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Why there is so Much Noise About the Land Use Act in Nigeria

Many believe that the Land use act (decree) of 1978 has become a clog in the wheel of our progress as a nation. In recent times, there have been calls by experts for the land use act to be reviewed, overhauled or totally abolished. This article looks at how the land use act threatens economic development in Nigeria and why there is so much noise about it.

The issue of land tenure system in Nigeria has always come up in discussions pertaining to the land use act. The Land Use Act of 1978 conferred on State Governors the custodian right to issue certificates of occupancy for land holders in their states but left out the majority already with possessory rights to their land.

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.

There were thus many protests both to have the Act expunged from the Constitution and to amend it in very many substantial way.

It was not surprising, therefore, that faced with these contrasting land tenure systems and the considerable hassle in getting land for public purposes especially in southern Nigeria, the military government sought to unify the two systems through the Land Use Decree of 1978.

The thrust of the Decree was largely to extend the northern system of land management to the whole country as a means of ensuring easier access to land for government and, ostensibly, for individuals.  Seven of the more important provisions of that Decree are indicated below:

1. All land situated in the territory of each state in the country is vested in the Governor of the state; For southern Nigeria in particular, this means state appropriation of land from families and communities without any compensation except for economic crops and other resources on the land.

2. All land control and management, including land allocation in urban areas come under the Governor of each state while land located in rural areas becomes the responsibility of the various local governments.  Only the Governor can declare parts of the state territory governed by him as an urban area by an order published in the state gazette;

3. All land in urban areas is to be administered by a body known as the Land Use and Allocation Committee which has the responsibility of advising the Governor on the management of urban land; similarly, a Land Allocation Advisory Committee is provided to advise local governments in like manner;

4. All land which has already been developed remained the possession of the person in whom it was vested before the Act became effective;

5. The Governor is empowered to grant statutory certificate of occupancy (C of O) which would be for a definite term to any person for all purposes and rights of access to land under his control;

6. The maximum area of undeveloped land that any person could hold in any one urban area in a state is one half of an hectare; in the rural areas this must not exceed 500 hectares except with the permission of the governor;

7. The consent of the Governor must be secured for the transfer of a statutory right of occupancy through either mortgage or assignment. The consent of the Local government or that of the Governor in appropriate cases must also be obtained for the transfer of customary right of occupancy.

To ensure that this Decree will not be easily abrogated or amended by subsequent regimes, it was made an integral part of the 1979 Constitution and later again of the 1999 Constitution. Thus, although the Decree has made it easy for governments to acquire land for public purposes, drastically minimized the burden of land compensation and considerably reduced court litigation over land.

It has, since its inception almost four decades ago, created a new genre of serious problems for land management in the country.  Nine of these are indicated below:

i) The Decree, as it stands, represents an abrogation of the right of ownership of land hitherto enjoyed by Nigerians, at least in the southern half of the country, and its nationalization by government is inconsistent with democratic practices and the operations of a free market economic system;

ii) Many State Governments failed to establish the Land Use and Allocation Committee in their states for many years. This has hampered the steady and continuous delivery of land for building purposes;

iii) Many Governors do not give the urgent attention needed to their responsibility of granting consent for land assignments or mortgaging, thereby impeding the development of an efficient land market and housing finance institutions in the country;

iv) Equally serious is the attempt by some Governors to use the provision requiring their consent for assignments or mortgaging as a means of raising revenue for their States through imposing heavy charges for granting such consent, thereby again obstructing the development of an efficient land market and housing finance institutions in the country;

v) At least in the case of one state, the attempt of the Governor to declare all land in his state as urban land gave rise to considerable absurdities in the operation of the land market;

vi) The inconveniences and delays in securing Statutory Certificates of Occupancy have induced many land transactions among Nigerians to move to the informal market or be falsely dated as having been concluded before March 28, 1978, the operative date for the Land Use Decree;

vii) The exclusion by the Decree of the rights of families or individuals to develop private lay‐outs has led to the emergence of a disjointed, uncoordinated and incoherent 8 system of physical planning in Nigerian cities and a declining rate of housing provision in the country;

viii) The power of Governors and the Local Governments to revoke any right of occupancy over land “for overriding public interest” has been used arbitrarily in the past and helps to underscore the fragility of the rights conferred by the Certificate;

ix) In consequence of the above, there is increasing reluctance by both the Courts and the banks to accept the Statutory Certificate of Occupancy as a conclusive evidence of the title of the holder to the land nor as adequate security in an application for loan.

These various weaknesses of the Land Use Decree of 1978 have become the major grounds on which many groups interested in the development of an efficient and effective system of land management in Nigeria have been agitating to have the Decree first, removed from being part of the Nigerian Constitution and second, subjected to the many amendments that have become necessary from the experience of operating it during the last quarter of a century.

Most of this agitation have been largely on the gross inconvenience that a number of the provisions of the Decree have constituted for the effective transactions in land especially as it leaves the closing of such transactions subject to the arbitrary whims of Governors who have been known to be negligent in living up to their responsibility of signing the necessary documents at various stages of transactions in land.

But, perhaps more fundamental than all of these complaints, is the threat that these exposures of national land management to the whims and caprices of individual Governors constitutes to the growth and development of the Nigerian economy.


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