Land tenure Institutions

Posted April 1998

Land Reform Bulletin: 1997/2
Réforme agraire: 1997/2
Reforma Agraria: 1997/2

Rural communal tenure regimes and private landownership in western Nigeria

N.O. Adedipe, J.E. Olawoye, E.S. Olarinde and A.Y. Okediran
University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria


Customary land tenure in Nigeria placed the Oba in charge of land distribution. Colonial law did not as a rule intervene in customary land tenure, except in cases of appropriation for the public good. With the Land Use Decree (LUD) of 1978, the military government sought to provide Nigeria with a uniform system of land tenure that would guarantee equitable and reliable access to land for production purposes. However, in western Nigeria, the LUD has served to increase the marginalization, dislocation and fragmentation of small agricultural holdings and has also rendered access to land more difficult for women. It has not improved security of land tenure and has therefore only intensified environmental degradation. Landowners look for unofficial ways of circumventing some of the decree’s stipulations. The author advocates a formal land tenure policy that will overcome some of the problems exacerbated by the LUD.


Régimes fonciers ruraux et propriété privée des terres dans l’ouest du Nigéria

La tenure coutumière du Nigéria chargeait le Chef Oba de la distribution des terres. En général, la loi coloniale n’intervenait pas dans la tenure courtumière, sauf en cas d’acquisition obligatoire pour le bien général. Avec le Land Use Decree (LUD) (décret sous la forte pression de la population réglementant l’exploitation financière) de 1978, le gouvernement militaire tente de fournir au Nigéria un système uniforme de tenure foncière garantissant un accès équitable et sûr à la terre à des fins de production. L’impact du LUD dans l’ouest du Nigéria provoque un accroissement de l’aliénation, de la dislocation et de la fragmentation des petites exploitations agricoles. Il rend aussi l’accès à la terre plus difficile pour les femmes. Le LUD n’a pas amélioré la sécurité foncière et, par conséquent, a contribué à une dégradation accrue de l’environnement. De manière informelle, les propriétaires fonciers cherchent à contourner certains des aspects du LUD. L’auteur encourage une politique foncière formelle pour résoudre certains des problèmes aggravés par le LUD.


Regímenes de tenencia comunal rural y propiedad privada de la tierra en Nigeria occidental

En el régimen consuetudinario de tenencia de Nigeria se encargaba el jefe Oba de la distribución de la tierra. En general, la legislación colonial no intervenía en la tenencia consuetudinaria, salvo en el caso de adquisición obligatoria de interés general. Con el Decreto sobre la Utilización de la Tierra (decreto que reglamentaba la explotación de la tierra) de 1978, el gobierno militar intentó dotar a Nigeria de un sistema uniforme de tenencia de la tierra que garantizase un acceso equitativo y seguro a ella con fines de producción. Este instrumento provocó en Nigeria occidental un crecimiento de la enajenación, la división y la fragmentación de las pequeña explotaciones agrícolas. También dificultó el acceso de las mujeres a la tierra. No se mejoró la seguridad de las explotaciones, de manera que la degradación del medio ambiente fue mayor. De manera no oficial, los propietarios de tierras tratan de evitar ciertos aspectos del Decreto sobre la Utilización de la Tierra. El autor es partidario de una política oficial de tenencia para solucionar ciertos problemas agravados por el decreto.


THIS ARTICLE compares rural communal tenure regimes and private landownership in western Nigeria. It notes the similarities and differences in land tenure concepts and practices before and after the Land Use Decree (Act) of 1978, which affected the entire country. The impact of these land tenure systems on agriculture, rural development and overall national development are analysed from economic, socio-cultural and legal perspectives. Despite changes in land tenure, the subject of land remains sensitive throughout the country. This stems from the fact that land is regarded as a productive combination of economic, social and political assets.

The land tenure regimes currently found in Nigeria have been formed and affected by a variety of historical and socio-political forces. Some of these forces have been peculiar to specific regions of the country, leading to northern, southeastern and southwestern variations. Other forces, such as colonialism and the national constitution, have theoretically been common throughout the country. While variations exist, some generalizations can be made. More than one mode of land tenure exists. Before the introduction of the formal legal structure, decisions regarding the allocation and transfer of land were made by traditional leaders on the basis of customary law. Customary land tenure is not only still in operation, it has become formalized and modified as necessary. Other modes of land tenure have also been formalized. The evolution of land tenure is a complex and dynamic process, involving the traditional political system, the modern legal system and Islam. Conflicts over jurisdiction in land matters may arise between individuals with different tenurial rights under different systems of land tenure.

