By Ambassador Usman Sarki
The June 6th, 2018 edition of Daily Trust carried an Editorial piece titled “Time to overhaul land tenure system”. Presumably, the editors of the esteemed newspaper were and are genuinely concerned about the situation regarding the “land question” in Nigeria at the time and even today. That was a welcome departure from the focus on party politics that seemed to be the regular menu served to the public by the Nigerian media establishments.
I am, however, concerned about some of the positions taken by Daily Trust especially the apparent endorsement of a wholesale “modernization” of the land tenure system in the country. The Trust’s suggestions also seemed to favour the so-called “private sector” in this dispensation, which in Nigeria’s case, is synonymous with wholesale land grabbing and private interests preponderating over communal rights.
The “Land and Native Rights Proclamation in West Africa”, the “Land Tenure and Assessment in Northern Nigeria” of 1908 and the reports of the British colonial administration on native land rights and ownership, have had far-reaching implications in the preservation of “native” rights over land and its usages. The direction that the newspaper was suggesting seemed to detract from these age-old, tried and tested systems in favour of a policy that is full of risks and portentous of disaster.
The inalienability of land has been the bedrock of traditional and customary land tenure system throughout Nigeria. Land was the common heritage of the community. African civilization in its entirety was based on the communal system of land ownership and the tenured use of it by community members for which they rendered returns in the form of taxes on the produce of the land.
There were no “rights of occupancy” as we know them today, since occupancy was not considered a right per se, but a privilege accorded to the occupant by the community through the office of the Chiefs or rulers who dispensed the allocation of land based on the advice of their councils. These factors did not allow for the creation or emergence of a propertied class or landlords in most African societies, thereby ensuring harmony and peace in the community. Most if not all the brutal wars fought in Europe from the dawn of civilization until lately, were based on land grab and alienation.
Governance in old African societies was an exercise in land management and control. From the Chief or ruler downwards to lesser officials, the primary duty was managing the land resource and ensuring that infringements on traditional and customary practices did not happen. Land management, preservation, allotment, and taxation on its use were the primary responsibilities of governments in African political systems. African social systems and structures were also essentially formed by the attitude to, and perception of, the land ownership and usages.
Since freehold ownership of land was alien to the Africans, the role of their Kings and Chiefs was primarily that of custodians and not usurpers of the land. They managed the allocation of land for different social and economic pursuits, they ensured that land was not over used and abused through inordinate exploitation, and they made space available for expansion of towns and villages where required, as well as accommodated the needs of strangers who wished to settle among the communities.
On the basis of such distribution, taxation policies evolved, differing only in extent and character but generally similar all over the continent where organized political systems had evolved, such as in Northern and Western Nigeria. The status of occupied and unoccupied lands was the same. While the one was cultivated out of necessity, the other was left as a nationally owned asset that served as the foundation of the communities’ wealth and grandeur.
Mortgaging of land was therefore alien to the African, since his entire wellbeing depended on its availability and access to it was not restricted by any impediments other than what customary law and usage dictated. Community interests were put first and foremost, before individual interests, even of those who constituted the ruling classes in the societies. Thus, harmony was ensured and a balance between want and need was maintained by a delicately calibrated access to land and its proper usage for the common good.
Appreciating the value and utility of such an age old system, even the British who took over the country and its administration both in the North and South from 1900 to 1960 did not tamper much with it. On the contrary, they maintained the previous forms of land tenure, and even perpetuated it through ordinances and proclamations, as well as by practical examples in the areas of licensing for mining, forestry and land acquisition for public utilities like railways and roads.
Pressures of a manifold nature are being brought to bear on the land today throughout Nigeria. The exponential growth in human and livestock populations, the rapid and seemingly uncontrollable increase in urbanization, the crisscrossing networks of roads and other infrastructures that are springing up all over the country, the demand for more food leading to unprecedented clearing and cultivation of land, the large-scale acquisition of land by foreign interests, and many other factors have today made it imperative that a sustainable and prudent land tenure and management system should be put in place across the length and breadth of this country. This can only be judiciously done by an inclusive and rational framework that takes into consideration the role of traditional rulers as the true custodians of the land on behalf of their people.
