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Land conflicts

LAND CONFLICTS: How it started and why it still occurs

All over the world, people struggle for land. Many of them struggle with land conflicts and some of them struggle to solve them peacefully. This article aims to facilitate the understanding of people’s position, attitude and behaviour, as well as their underlying interests and motivation when an asset such as land ownership is at stake.

From the ancient Greek myths we know that in the beginning people lived happily together in simple harmony. However, this Golden Age of peaceful coexistence did not last. With the onset of the current Iron Age, people divided the land among themselves and rendered it into private property, for which they have continued to fight one another to this day.

Land conflicts are indeed a widespread phenomenon and can occur at any time or place. Both need and greed can equally lead to them, and scarcity and increases in land value can make things worse. Land conflicts especially occur when there is a chance to obtain land for free – no matter if this land is state, common or someone’s private property.

Inheritance conflicts and disputes between neighbours living in communities especially in eastern Nigeria are most often about land (and other immobile property). A typical example is Eastern Nigeria communities. In post-conflict situations or during the early phases of economic transition (e. g. privatization), when regulatory institutions, controls and mechanisms of sanctions are not yet in place, people eagerly grab land if their position allows for it, or forfeit land if they are in a weak position. In those countries where land only now – and slowly – is receiving a material value and increasingly becoming private property (such as all over Africa), people also try to accumulate as much land as possible.

During colonial times, dominant European nations tried to occupy all the land outside Europe that seemed useful (fertile or rich in minerals). Today, the powerful are mostly national elites and international (mining) companies. The conflicts though are similar: local people with long-standing de facto rights often held for several generations lose their land to the powerful.

Land conflicts occur in many forms. There are conflicts between single parties (for instance boundary conflicts between neighbours), inheritance conflicts between siblings and disputes over the use of a given piece of land. These conflicts are comparably easy to solve. We have witnessed situations in African communities where family relations plot to murder a family member who inherited land from his direct forefathers. Most of them perpetrate their crime via spiritual means. There have also been situations where a member of a family is accused of witchcraft just because his/her family members want to have sole rights to land that is owned by the supposed witch. The victim’s end is usually fatal.

Land conflicts that include several parties such as group invasions or evictions of entire settlements are more difficult to deal with. There have been several cases of this in the middle belt and northern part of Nigeria where communities have been invaded and ransacked by Fulani herdsmen.The most recent case is that of Southern Kaduna which the Nigerian Government is still battling to bring under control.

The Fulani herdsmen and local farmers in Benue, Kaduna, Niger, Adamawa, Plateau, Bauchi, Gombe, Nasarawa, to mention but a few have always been at logger heads over land. Also at some point during the administration of Nigeria’s former president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, the most dreaded terrorist group in sub-saharan Africa, Boko Haram, took over many communities in Borno state and had a stronghold in the Sambisa forest. This was a pure case of land invasion and illegal control of large expanse of land meant for the citizens of a country by a group of insurgents whose true identity and nationality cannot be immediately ascertained.

But by far the most complex land conflicts are those that include corrupt land administration and state capture. In countries where part of the population, often indigenous people have historically been deprived of their land rights, more serious conflicts can arise even decades or generations later.

Furthermore, land grabbing in South-West Nigeria is such a common phenomenon that it is fast becoming a threat to legal land ownership. In August, 2016, Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode signed into law the Lagos State Properties Protection Bill that recommends 10 years imprisonment for land grabbers across the state. His Ogun state counterpart, Governor Ibikunle Amosun also took a firm step to outlaw that perception of his state as the den of the criminal activities of the Omo onile. He signed the anti-land grabbing bill into law last November with quite stiff penalties for its infringement. Imprisonment for 25 years or death sentence awaits anyone found guilty of the offence of land robbery.

The law prohibits;

“forcible entry and occupation of landed properties, violent and fraudulent conducts in relation to landed properties, armed robbery, kidnapping, cultism and allied matters incidental thereto…”

According to the law, death sentence applies when a life or lives are lost in such forceful take-over of land. Kidnappers also risk life sentence.

After signing the bill into law, Amosun said the state would not be a “comfort zone for criminals.” He had tough words for them. He declared:

“We want to let people know that Ogun State would not be comfort zone for any criminal or so-called Omo onile (land grabbers). They have engaged in maiming, killing and lawlessness. But now the law will go after them. We are now having enabling law to prosecute and anybody that runs foul of this law of course will have himself or herself to blame… I want to believe that with the operation of this law, criminals will run away from the state.”