Historical background to the State view of land tenure

Famoriyo (1973) reports that all of southern Nigeria (excluding Lagos) was included under the Native Land Acquisitions of 1900. Later, the Lands and Native Rights Ordinance of 1916 established the formal land tenure system of southern Nigeria which was in operation until the Land Use Decree of 1978. Oluwasanmi (1966) observed that these early ordinances ensured that agricultural production remained in the hands of Nigerians. The British did not usually interfere with the customary administration of land except for compulsory acquisition of land intended for public interest (Adegboye, 1973). The Land Use Decree of 1978 was an attempt by the Federal Military Government to try to correct some of the problems with the existing land tenure regimes in the country, to provide the country with a uniform land tenure system and to ensure equitable and secure access to land for productive proposes. While all land in each state is vested in the governor (except for land already vested in the Federal Government and its agencies) the Decree also acknowledged the role of customary land law. The strategy of the Federal Military Government was similar to that described by Cleaver and Schreiber (1990) in which governments in developing countries nationalize the ownership of land, relying on customary law to govern the use of some land, but allocating other lands to private investors and political élite groups. Such a strategy undermines tenure security and accelerates the breakdown of customary tenure systems. For rural people whose survival depends on the land, any real or perceived threat to their access to land is a very serious matter.

Family, property and land in Nigeria

The word "family", as used in land law, has both a restricted and an extended meaning: in the restricted sense, it simply means the household – a man, his wife or wives and the children and dependants who live with him. In a wider sense, the family can be defined to include all persons with a common ancestor. In Nigeria, the extended family is usually a corporate body which may own land, in which the members have rights. For the purpose of this research, the latter definition was adopted because, in land matters, the "family" invariably transcends the restricted connotation of the nuclear family.

The extended family is a property-owning unit. Primarily, the family property consists of land and the structures and improvements on the land. Although the concept of corporate ownership of land is known throughout Nigeria, the institution of "family property" seems to be established only in the southeastern and southwestern parts of the country. Communal land is sometimes known as village land, clan land, community land or tribal land. The head of the community and his paramount chief control and manage everything pertaining to land in their community, as if they were "trustees" in the English sense.

Legal background and legal concepts of land tenure

Background to land tenure in western Nigeria

It has been observed that the legal rules concerning land tenure reflect the social, economic and political demands and perspectives of the particular community. Thus, the system of tenure may constitute a constraint to desired social goals. This was the position in western Nigeria where changes in the social and economic situation since the advent of British rule were not reflected in tenure rules until the Land Use Decree of 1978 was promulgated. As a result, the poor economic performance of the country, the inability of the public and private sectors to provide food and shelter for the people, and even the rate of inflation, have all been attributed to the pre-1978 land tenure system.

Prior to 1978, there were three main sources of Nigerian property law: customary law, English received law and local legislation.

Customary law. There is an overriding principle guiding all types of customary land tenure in Nigeria. This is that land belongs not of human beings, but to God. Humans merely have the use of the land. This right of use belongs primarily to the ancestors, but is also for the living and the future generations (Craigwell-Handy, 1939). Initial acquisition of land was accomplished by settlement of virgin land by a group or individual (Amechi, 1987). Under customary law in most communities in western Nigeria, a well-stratified hierarchy of authority and control over land developed. At the apex is the Oba, or baale, followed by the traditional chiefs, and then by family heads.

Famoriyo (1973) observed that, according to traditional notions of land tenure, no land existed without an owner. In western Nigeria, rights to land can be vested in a variety of groups and, according to Lloyd (1962), the overriding category is lineage membership. Individuals are entitled to portions of communal land as members of
a family or clan (Nwosu, 1991). More often than not, much of the land acquired by a group of people was allotted on a family basis, a portion of land being given to the head of each family. Families, as a result, could ensure continuous use of the same land over time. Although family size may vary, the legal claims relating to family property are largely the same. For the purposes of ownership, the family or community is considered the unit. As a result, absolute title to communal or family land can never be vested solely in the head of a family or community. Neither the head nor a member of the family can alienate his or her own private property from family holdings. However, the sale of family land can be done by the head of the family with the consent of all principal members of the family.

