On Nigerian Agriculture, Finance and the Land Use Act

Nigeria is a strange place, full of strange people who do strange things. And one of the strangest things of all has to do with the process by which land in Nigeria is owned, titled or exchanged.

I wonder if most of us knew that the lands under your feet, by legal right, belong to the government of Nigeria and certified by occupation by the Governor of each state (or FCT minister for Abuja and its environs)? In any society of free men and women, the land should naturally belong to the individuals and communities who ‘own’ it in the more conventional sense. Do we also know that when you receive a Certificate of Occupancy from the Governor, you receive, not ownership of the land, but the right to lease it or use it for a period of 99 years? Which means every land title issued by the government has a ticking clock attached to it, at which point ownership is returned to the government unless the occupant, their estate or any heirs recertify their occupancy? Do we also know that our governments being what it is, and our systems being what they are, we have millions of conflicting land titles and certificates issued to different people over the same piece of land by different and sometimes even the same Governors in a bid to make as much money, favors, profits as possible, many times off the official record (there is no ‘official record’ in the real sense as there isn’t a central repository of all land titles). This goes a long way to explain the thousands of land and property cases that choke our judicial system for decades, with all sides holding ‘legitimate’ titles which sometimes are forged, or obtained falsely. I’ve had courtside seats to some of these cases-in one case, the land was in dispute, while the building sitting on it was not, so one of the proposed ‘solutions’ was to demolish a very expensive building in order to settle the land claims first. In another, a highly placed official suggested to one of the defendants on a land dispute that with a sizable amount of money, he could get his opponents locked away forever in an Awaiting Trial cell so he could ‘settle’ the case once and for all, although the defendant passed on the offer, preferring to go to court. The official then turned around and made the exact offer to the other side. Imagine how many of those cases currently exist in the country over civil matters that a properly administered land ownership registry can solve? Imagine the cost in legal fees, time that could go into more critical cases, and endeavors, the emotional tolls, and sometimes actual lives?

Do we know that because of the generally tenuous nature of land ownership in Nigeria,farmers can almost never get access to any kind of structured finance or loans from banks, and many otherwise poor families who have huge amounts of land in their name cannot take out loans backed by these otherwise very valuable assets? I kid you not, in majority of the commercial banks, an open piece of land that does not have any structures on it, cannot be accepted as a collateral for loans, no matter how large it is or how secure your ‘ownership’. Is this not why, despite the impressive developments in agric innovation led by our past Agric minister, the scale of the agricultural revolution is limited to big land farms backed by lots of outside capital? Is this not why many smaller land holders cannot even legally sell their land and transfer the title concretely, because to do that, you have to first register the land with the government and that costs from 20-30% of the value of the land in upfront payments that many of them simply cannot afford? And since land ownership is the backbone of almost any credit system, the ‘real asset’ against which almost all other asset classes are created, is it a surprise that our credit and finance system is limping along with next to no participation from ordinary individuals whose only ticket to access has been locked down by a frankly unworkable government system? Isn’t it time we extended the privatization drive to it’s natural starting point, the very land under your feet and mine? It is for this reason that I have taken interest for a long time in our Land Use Act, the one single document which I believe is responsible for a good half of the poverty in our country today (China, USA, Germany and many other nations all planted the seeds of their current prosperity on the back of land rights, agricultural development and innovation, so trust me it is no small matter). If 70% of Nigerians live on about a dollar or less, daily and at the same time, 70 to 80% of Nigerians are employed in agriculture, it goes without saying that a revolution in this sector will lift a huge portion of Nigerians out of poverty, right?

So many of our issues stem from the Land Use Act that I’ve longed for a while for a resource to see the real life implications of the craziness that is our land regime and overall property rights system. And finally, I found one. The good man FF, who had promised for a long time to write a post on the matter seemed to have come to the conclusion that no single post can tackle this beast and has instead launched a website/magazine dedicated to this problem in all it’s facets. You can find it here. I suggest you bookmark it, follow the conversation and get educated on this subject.

It’s one thing to know abstractly that we have a problem, without understanding it’s particulars. But only when we start seeing the reality of the issue, in all its ugliness as well as the basic foundations of all of those issues, will we get motivated to tackle it. I hope the seed will be planted to one day shake off this gruesome beast. The country needs it.

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