Nigeria: Who owns the land?

ALUU, 8 May 2007 (IRIN) - Prince Wegwu and his family own land in the Niger Delta with 31 oil wells on it. Oil companies pump out thousands of barrels of oil a day and yet Wegwu says neither he nor his family have benefited.

"The oil companies tell us, 'We are not allowed to give you money directly,'" said Wegwu, who heads a youth association in Aluu, a village in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region where militants have mounted an increasingly violent armed insurrection, attacking oil facilities and kidnapping foreign oil workers.

"The oil companies say, 'We pay the government for the use of the land', and yet they know they are using our land," Wegwu said.

The Niger Delta is the eighth most productive oil region in the world; the people living there are amongst the poorest in Nigeria, and the poorest anywhere on earth.

Many people in the Delta blame their poverty on two federal laws, the 1969 Petroleum Act, which gave the state sole ownership and control of the country's oil and gas reserves; and the Land Use Act of 1978 which makes the government the owner of all land in Nigeria.

Many activists in the Niger Delta say oil companies should pay rents and royalties for the use of the land directly to land owners and to local communities instead of to the central government. They are also calling for a return to Nigeria's 1960s constitution which calls for revenue to be shared equally between federal and local governments.

But they say the land act has undermined efforts by individuals and communities to get compensation when their land is requisitioned for oil activities or when oil companies pollute the land.

Beyond Oil

The Land Use Act was enacted by Nigeria's current president Olusegun Obasanjo, when he was military head of state in the 1970s. It states that land was to be "held in trust and administered for the use and common benefit of all Nigerians."

"The rationale at the time," according to Lagos property lawyer Tayo Odubanjo, "was that the government should act as the primary agent for the country's development". The act deliberately overrode customary rights to land, even if people had lived on it for generations, he said, because at the time local communities and land owners were seen as obstructing the government's efforts to use land more effectively.

"There would be a very strong case for the law [but] the law failed to achieve this assumed role in practice," said Odunbanjo. Its negative consequences are being felt not just in the Niger Delta but throughout Nigeria, according to numerous studies.

"The Act concentrates both economic and political powers in the hands of few individuals who are abusing its spirit," according to the summary of a 2006 paper on the subject by academics Lasun Mykail Olayiwola and Olufemi Adeleye

Urbanist Geoffrey I. Nwaka writing in 2005 in Global Urban Development Magazine said the law made "the procedure for obtaining and developing land become excessively bureaucratized, obstructive, and riddled with corruption. Restrictions on the availability of land, especially for the poor, encouraged the growth of more and more irregular settlements on the fringes of the towns or on vacant public land," he said.

The law has also been blamed for the massive decrease in Nigeria's agricultural production in the decades subsequent to its enactment.

Also, in the Islamic north of the country the law exacerbated what has been an almost feudal social system as the government disinvested farmers of their land and put it in the hand of the emirs, thus forcing farmers to work for them.

Though the law has clauses providing compensation to local farmers who were using requisitioned or polluted land, the prices they have got in lieu of farming have been well below market prices and many locals say they have never received anything anyway.

Fishing communities have rarely been compensated as they have no visible evidence on which to base their claims. The government and oil companies have also generally refused to recognize the value locals place on communal land. Thus claims of loses from communally-owned shrines or sacred forests on which people rely for medicine or wild cane for goods such as raffia furniture have been rejected.

However experts agree that the law was initially created with the Niger Delta in mind, to make it cheaper and easier for the government and oil companies to start up oil ventures. They also agree that that is where the government applied the law most systematically thus leaving more people dispossessed.

"Before 1978, oil companies had troubles negotiating with the occupants of the land to access the oil," said Patterson Ogon the founding director of the Niger Delta-based Ijaw Council for Human Rights. "After the land act was implemented occupants could wake up one morning to find oil companies already drilling on their property and there was nothing they could do about it."

BOXOUT - Towards a new law?

During the recent election campaign President-elect Umaru Yar'Adua did pledge to repeal the 1978 law and he will take office on 29 May. He seems to be taking a gamble, going against the interests of the elites who have supported his campaign and who have greatly benefited from the law.

For the election campaign Yar'Adua selected governor of Bayelsa State, Goodluck Jonathan as his running mate. That he is an Ijaw, the dominant ethnic group in the Niger Delta, was widely seen as an attempt by Yar'Adua to win the confidence of people in the Niger Delta.

With the country now set to have an Ijaw vice-president, prominent Ijaw leader Edwin Clark has called on the Ijaw militants to put down their arms. Still many younger activists campaigning for local control of oil resources remain skeptical of Yar'Adua's intentions.

The burning question they are asking is what kind of land law will Yar'Adua create to replace the current one. "He hasn't revealed that," said Ijaw rights activist, Wuloo Ikari. "By implication a repeal of the obnoxious law will mean oil resources will be immediately [transferred] from the federal government to the ethnic groups and communities that own all the oil land."

If this fails to happen, Ikari adds, Yar'Adua's promise will be seen as "a gimmick [and] the struggle for resource control in the Nigeria delta will continue".

But lawyer Odunbanjo warns that simply giving land rights back to locals is likely to create a whole new set of obstacles to Nigeria's development and the equitable sharing of resources. "I don't think it will work to simply reverse the law; there has to a compromise between the two extremes."