One contemporary precondition for the sale of land under customary law, apart from payment of the price, is that there must be evidence of the "handing over" of possession in the presence of witnesses. Where a head of family dispossesses his family of property without the consent of the other principal members of the family, the sale can be made void by those members not consulted.

Generally, throughout Nigeria, personal ownership of land is recognized if it is permitted by the relevant law and custom of that area. Furthermore, where there is evidence of the partitioning of family or communal land, this signifies an end to the communal or family ownership of that land. The customary tenure system was abused by traditional rulers who built financial empires for themselves out of previously communal land. As a result, the Communal Land Rights Vesting in Trustee Law of western Nigeria was enacted in 1959. This law provided for the divesting of the traditional chiefs of their customary powers of management and for the vesting of these powers in a body of trustees appointed by the government, making the latter accountable for the dealings in communal land. A right to bring an action for breach of trust was vested only in the Attorney-General. This law, however, is not of general application.

English received law. The Common Law of England, the English Principles of Equity and the English Statutes of General Application which were in force on 1 January 1900 were introduced into Nigerian law. This Common Law of Property may apply in Nigeria where customary property law is not applicable. Nigerian laws of mortgages, leases, conveyancing and succession are largely based on English law.

Local legislation. In the northern states of Nigeria, the various existing systems of customary tenure were all replaced by Islamic Law during the Fulani conquest. Subsequently, the advent of the British and the activities of the Royal Niger Company hastened the end of the Fulani empires. Legislation was introduced vesting company land in the Crown and indicating that only "natives" could acquire interest in land. People’s traditional security in landholding was guaranteed until the country’s independence in 1960. The 1962 Land Tenure Law repealed the previous laws and created the nationally uniform category of "Native Lands". It also formally recognized customary land held by indigenous people without proof or written evidence. Certificates of occupancy were issued when required in recognition of rights of occupancy. The latter existed in dual form – that is, the customary right of occupancy and the statutory right of occupancy (Udo, 1990).

In the southern states, prior to the enactment of the Land Use Decree in 1978, customary tenure governed land interests as already shown. However, it appears this was abused by the emerging élite groups in the urban areas, mostly through collusion with traditional rulers and family heads, the latter acting in their capacity as trustees of the land (Udo, 1990). Individual ownership had become rife and resulted in acute fragmentation of family land. Land had to be compulsorily acquired by the government for public purposes and was referred to as "state land".

In the light of the above, the Federal Government set up the Land Use Panel in 1977 to tackle the anomalies in the existing land tenure systems, particularly in the southern part of the country, and to submit recommendations. The resulting Government White Paper made only brief reference to certain salient issues which had been extensively addressed in the panel’s recommendations: landownership, land use, land tenure, land speculation and the registration and transferability of land. Subsequently, the government issued a policy statement which recommended that ownership of all land in the country should be vested collectively in all Nigerians, through the allocation of rights of occupancy at the local government and state levels for rural communal tenure and privately owned land.

Land tenure under the Land Use Decree, 1978. The Land Use Decree (Act) vests all land in the state through the office of the (military) governor of each state. Land is to be held in trust and administered for the use and common benefit of all Nigerians according to the provisions of the Act. By this legal instrument, the state replaced the traditional institutions of obaship and chieftaincy in their roles as keepers of communal land.

Control and management of land in urban areas is the responsibility of the state governor, while all other land (rural, public, etc.) is the responsibility of the local government of the area. State governors are empowered to designate certain areas as urban land and to grant statutory rights of occupancy of fixed periods and rights of access to any person, subject to rental arrangements fixed by and payable to the state. The local government can grant a customary right of occupancy to land in the local government area (LGA) to any person or organization for agriculture, grazing, residential or other purposes. Land so granted should not exceed 200 ha for agricultural purposes, or 2 000 ha for grazing purposes, for any single customary grant. Certificates of occupancy are to be issued in respect of both types of grant.