The disastrous impact of a failed policy will not only affect this present generation, but those yet unborn and the blame will surely be placed on our shoulders for not doing the necessary things to avert such a consequence. Prudence would therefore dictate, and enlightened self-interest would inform, that a national policy on land use, land reclamation, regeneration and preservation, should be adopted and put in place as a matter of the utmost priority and urgency, in the sense of an emergency even, of the greatest moment. This is first and foremost, to avert an impending disaster appertaining to disputes arising from land shortages and claims and counter-claims between and among communities.
The spate of conflicts between herders and farmers across the country is a testimony to this state of affairs that should ideally have been anticipated and measures put in place to avert it. A more volatile and even dangerous outcome can be foreseen from the dislocations and unraveling of societal fabrics that the disappearance of land rights could engender, when large bodies of people are unwittingly pushed to desperation and out of work with no land to claim as theirs, or point to as their ancestral heritage even if in a collective communal sense.
Africa has never been a country or continent of private land ownership system. Communities were clustered round communally owned lands accessible by everybody including women and the young. Land use was regulated in such a way that private parcels could be allotted to individuals and households for farming and other uses, while larger parcels of land were kept for general purpose use by the entire community. In such manner, no single person could point to any significant track of land and say “this is my private property” since that concept was alien to the African sense of property ownership.
On the contrary, the African will always regard the community’s assets as “ours” and considers it as the posterity of all members of that community. It was this fact that allowed strangers (non-natives of the area) to be given parcels of land if they so desired, and where the community so agreed, to enable them to farm and maintain themselves for as long as the situation was deemed satisfactory by both sides.
Large-scale farming could not take place in Africa precisely because the disposition towards land ownership was different both in conception and practice to the European outlook, that deems appropriation for private advancement as the sole motive of ownership, and the exclusive right over property as the most advanced system of production.
The national land use and tenure system should aim towards primarily protecting this most vital of assets from land grabbers and preventing monopoly possession to the exclusion of the large members of the community. Land speculation and private dealings in the article including selling between and among indigenes, and non-indigenes as well, should be prohibited or at least curtailed as much as practicable. The system should extend to monopolistic practices that tend to concentrate land in a few private hands in order to prevent such exclusive accumulation practices.
The national land legislation should clearly define the primacy of communal ownership and reiterate this as an ancient system whose practice should be continued in perpetuity from one generation to another. It should also prescribe exactly how the tenure system and usage would work, first and foremost, by emphasizing community responsibility and interest over and above private interests and needs. Land lease should be the preferred option for personal private uses, with defined term limits of lease and provisions for review, renewal or revocation as the case may be, in the over-riding interests of the community concerned.
The most important tasks of local government councils should be the proper administration of land and the safeguarding of the community’s interests ensuring thereby the continued protection of the rights and privileges of the succeeding generations and their claims over their ancestral lands. Full economic uses of the land might be made with the concurrence of the community in question, such as in the areas of mining, livestock ranching, commercial activities, and farming, housing development, industrial activities etc.
Where an overriding national interest is cited, land acquired or taken over for such purposes must be paid for, or provisions made for its restitution to its rightful owners over a specified period of time when the need for it is no longer there. If taken in perpetuity, adequate and commensurate recompense must be made to the community.
The system of middle men, of parasitic exploiters with mean disposition, must be prevented from gaining the upper hand in any land transaction in Nigeria, for reasons beyond speculation and doubt. The grasping nature and inveterate propensity towards immodesty and aggrandizement by the middle man, the tout of all seasons and unscrupulous herald of that which is bad and sordid, must be anticipated and dealt with decisively in crafting of any future land tenure policy.
The aim is to get all land out of the reach of the grasping hands of the middle man and his accomplices and those whose rapacious interests they represent – the pretentious bourgeoisie of the urban areas, the rapacious speculators, the prospective absentee land owners, the comprador elements and the blood sucking evil geniuses.
The traditional rulers were the custodians of the land, while those working on it were the guardians of a trust given to them on the basis of use only and not perpetual ownership, since alienation and private ownership of land was totally unknown. Tenure was understood as privilege of occupation and use and not ownership of the land. There is need to prevent freehold and monopoly rights over land in Nigeria, in order to restore native harmony and full responsibility to all citizens for the preservation of their common heritage and patrimony. And please, for God’s sake, do not entrust such a vital task into the hands of lawyers!
The author is a former Deputy Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations, New York