Albeit the activities of these land grabbers also called Ajagungbaale or Omoniles, still continue unabated in Lagos state. Only recently, about 120 residents of Oke Addo village, Addo Nla Town in Eti-Osa Local Government took to the streets in protest against what they described as encroachment on their land by land grabbers who they claimed were hired by an influential businessman.

Also,  corruption, bribery, fraud, nepotism, favouritism and clientelism in land administration and state land management is a widespread problem, and leads to a high number of land conflicts all over the world.

Due to rural-urban migration as well as natural population growth, most cities in developing countries cannot formally absorb all their citizens. People therefore tend to squat on public land as the chances of being evicted there are slightly lower than on private or common land. The problem remains, however, for the city as well as for the squatters living in uncertainty.

The most violent conflicts over land are, however, those that involve two groups; often two different ethnic groups fighting over their property. A typical example is the over a century old Ife-Modakeke crisis in Osun State. In the words of A. R. Asiyanbola (2007), the Ife-Modakeke crisis remains the oldest intra-ethnic conflict in Nigeria which makes the process of peace making a realistic one. While the Ife people regard themselves as landlords, the Modakekes are being viewed as tenants who migrated to Ife as an aftermath of the collapse of the Old Oyo empire in the 19th century.

However, what is often reported as an ethnic conflict is usually a conflict over (arable/pasture) land. According to a recent study by UNEP, the Darfur conflict in Sudan is another example of a conflict rooted in a struggle over land. Climate change, population growth and an increase in livestock combined with poor land use practises, overgrazing and deforestation has resulted in the degradation of arable and grazing land leading to pastoralists; traditionally living in the dryer Northern regions, taking their herds farther south, while farmers, traditionally occupying the Southern arable lands, are moving farther north, occupying grazing land and watering places as well as obstructing the herders’ passage.

The Darfur conflict is a typical example of a land conflict resulting from diverse changes and leading to a much bigger conflict or even war. Many conflicts are due to change, in fact, Climate change, environmental degradation, demographic and economic transition, often triggers disputes over land.

In addition, Scarcity of land due to environmental degradation and population growth often leaves hardly any choice to people than fighting for land which might not be theirs. This is different in times of economic transition such as privatization. Privatization does not force people to fight for land, but it offers (illegal) opportunities to make an economic profit.

As a shortcut, collectively owned land is often sold by the village leader who, while supposed to act on behalf of the entire village community, is acting on his own. This results in a decrease of agricultural land for the village community, illegal conversion of agricultural land into construction land and the enrichment of the village leader. In the cities, public officials are also tempted by profit to illegally lease and sell land use rights on state land.

The actual number of land related conflicts in any country is barely known, but estimates of these are high. Those which have been dealt with by the courts give an idea of the scope of the problem. All land conflicts, no matter how peaceful or violent they are, produce negative consequences for individual people as well as for the entire society.

Many families across the world have seen their shelters; their homes being bulldozed out of existence. And in Africa, many experience the selling of their property by someone else who also claims to be the owner, daily. In the case of a farmer, this often includes the loss of his/her production base like what happened in a remote community in Niger state recently.

But that’s not all. Where there are many land conflicts, social stability within society is affected, as land conflicts undermine trust and increase fear and suspicion, often between formerly close people such as neighbours and family members. Violent land conflicts or simply the fear of becoming a victim of them can also have a traumatizing effect on those who are or feel at risk.

There is also the problem of asymmetry in land conflict between the powerful and the poor. The most difficult type of land conflict to resolve involves a powerful person against one or more poor people. By “Powerful” we mean a group of categories of people that include high-ranking politicians, civil servants, the military, the police, companies and other rich and influential groups or individuals.

In many countries or situations, the poor hesitate and often do not dare to resist the powerful, not least in court. If they do, or if the powerful sue them instead, the chances are very low that the poor will win the case. This is particularly obvious when examining the outcomes of court cases. Resolution in these cases tends to favour the powerful. Frequently, cases that involve a powerful personality but which have been brought to court by a poor one are not dealt with at all. In many cases, bribery plays a major role. In other cases, the richer party simply can afford the better lawyer.

In order to successfully resolve land conflicts, it is important to be aware of the many different types of land conflicts that exist. One difference is found in the identity of the actors involved, some of them being legitimated to act in the way they do, others not. Other differences are found in aspects of the land itself, whether the conflicts occur on state, private or commonly owned land.

Still other differences result from the complexity of causes of the conflict, as well as how these influence and intensify one another. Finally, the dimension of a land conflict varies significantly which makes a major difference for its resolution. Understanding the specific nature of the land conflict under consideration is a vital step in its eventual resolution.

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