Customary rights of occupancy are granted on condition there are no statutory rights of occupancy which would automatically nullify the former. Compensation is also payable to former occupiers of now public lands, particularly rural land within LGAs. Transfer of agricultural (non-urban) lands by a holder or occupier is prohibited. Customary law continues to govern inheritance of both customary and statutory land rights.

Without doubt, then, the granting of rights of occupancy under the Land Use Act has radically modified previously existing notions of ownership, control and other interests in land. This is particularly manifest in the granting of land rights to wealthy individuals, corporate bodies and cooperatives in the name of "public purposes" for development. Nwosu notes that "customary land tenure systems are breaking down under the impact of cash cropping, population pressure and non-agricultural [enterprises]" (Nwosu, 1991, p. 196). These factors appear to have enhanced the growing individualization of land tenure (Famoriyo, 1973).

However, large-scale land acquisition by the government has not yet resulted in landlessness, possibly because of the availability of communal land (Nwosu, 1991). However, such acquisition has increasingly dispossessed people, curtailed farmers’ rights to land, hindered small-scale agricultural production, and increased the fragmentation of landholdings – all of which run counter to the spirit and letter of the Land Use Act. Nwosu (1991) also shows that traditional society attaches no stigma to buying land, as the Land Use Act is understood to forbid land sales but not purchases. It is common knowledge that owing to various competing pressures land is still being purchased in ways that circumvent the Land Use Act.

Legal concepts of communal and private landownership

Generally, land is regarded as being a God-given commodity to be beneficially used by occupiers of past, present and future generations. Competing needs in the use of land have therefore necessitated the application of customs, traditions and legislation in the evolution of tenure systems that determine and delimit land rights of individuals, families, clans and communities.

Land is usually taken to include not only the physical soil, but also everything beneath it (minerals and water) and everything extending up to the sky above it. The 1979 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria recognizes and stipulates that all interests in mineral resources belong to the owner of the land and water resources containing them. However, under customary land tenure, "land" originally meant the soil alone and did not include the trees and crops planted on it or buildings erected by any person other than the owner of the soil. The modern concept of land has been altered considerably and now includes buildings unlawfully erected on another person’s land without the consent of the latter. Land tenure systems can therefore be broadly defined as the body of rules and practices that regulate people’s rights and obligations in relation to land, including any conditions and time limits to the use of land resources.

Status and land rights. Prior to the enactment of formal legislation on land rights, most customary law land cases appear to have focused on three main issues: status, rights and boundaries. The determination of status is therefore relevant to the determination of types of rights claimable by persons of that status – family, village or community.

The term "family" does not mean the same thing in Yoruba as in English (the smallest unit of the nuclear family). Rather, "family" is treated as descent or lineage, traceable through either male or female lines. Kinship is thus the main basis of landholding in a major part of Nigeria. Every member of a family had equal rights to jointly owned land. Thus joint ownership by all family members was one of the major forms of landholding in western Nigeria. The right to manage family land and to alienate it resided in the family as a corporate group and not in individual members.

Land rights were also vested in the community, which may take the form of a town, village or some other delimited unit. Such lands include sacred groves and other fetish lands, market sites, houses, communal grazing or hunting land, and other sites. Stool land or royal estates involved absolute interests in land, which were vested in an office, not the individual office-holder. Such land was permanently attached to the office unless lawfully disposed of. Prior to 1978, such lands were attached to the offices of emirs in the north and obas in the south.

Individual rights in land are often held as being inconsistent with customary land law. Land claimed by individuals was often shown to be claimed by a wider group, but individually held land became more common over time, especially in towns (James, 1973). Such rights were not introduced by the British per se, but the influence of British law made it possible for individual rights to be carved out of family lands.

Reaction of traditional leaders to modern land tenure regimes. Even prior to the Land Use Act, the old notions of royal estates or stool lands had been extensively eroded. Consequently, the political and cultural power inherent in the exercise of land allocation by traditional rulers was being undermined. Furthermore, it appears that by nationalizing land in the country, the very fabric upon which traditional customs and practices were woven has been threatened. Traditional rulers in Lagos and Badagry described the Land Use Act as a "gross violation of the universally accepted principle of human rights to property" (Udo, 1990, p. 98). They felt the legislation sought the termination of the institutions of traditional leadership by denying its sources of income from land transactions and rent. Rulers in Oyo State were said to have regarded the Land Use Decree (now Land Use Act) as an "invitation to chaos".

