to reason that to be true to his professional responsibility every commercial/business lawyer ought to have a proper grasp of real estate laws. The client needs advise on this in one form or the other. It is therefore not difficult to understand why there is a lot of demand for land.

Elementary economics teaches us that where there is a lot of demand, prices are bound to go up. What has further complicated the graph is the fact that, although a natural endowment, land is not finite. It accounts for only about 20% of the whole surface of the earth.

Consequently, against this backdrop major economies through some very robust and well thought out land policies comprehensively address challenges they encounter in the real estate sector.

As earlier discussed, land is intrinsically connected to the economic development and well being of any nation, thereby necessitating some intervention by prudent governments. Such interventions vary in degrees, depending on the nation.

In Nigeria, our land tenure system is a mixed story. In Southern Nigeria, under customary law land was organized largely around the community or the family. The individual could rarely lay claim to any part of it as owner and therefore could not alienate it without the consent of the head. This land tenure system was however whittled down following the introduction of received common law principles.

In northern Nigeria, the situation was markedly different as land was held and administered for the use and common benefit of the people who held a right of occupancy over it and such rights were subject to the control and disposition of native authority.

State ownership of land in Nigeria can be traced to the 1861 Treaty of Cession which ceded the colony of Lagos to the British Crown, subject to the customary rights of the local people. Before 1963 land was vested in the Queen, and when Nigeria became a Republic in 1963, it was vested in the Federal Government.

Thus, under customary law, land was generally vested in communities and families in the South, whereas in the North land was vested in authorities for the use and benefit of the people. All this however changed when Nigeria became colonized and land was vested in the Queen until 1963 when Nigeria became a Republic.

Consistent with the economies of industrialized nations, the colonial government in Nigeria needed land for developmental purposes, specifically for agriculture and industrialization. As land at that time was vested in the communities and families, government was forced to compulsorily acquire these lands from them and today we have a rash of acquisition statutes in Nigeria beginning with the Public Land Acquisition Act of 1917, through to the Public Land Acquisition Law Cap 105 of Western Region, 1959, to the Public Land Acquisition Act of 1976. States have their separate Public Land Acquisition Laws.

This was the position with our land tenure system up till 1978 when the Land Use Act (“the Act”) was introduced. The Act was promulgated to bring about uniformity in Nigeria’s land tenure system, ensure that land was available for agricultural and industrial development, and importantly address our socioeconomic problems. However that has also been plagued by a plethora of challenges too.

Although the Land Use Act of 1978 was meant to usher in a new land reform in Nigeria, it soon became a clog in the wheel of development over the years. This was more so because the Military Government which promulgated it also ensured it was embedded in the Constitution of the country. Thus, any attempt to rectify its inadequacies required a constitutional amendment.

Subsequently, the Federal Government established a Presidential Technical Committee on April 2, 2009 to undertake the reform of the land tenure situation in the country following on the various problems emanating from the Land Use Act of 1978.

But the annals of land ownership in Nigeria will remain a never-ending tale and history will continue to be re-written as long as man exists.

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