By Albert Oladapo Ogunwusi
The UN World Habitat Forum was held in Vancouver, Canada in 1976. A principal outcome of the conference was a resolve that governments should as much as possible provide land for citizens to build homes.
Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo and his deputy, Brigadier Shehu Yaradua decided to implement that decision by seizing land from its traditional owners and vesting it in the state.
They approached the Nigerian Institute for Social and Economic Research, NISER, to give them a formula for seizing private property.
NISER in its report advised against it.
The duo was undaunted.
A seven-man panel was set up to formulate a land policy in the desired direction.
Six of the members advised against it.
Obasanjo invited the remaining member to write a minority report which later became the Land Use Decree which was later entrenched in subsequent constitutions as the Land Use Act.
On the auspices of the new legal instrument, Obasanjo and Yar’adua became the largest land owners in the country.
Land was vested in the state governor. The citizen owner became a mere occupant holding a lease signed by the governor allowing his occupancy for a tenure of years.
That minority opinion writer,Augustine Nnamani, later became Attorney-General and subsequently a judge of the Supreme Court.
It is an irony that the same Nnamani became a prince among the judicial activists who salvaged the rump of private power that still exists in our land tenure system today.
NISER and the majority of the Land Use panel canvassed very similar reasons.
The Fulani are traditionally itinerant herdsmen who rear cows all year round from the Gambia to the Cameroons. They have no attachment to land.
For this reason, when Usman Dan Fodio lead his Jihad in 1804 and had established Fulani reign in several Hausa and non-Hausa states north of the Niger, it was easy to impose a land tenure system similar to what we have in the Land Use Act. Land was vested in the community in northern Nigeria.
In the South, it was a different story.
In the West, land was vested in private ownership through purchase, war, settlement etcetera.
In many Yoruba families, the father is buried within a few meters of the son. Ownership devolved through the generations as private property. The major traditional occupations were land based farming, hunting and war.
In the East it is even worse. Land is a prized possession and a major mark of progeny.
In the South-south, it is pure gold. The Atlantic shelf is in constant competition for the little land available-12,000 square kilometres of the region is mangrove, useful only for fishing.
The attitude to land is justifiably different in various parts of the country.
Obasanjo imposed the Land Use Act in this most fraudulent manner. Our courts have risen stoutly to the challenge preserving some traditional hold on land and creating what is at best a bifurcal land ownership system.
In 1976 before Obasanjo and his deputy started the peripatetic coup detat against private land ownership, the state needed to buy land or pay compensation for development.
Significantly however the words of my Lord Olajide OlatawurA, JSC, thus: “alienation of private property without compensation is a fraud” echoes even after his death. In those words, the courageous judge called Obasanjo and Yaradua by their true names: land thieves.
It was their theft that created the framework for anybody to hallucinate about appropriating land owned by others for strange, hostile people to domicile on.
This is one great example of how men create problems they cannot solve.
-Albert Oladapo Ogunwusi, a former editor of Nigerian Tribune is a lawyer based in the UK