The reactions of various individuals or groups of people to the Land Use Act were mixed. For example, the National Union of Nigerian Students welcomed the Act and described it as being "long overdue" and a step towards a more egalitarian society. The Nigerian Labour Congress regarded it as a major gain for the entire working class, farmers and all deprived Nigerians (Udo, 1990). The Constitution Drafting Committee, established by the Federal Government in 1976, rejected the nationalization of land in the country. In a similar vein, the Constituent Assembly set up in 1978 to draft a new constitution in readiness for a return to civilian rule at that time, also suggested that all Nigerians are entitled to hold property. Nevertheless, the government recognized the conflict of imposing a modern land tenure system on a traditional one and called for dialogue with family heads in the case of government acquisition.

Comparing private and communal land tenure

Tenure regimes, land use and agricultural production

Nigeria has a land area of some 98 million ha, of which nearly three-quarters is arable (Olayide, 1980). FAO (1987) suggests that a much smaller area is available for cultivation, leaving little room for agricultural expansion. As a result, great difficulties are going to be faced in producing enough food to sustain future populations, and the impact of tenure on land use and productivity is critical.

Different regions of the country have varying degrees of population pressure on the land, resulting in varying land use patterns. Western Nigeria has a relatively high population density but less land pressure than southeastern Nigeria, while the north has, at present, adequate land for expanding agriculture.

Agricultural production under customary tenure. Land is the most fundamental productive resource in the rural economy. The use of land varies not only according to ecological or physical factors – which may limit what can be grown – but also according to the tenurial arrangements. In other words, land use varies according to rights to make particular use of land to the exclusion of others.

In the southern part of Nigeria, for example, under customary tenure not everyone has the right to grow trees on the land even though a person may have been allocated that land for farming. This is because anyone with a short-term allocation, such as tenants or women, may not be given that piece of land for a long enough period for their trees to reach maturity or to stop producing. Tree tenure is different from land tenure. All trees already growing on the land before another person gains the right to use it remain the property of the person who planted the trees.

Under customary land tenure, group ownership is practised whereby individuals derive rights of ownership from the group to which they belong. Individuals are given enough land to ensure sufficient food for their family. This is advantageous for family members as long as land is plentiful. For non-members, securing access to land may be very difficult and restricted to tenancy agreements which may not ensure a reasonable income. Some family members, such as women, may also find it increasingly difficult to secure land as individuals. Under these circumstances, one strategy is to form groups and secure access to land through the traditional leaders to establish a group farm.

The inheritance rules accompanying customary tenure have resulted in the small size of farming plots and fragmentation results in widely dispersed plots. In southwestern Nigeria, it is particularly common for farmers to report that they have as many as six to eight plots, scattered in as many locations several kilometres away from each other. The total size of holdings, however, may not be more than 2 or 3 ha (Olayide, 1980).

Small unit size and fragmentation of these units are the factors held primarily responsible for the failure to raise agricultural production, primarily because they fail to achieve economies of scale necessary for commercialization and technological innovation. Efficient farm management is much more difficult with many small and distant farms. Many farmers spend much of their time and energy walking to and from their farms – time and energy which could otherwise be used in productive activity on the farm. Livestock and household waste, which could be used to fertilize the soil are not carried to distant farms and are therefore used only on backyard gardens or not at all.

There is some debate as to the degree of security of tenure under the customary land tenure system. Famoriyo (1973) maintains that customary land tenure leads to tenure insecurity as the regulation of rights and interests in land is unwritten and relies on the memory of those present at the time that land was allocated. On the other hand, Cleaver and Schreiber (1990) suggest that the breakdown of customary land tenure has reduced the perceived security of the rural people with regard to their access to land. One probable cause of this situation is that land, which used to be inalienable, can now be sold.

When there is a feeling of insecurity of tenure, a farmer will be less likely to invest in long-term improvements in the land that may be costly in terms of capital, time and labour. Araka et al. quote a tenant farmer from Ogun State: "I would like to own land of my own to enable me to plant cash crops such as cocoa, cola nuts and cashews instead of planting only one-season crops. The problem is I never know more than one year in advance whether I will have the same land" (Araka et al., 1990, p. 10).

