Nigeria is a populous middle-income country that heavily relies on revenues from oil and gas exports, ranking among the 10 biggest oil exporters in the world. However, agriculture is as important to Nigeria’s economy contributing 21.9% to the GDP and providing employment for more than half the rural population . The West African country has a very heterogenous society which is mirrored in the pluralistic tenure system. There are more than 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria with the major groups Hausa and Fulani (mostly in the north), Yoruba (residing in the central and western regions), and Ibo (primarily in the southeast). Twelve northern states have adopted the Sharia law, based on Islamic tradition, which additionally shapes land tenure and inheritance rights.
Even if Nigeria’s Constitution provides equal land, divorce, and inheritance rights to men and women, according to customary practices, women are regarded as their spouse’s property and as such are not entitled to own land themselves.
The agricultural sector faces various challenges in terms of productivity, access to land, post-harvest losses, soil erosion and desertification. The pluralistic land tenure system needs to be revised, irrigation systems as well as storage facilities improved, and easier access to markets provided for farmers . The tenure systems in place have not prevented land disputes and conflicts. Among the reasons that have sparked (violent) conflict are the adverse impacts of the oil industry in the Niger Delta, high levels of elite corruption, disputes between pastoralists and sedentary farmers, rapid urbanization, commercial farming, and inheritance conflicts. Both formal and customary courts are entitled to resolve land disputes, yet procedures are complex and lengthy. The ability of the government to find solutions to land issues will be pivotal for Nigeria’s future, even more so in urban areas and the environmentally destructed Niger Delta.
Land legislation and regulations
The Nigerian Constitution incorporates the provisions of the Land Use Act (Decree) of 1978. The Land Use Act aims to address the issue of plurality in the laws governing land use and ownership as well as the problem of land fragmentation resulting from inheritance and increasing population pressure. Other issues include combatting land speculation and guaranteeing equality .The Land Use Act follows a threefold strategy: The State holds proprietary rights in land, individuals are granted usufructuary rights, and the introduction of an administrative system for land allocations instead of relying on market forces.
Nonetheless, the objectives of the Land Use Act have never been fully implemented as it lacks specific standards for implementation and enforcement. On the contrary, the Decree complicated owning and accessing land and failed to put a hold on deforestation for industrial agriculture purposes, for example. It also leaves room for rent-seeking and corruption . In 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan re-constituted the Presidential Technical Committee on Land Reform that evaluates options to improve transparency and systematizes land registration and documentation . However, the Act must be abrogated from the constitution first, before it can be amended.
The Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development oversees policies that aim at improving agricultural production and combat poverty, particularly in rural areas. The National Agricultural Land Development Authority was established under the 1992 Decree of the same name and is in charge of land development, improving living standards in rural areas, and the expansion of (agro-industrial) productive capacity . The National Urban and Regional Planning Commission (1992) is responsible for urban matters.
In addition to statutory tenure, customary and Sharia law in the north are prevalent in most parts of the country. Rural residents continue turning to their chiefs and emirs on land-related matters.Nigeria’s customary law varies from community to community. It is a local and constantly evolving system of norms and principles that roots in precolonial times and has since adapted to various sociopolitical developments, the expansion of land commodification, or the individualization of land titles .Land itself is understood as owned by a deity, held by the community and managed by the chieftaincy or village head to the benefit of the community. Along with the customary authorities who act as the custodians of the land, clan, lineage, and family heads of landowning families have a say in land governance.
Land tenure classifications
In Nigeria, all citizens have the right to acquire and own immovable property whereas all land is vested in the federal government .Formally replacing customary tenure, the Land Use Act nationalized all land and limited the size of landholdings. An individual may hold maximum 0.5 hectare of undeveloped state land in urban areas, up to 500 hectares of non-urban land, and not more than 5.000 hectares of pastures. On state level, the respective Governors hold the land in trust for the people and have the principal authority over urban land, while the local government has the authority over all non-urban land. It is in the Governor’s hands, however, to classify (non-) urban land and revoke rights in cases of public interest in the land.
The Land Use Act was passed under military rule in an effort to limit the power of customary authorities in the country. Earlier, most land in the country was considered as community property under customary law. In the north, for example, there was a freehold system with customary leaders acting as custodians allocating land as leaseholds. Although there is a general tendency towards individualization in the land tenure system in Nigeria today, customary law has prevailed even in urban areas. Individuals hold usufructuary rights and may use the land as long as it benefits the family or community. Nigeria’s customary land tenure system provides a high level of flexibility in terms of rentals, pledges, and can thus easily adapt to changing circumstances. Formal customary occupancy rights are heritable, but the land cannot be sold or mortgaged. In contrast, statutory rights of occupancy can only be divided with the consent of the Governor .
