~Punch Nigeria. Sunday, July 17, 2016
I am sure if a survey were taken, land matters would form the bulk of adjudicated cases under both customary and statutory judicial processes. Land matters have pitted families against each other for generations and drained the resources of litigants who can spend upwards of 20 years trying to get "justice" in a land matter. In our politics as well, the Land Use Act of 1978 is a subject that rears its head especially in debates about social justice and true federalism. Land and air are God's gift to us to ensure our survival; the air we breathe, and on land we live and produce the food that keeps us physically alive. So why is nobody fighting about air (well, not just yet for many individuals, but with all the talk about pollution and carbon emissions, that day is not too far away). Air is all around us, and is free. Land, however, is a scarce resource and therefore calls a price.
So, what is land? The Property and Conveyancing Law of the Western Region (1959) defines land as, "land of any tenure, buildings or parts of buildings (whether the division is horizontal, vertical or made in any other way) and other corporeal hereditaments, also a rent and other incorporeal hereditaments and an easement, right, privilege, or benefit in, over, or derived from land; but not an undivided share in land." This definition alone can make you dizzy and question why the law cannot be in simple English - the lawyers have to eat so they must keep us simple-minded people racking our brains once in a while.
Anyway, all that definition means to say is that, land is not just the tangible earth soil, or physical property such as houses, factories, shops, etc placed on the earth soil, but it also includes intangible rights in the land such as the right to walk across a neighbour's yard (an example of an easement); the creation of a charge on land to secure a debt (a mortgage); the right to control the use to which a neighbour may put his land (a restrictive covenant); or the right to take something from another's land, such as fish (example of an incorporeal hereditament). So the definition of land in our laws covers both the physical asset and the rights that we enjoy in and over it. There are some rights that attach to the land and are transferred from one owner to the next; these are said to be proprietary rights as opposed to personal rights in the land.
Who owns land in Nigeria? The answer is, it depends (on the location of the land and whether the acquisition is governed by statute or by customary law). For urban land, while you have acquired the land and for the time being have legal ownership, your certificate of occupancy is only a lease (of 49 years or 99 years, for instance) between you and the real owners of the land (the State) who can decide to terminate that lease for public interest reasons or a breach of the lease agreement. Basically, you own the right to use the land for a period of time, rather than own the land.
Here is why: the Land Use Act of 1978 vests "...all land comprised in the territory of each State (except land vested in the Federal Government or its agencies solely in the Governor of the State, who would hold such land in trust for the people and would henceforth be responsible for allocation of land in all urban areas to individuals resident in the State and to organisations for residential, agricultural, commercial and other purposes while similar powers with respect to non-urban areas are conferred on Local Governments."
According to the Act, all lands so held will be administered for the use and common benefit of all Nigerians in accordance with the provisions of the Act - the States dealing with urban area land and the Local Governments dealing with non-urban area land (limited to 500 hectares if granted for agricultural purposes, or 5,000 hectares if granted for grazing purposes). Some lands may be compulsorily acquired by the state or federal governments for the common good (building highways, neighbourhood improvements, and, of course, in compliance with laws concerning the prospecting for minerals or mineral oils or to mining or to oil pipelines and the acquisition of land for such purposes, which lie under the powers of the Federal Government).
There are two rights of occupancy: a statutory right of occupancy granted by the State Government and a customary right of occupancy granted by the Local Government.
Who can own land? According to the Land Use Act of 1978, persons under the age of 21 years cannot be granted a statutory right of occupancy. When I was eight or nine years old, my mum bought me some plots of land in my father's village and the receipts were in my name. My mother could do that for me because it was land in a non-urban area and so the right I acquired was a customary right of occupancy. If it were an urban area land, the only way she could give me such a gift would be through a trust.