Alley farming is one example of an attempt to improve the soil and integrate crop and livestock more effectively. There are indications that the form of land tenure arrangements and decision-making within the family tend to influence the adoption of alley farming (Francis, 1987). This tends to support the assertion that perceived security of tenure will affect the land use patterns adopted.

Under customary tenure, the belief that land is inalienable also affects the ability of a progressive farmer to acquire more land and build up his level of production. He or she is limited to the land that can be allocated, and what he or she can afford. In a similar way, such land cannot be used as collateral for securing credit. Credit availability to smallholder farmers has been found to be significantly related to the type of land tenure. Tenant farmers have generally been found to be neglected for the purpose of allocating credit (Idowu, 1980).

Another disadvantage of customary land tenure is that it may give rise to absentee landlords, since some of the lands may be managed by relatives in the villages. In other cases, the land remains idle or is leased to sharecroppers or migrant tenant farmers. This is increasingly practised, especially in the cocoa-growing regions of southwestern Nigeria. While the practice of land leasing is advantageous in giving employment opportunities to landless migrant farmers and gives absentee landowners the chance to earn some extra income from rent, it generally does not lead to the best farm management practices.

Customary land tenure has been flexible in meeting the demands of agricultural production in the past. There are, however, many defects and inconsistencies in the customary tenure system which are not conducive to agricultural development. The system appears to be running at the limits of its capability. The rules that govern this system are breaking down under the economic, legal and social stresses accompanying the inevitable development of agriculture.

The Land Use Act of 1978 provided for a customary right of occupancy to be granted by the Local Government Area to persons or communities occupying land in accordance with customary law. This has had very little effect on the traditional mode of tenure. Idowu (1980) showed that only a fraction of the 250 sampled farmers in southwestern Nigeria were even aware of the existence of the Act, with less than 15 percent having ever applied for a customary certificate of occupancy of their farmlands. The attempt to modernize customary land tenure and make it uniform throughout the nation has not had the desired effect.

Problems and potentials of private landownership. Recently, in southwestern Nigeria, individual ownership of land has been becoming more common, as lineages or communities no longer exercise use and management control over farmlands once allocation is made to an individual family member. Relatively few lands are still communal in the sense that they can be allocated by the Oba. Fabiyi (1976) notes that, in southwestern Nigeria, a lot of problems have been experienced in the implementation of the Land Use Act. These problems include finding replacement for agricultural land which has been privately acquired, untimely and inadequate compensation payments and a shortage of funds and trained personnel for a proper evaluation of "unexhausted improvements".

The land tenure reform did not seek to redistribute land, but only to change landownership and tenure rights. Theoretically, those already farming could continue to do so. In reality, however, some lands were compulsorily acquired by large commercial farms or government enterprises. In areas of relative land scarcity, such acquisition increases pressure on the land. Farmers acknowledge that fallow periods are getting shorter as greater areas of the land were under almost continual cropping, and yields were decreasing as a result. However, the concept of outright land scarcity is still foreign.

Land for agricultural production has competing demands, particularly between crop and livestock production. Since these two activities are often practised in the same area at the same time, conflicts are not uncommon, especially under customary land tenure. In some communities in southern Nigeria, free-roaming goats and sheep have not been allowed because of crop destruction. In many areas, greater value is placed on crop production than on livestock (Olawoye and di Domenico, 1990).

The extreme cases of conflict are those between Fulani pastoralists and indigenous cultivators, although a significant proportion of Fulani are now partially or fully settled, combining their herding activities with crop cultivation, even in southern Nigeria. Many of the settled or semi-settled Fulani have come to "own" land, given to them by traditional leaders.

Agricultural policy and land development. Although the agricultural policy for Nigeria of 1989 recognizes land as a major factor in crop production, it is evident that land is not readily available, given the magnitude of the requirements both for agriculture and for industrial development (Adedipe, 1991). Because of socio-cultural attachment to land in southwestern Nigeria, it is almost impossible to acquire a large enough tract of land, even on a leasehold basis, to embark on large-scale farming. The inability to gain access to large, consolidated areas of land means that land is perhaps Nigeria’s most underutilized or misused natural resource. Fragmented and isolated small farm holdings, separated by ever-increasing distances, need to be replaced with a network of consolidated farm holdings that can achieve economies of scale.

