Unraveling Nigeria’s Customary Land Tenure Systems: a Comprehensive Overview
Land is among the most important assets for people around the world. Its relevance to the ownership, use, possession and transfer of real property cannot be overemphasized. In the intellectual wordings of Olawoye, he defined land as “the surface of the earth, the subsoil and the airspace above it, as well as all things that are permanently attached to the soil.
It includes streams and ponds. On the other hand, things placed on land, whether made of the product of the soil or not, do not constitute land.” Flowing from the above definition is the conceptual basis of the ingenious definition established by Nwabueze.
According to the Black’s law dictionary, 9th Edition, “land includes not only the soil, but everything attached to it, whether attached by the course of nature, as trees, herbage, and water, or by the hand of man, as buildings and fences.”
Similarly, Taiwo stresses assertively that land is to, “include the surface of the earth together with all the subjacent and superjacent things of physical nature such as buildings, tree and minerals.” Land is pivotal to man’s survival. Man depends on land for food, shelter, clothing and other human needs. It is a source of economic wealth to all.
The importance of land to the overall well-being of man cannot be understated. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to explore the nature and characteristics of land ownership, use, transfer and possession under the various customary systems in Nigeria.
What is Land Tenure System?
In order to regulate the ownership, use and development of land and land resources, nations the world over have instituted land ownership systems aimed at consistent balancing of the interests of the government, the land owning class and the landless class.
As a result, land tenure is the relationship that individuals and groups hold with respect to land and land-based resources, such as trees, minerals, pastures, and water. When land tenure is secure, land can be a cornerstone for economic growth and an incentive for investment, but when land rights are insecure, this can lead to conflicts, instability and the exclusion of vulnerable groups, such as women, indigenous people and the poor.
Moving on, the land tenure system is the process of granting ownership of land to individuals, legal bodies, corporate bodies, and natural bodies based on their use of these lands. This statutory instrument is used to ensure that human habitats are safe, mutative and sustainable. These systems, in other words, deeply rooted in tradition and customs play a crucial role in the socio-economic fabric of Nigerian communities.
An Overview of the Customary Land Tenure System in Nigeria
Customary land tenure systems in Nigeria are complex and diverse, reflecting the country’s rich cultural and historical heritage. They refer to the traditional systems of land ownership and use that are based on the customs and practices of a particular community or society.
They are often based on traditional, largely unwritten, and locally relevant rules about how to use and allocate land and resources. These systems are, to a great extent, rooted in the traditions and practices of various ethnic groups across the country.
Relatively, Nigeria’s customary land tenure systems can in distinct variations be broadly categorized into communal, family, and individual ownership. Communal ownership is the most prevalent form of land tenure, which is traceable to the diverse ethnic groups that permeate the country including the Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo and Benin groups respectively.
In the communal ownership system, land is owned collectively by a group of people, usually based on kinship or affiliation to a specific ethnic group. Decisions regarding land allocation, use, and management are made collectively by the community, often through traditional rulers or village heads.
In the locus classicus case of AMODU TIJANI v SECRETARY OF SOUTHERN NIGERIA, the court held that land belongs to the community, village or the family and never to the individual.
Within the communal ownership system, several forms of land rights exist. These include usufruct rights, which grant individuals or families the right to use and manage land but do not confer ownership rights (see the Hausa/Fulani feudal control of ownership of land).
In some cases, individuals may have exclusive rights to use specific parcels of land within the community for agricultural purposes with the payment of tributes (see the Yoruba control of ownership of land). However, these rights are often subject to the community’s control and can be revoked or transferred based on communal decisions.
In addition, family land ownership is another significant aspect of Nigeria’s customary land tenure systems. Under this system, land is owned by a family or extended family unit. Family land is typically passed down through generations, and each member of the family has some form of rights or responsibilities over the land.
In some cases, the head of the family acts as the custodian of the land and makes decisions regarding its use and management. The voidability of the sale of land property by the family head has been well-settled like dust in a sea of granite in the case of AGANRAN V OLUSHI where the court held that the sale of family property by the head of the family without the consent of principal members of the family was voidable and not void.
However, the principle of nemo dat quod non habet which means, no one ought to give what he does not have, proclaims the non-individuality of family land in that whereby a member of the family engages in the sale of the family land without the consent of the principal members nor the family head, such sale will be deemed void ab initio see the cases of OWOO V OWÓÒ, LEWIS V BANKOLE, LOPEZ V LOPEZ. Moreso, family land rights are often governed by customary rules and inheritance practices, which vary across different ethnic groups.
Individual land ownership is the least common form of customary land tenure in Nigeria but is more prevalent in urban areas and regions influenced by common law systems. Individual land owners have full rights of ownership and control over their land, including the ability to transfer or sell it. However, even in cases of individual ownership, customary laws and practices may still influence land administration and usage.
The Customary Land Tenure Systems in Nigeria and the Land Use Act of 1978
Despite the prevalence of customary land tenure systems, Nigeria has a formal land administration system that incorporates elements of the common law frameworks. This formal system, based on statutory laws, aims to provide a legal framework for land registration, documentation, and dispute resolution.
The applicable statutory law responsible for the control and management of land in Nigeria is the Land Use Act, 1978 (hereinafter referred to as LUA 1978). The promulgation of the Land Use Act (LUA) on 29th March, 1978 has consequently, to an extent, abolished the customary mode of transfer and ownership of land in Nigeria.
Proportionately, the LUA 1978, considered a foundational piece of legislation, vests ownership of lands in the state governors, Section 1 of LUA 1978 which states, ”subject to the provisions of this Act, all land comprised in the territory of each State in the Federation is hereby vested in the Governor of that State, and such land shall be held in trust and administered for the use and common benefit of all Nigerians in accordance with the provisions of this Act,” of the who hold them in trust for the people.
However, customary land tenure systems and practices often coexist and interact with the formal legal system, leading to conflicts and challenges in land administration and management.
The complexity and diversity of Nigeria’s customary land tenure systems require careful considerations in policy development and land-use planning. Recognizing and respecting customary land rights, involving local communities in decision-making processes, and promoting effective dispute resolution mechanisms are essential for ensuring sustainable and inclusive land governance in Nigeria.
By unraveling the intricacies of the customary land tenure systems, stakeholders can work towards innovative and contextual solutions that balance customary practices with the need for equitable land administration and management.
- “LAND LAW 1.3 CUSTOMARY LAND TENURE SYSTEM IN NIGERIA – Isochukwu Ltd” https://isochukwu.com/2018/01/11/land-law-1-3-customary-land-tenure-system-in-nigeria/
- Class Notes, University of Ilorin, Introduction to Private and Property Law, 2023
- “How poor land tenure, titling weaken real estate growth” https://punchng.com/how-poor-land-tenure-titling-weaken-real-estate-growth/?amp
- “Land Tenure System in Nigeria: All You Need To Know | Mixta Africa” https://mixtafrica.com/land-tenure-system/
- “Effects of Land Use Act on land tenure system | The Hope Newspaper” https://www.thehopenewspaper.com/effects-of-land-use-act-on-land-tenure-system/
- Blacks Law Dictionary, 9th Edition
- The Land Use Act, 1978
 “How poor land tenure, titling weaken real estate growth” https://punchng.com/how-poor-land-tenure-titling-weaken-real-estate-growth/?amp
Rofiat Popoola is a second year law student at the prestigious University of Ilorin, Nigeria. She is a passionate writer, researcher and volunteer who prides in writing on contemporary issues affecting her country as a whole. She joined LawGlobal Hub in January, 2023.