It was against this background that the National Agricultural Land Development Authority (NALDA) was established in 1991 to re-examine the land tenure problems of rural communities. The NALDA programme aims at the development of 30 000 to 50 000 ha of land in each of Nigeria’s 30 states, divided into 4 ha farm lots. This will involve 7 500 to 12 500 programme participants or farm settlers in each state, giving a total of 225 000 to 275 000 farm families to be settled in the first three-year phase. No farmer should need to travel more than 3 to 5 km to get to his or her farm. The scheme also incorporates co-operatives for farm inputs, credit facilities, marketing, processing and cottage industry operations. Although the first phase is being implemented in 11 states, it is too early to evaluate the impact of the NALDA decree.

Socio-cultural aspects of land tenure systems

While the economic potential and constraints for agricultural production are of great importance in this analysis of land tenure, the social costs and benefits are equally significant. It is imperative, therefore, to consider certain socio-cultural features of land tenure which may or may not ensure social cohesion, social justice and the general welfare of the people.

Government acquisition of land. While the Land Use Act of 1978 has enabled the government, as well as some corporations and influential individuals, to acquire large areas of land, it has not facilitated the access of smallholder farmers to land (Nwosu, 1991). The government has a right and even a duty to provide people with various infrastructures and facilities. Sometimes forgotten is the fact that the land on which these facilities are built must have been previously occupied by some people for some purpose. In most cases, compulsory acquisition will be in peri-urban or rural areas. The government pays compensation to the owners for crops, trees and buildings on the land to be taken over, but examples abound where compensation has been inadequate, or was subject to considerable delay with inflationary losses owing to devaluation. Problems associated with compulsory acquisition of land by the state include inaccurate enumeration, lack of agreement on the definition of assets for which compensation is to be paid, the basis of compensation, illiteracy and ignorance of the rights of customary occupants, differences in compensation for annual versus perennial crops or trees, and failure to compensate for compulsorily acquired land with access to adequate land elsewhere (Adegboye, 1973; Nwosu, 1991). Nevertheless, Nwosu notes: "The hardship that large-scale government acquisition of land imposes on some individuals cannot be quantified" (Nuosu, 1991, p. 209).

Adegboye (1973) notes that the result of such acquisition is a terrible social dislocation resulting from loss of occupation, land, crops and lifestyle. In many cases, farmers give up farming and take low-paying urban service jobs for fear that land newly allocated to them would also be confiscated. As a result, compulsory acquisition of land is resulting in social breakdown.

Women’s access to land. Under customary land tenure, women in southwestern Nigeria are not considered eligible to claim land or share part of the land left by the deceased, and ownership of land by women is rejected or frowned upon (Adegboye, 1966). At the same time, there is no longer any debate as to the important role played by rural women in agricultural production nearly everywhere in Africa, especially in food crop production.

Under customary land tenure, when a man died his land was divided equally among wives who had borne him male children. The land did not go to the wives, but rather to the sons of the wives. Problems often resulted when one wife had several sons and another had only one son, leading to unequal distribution of land (Adegboye, 1966).

Women are disadvantaged in terms of restricted landownership, and also because their farms are smaller, more widely dispersed and less secure in tenure (Saito and Weidemann, 1990). In a study in southwestern Nigeria, it was found that a large proportion of the rural women sampled had their own personal plots "given" to them by their husbands for production of crops for household consumption. Without clear ownership of the land, however, women are denied access to other factors of production, notably credit for agricultural inputs, that could help them increase agricultural output (FEMCONSULT, 1990).

The contribution of women to household food security is crucial but, while varying tenure arrangements have been made with men owning the land, a common feature is that women own the crops. Kaberry (1952) noted long ago that this feature may ensure women’s welfare as long as land is not scarce, but problems will arise for women when there is pressure on the land. Mabogunje (1989) notes that women’s role as cultivators is dependent on land tenure practices in particular communities and in situations where they have no access to land via marriage women have resorted to "leasing" arrangements. But, without access to land or capital, many women have no option but to sell their labour, particularly at times of high agricultural labour requirements. The obvious result of these problems with the precarious access of women to land is that they are unable to increase their productive activities for their family’s consumption and for sale. While colonialism did much to erode women’s access to land, the Land Use Act has increased the difficulties.

Conditions for tenancy. Farm tenancy is very common in southwestern Nigeria, but conditions vary greatly, with some arrangements being generally favourable to the tenant and others being quite insecure. Farm tenancy is the "temporary transfer of property rights in farm land" (Adegboye, 1966, p. 441).

The same author discusses the general characteristics of farm tenancy arrangements in Southwestern Nigeria: the terms of the agreement are usually verbal and often imprecisely phrased; landlords should assist the tenant in getting established; and, the amount of tribute paid per hectare is variable and depends largely on the nature of the relationship between landlord and tenant, and is payable either in cash or in kind.

From these characteristics, it can be seen that the security of the tenant is variable and dependent on the relationship with the landlord, who is under no compulsion to continue the arrangement. For "strangers", therefore, being a farm tenant is full of risks. For many migrant farmers, there may simply be no alternative.

Land tenure and environmental considerations

Throughout this article, several considerations have been discussed which have a negative impact on the environment. While environmental degradation is not limited to one area of the country, it varies by region. Generally, the environmental problems of the greatest concern are desertification (primarily in the north), soil erosion and loss of fertility (primarily in the southeast).

While the impact of these environmental problems may vary, the reasons for their occurrence are similar and may be related to land tenure practices. The factor with the greatest direct impact is population pressure on the land, which has rendered customary land tenure mechanisms for environmental protection ineffective. Large-scale acquisition of land by government agencies or influential individuals as a result of the Land Use Act had increased the pressure on land. Because less land per farming household is available for production, fallow periods have been drastically shortened, with disastrous effects not only on production levels but also on the nature and composition of fragile tropical soils. When chemical fertilizers are not used or are not even available for use, and organic fertilization is not practised, there is no way for the soil to recover from prolonged use.

While there are agricultural techniques which can help to prevent the breaking down or erosion of the soil, such as alley farming or composting, farmers are unlikely to invest in long-term developments of the land when they believe that they will not benefit from such efforts. Tenure insecurity may prevent the adoption of conservation practices such as alley farming, and limited-term occupancy certainly prevents tree planting and other practices not allowed to tenants and women.

Conclusions and recommendations

This article has compared rural communal tenure regimes with private landownership in southwestern Nigeria. It has examined a variety of land tenure systems operating in the country prior to the enactment of the Land Use Act of 1978. In southwestern Nigeria, a well-stratified hierarchy of authority over land developed, with the Oba at its apex, supported by traditional chiefs and elders. Under customary land tenure, no land existed at the community level without an owner. Group ownership through lineage membership was common. The characteristics of this kind of landownership offered adequate protection of the access rights of members, but were very restrictive to non-members, threatening the economic survival of the latter. Land tenure has become insecure owing to increasing rates of land alienation, a practice previously unknown under customary land tenure.

This system of land tenure was abused by the traditional leadership, paving the way for formal regulation and control of landownership, first under colonial law, later by locally enacted legislation, and eventually by the Land Use Act of 1978. The Act vested all land in the governor of each state, to be held in trust and used for the common good of all Nigerians, with statutory and customary rights of occupancy being granted by governors or local government councils, respectively. The power of the traditional custodians of the land over the process of allocation was thereby greatly curtailed.

The effects of the Land Use Act include the acquisition of land by the government for public purposes, and acquisition of land by private developers for economic, industrial and agricultural development. This has resulted in increased dispossession and displacement of people, particularly small-scale agricultural producers. Increased fragmentation of landholdings is an unwelcome consequence of the Land Use Act, and contrary to its intentions. Compensation paid for land acquired in these ways has been inadequate and untimely. The absence of unambiguous and unrestricted ownership of land by women is particularly troubling, as is the allocation to them of smaller plots under less secure arrangements.

The Land Use Act has arguably exacerbated the stress on land caused by population increase, and increased the risk of long-term soil and environmental degradation. To counteract this, it is necessary to initiate a grassroots-based environmental protection and sustainability programme.

The tedious legal and bureaucratic formalities required for allocation of land in accordance with the Act have resulted in threatening the very survival and efficacy of the Act. It is thus open knowledge that means of circumventing the spirit and letter of the Act are being actively sought.


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