There are 14 steps to register and obtain customary and statutory rights of occupancy through the local government. The process is lengthy and costly. Smallholders would spend more than an annual income for the registration. In addition, once the certificate of occupancy (C of O) is issued, landholders are required to pay an annual rent or tax. Consequently, even if landholders are aware of the possibility to register their land, they refrain from doing so. Numbers of occupancy certificates are low, with the exception of wealthy urban areas. According to Prindex, tenure rights are perceived as insecure by almost a quarter of the population in 2018 .
Land use trends
Nigeria has the largest population in Africa, equally living in rural and urban areas . Agriculture is the most important livelihood source providing work for about two thirds of the work population. On average, each household that engages in agriculture farms 1.8 hectares .Most agricultural commodities are produced for domestic consumption.
Approximately 80% of the country’s land are suitable for cropping or livestock. However, the soil is of low to medium quality and overexploited, especially in the Delta area, caused by industrial agriculture, mining, and oil extraction .The country’s agro-ecological zones are divided threefold: the rather dry savanna in the north which is ideal for millet, cowpeas, sorghum, and cattle; the potentially humid savanna in the Middle Belt where maize, cassava, and yam are grown; and the subtropical south where most cash crops including oil palm, cocoa and rubber are produced. Long-standing transhumance-sedentary (a type of pastoralism) farmer conflicts have intensified in the north also due to desertification, climate variability, and expanding farms .
Forests used to cover 12 % of the total land area in 2010. Deforestation is a big issue particularly in the eastern part where corporations cleared large tracts of land for agricultural purposes. Between 2001 and 2019 the country lost almost 1 Mio hectares of forest, 14 % of which were primary forest .
Most land in Nigeria is for leasehold. Together with the Land Use and Allocation Committee, the Governors are responsible for land allocation or revocation. Statutory rights of occupancy are granted by the Governor for 99 years and may be renewed. The Governor also determines the annual rent. The Land Use and Allocation Committee grants customary rights of occupancy – in rural areas only - over 50 years, which may be renewed for another 50 years. All certificate holders must pay annual taxes and cannot transfer or sublease the land without the consent of the Governor or the local government.
Customary land is allocated by the chieftaincy or the emirate who also determine communal areas for fishing, grazing etc. Generally, all members of a community have the right to use (some) land and can make a request to the customary authority (and pay a tribute). Different individuals or households may have separate rights to a certain plot or its resources, ranging from one-time uses, rights to harvest fruit or nut trees, access for grazing or cropping season. Outsiders to a commuanity, such as migrant laborers, refugees, or pastoralists do not share the same rights, even if they contribute to the community for a longer time already. Either they marry into a local family or a community member must vouch for them . Another option provides the principle of tenant farming, which is commonly practiced. This allows families or individuals to farm land in another, often neighboring, community. Allocated by the village chief or household head, tenants have to pay a periodic tribute.
The land administration system in Nigeria creates various opportunities for corruption on the part of state officials. Moreover, as a result of the time-consuming and costly registration process, the vast majority of land transactions occur on the vibrant informal land market .Especially customary land is mostly transferred and sold on the informal market. This led to increasing land prices, particularly in urban areas, and adds to tenure insecurity for surreptitious transfers are common .Informal land transfers include pieces of land with or without certificates of occupancy.
Conflicts related to land including seizures for development are widespread and often turn violent. The High Court has jurisdiction over claims relating to statutory rights of occupancy and matters of compensation, although the amount cannot be challenged. Most Nigerians do not trust the formal court system due to endemic corruption and long delays though. Cases regarding customary rights of occupancy fall under both formal and customary jurisdiction including Sharia courts in the north.
Large-scale agricultural land investments by multinational companies have a long history in Nigeria. Hoping for revenues and economic growth, the government started revitalizing the agricultural investment sector in the early 2000s. Already in 1992, the National Agricultural Land Development Authority Decree was passed in order to promote the utilization of the country’s natural resources and to increase export capacities. According to the Land Matrix, operating agricultural projects cover more than 1 million hectares – in addition to the many mining projects and the gas and oil extraction.
The Constitution allows for land to be taken for public purposes and upon compensation payment for the value of unexhausted improvements of the land and existing crops. Known as the compulsory acquisitions of private property rights, the government, more specifically the Governor and the local governments, can revoke land rights for economic, industrial, urban, agricultural, and rural development. The landholder loses his or her rights of occupancy upon the notice of revocation .
Many people were displaced in the name of development, often without compliance to the law and no compensation payments. Customary tenure provides little protection against land appropriations by the state or the private sector. Moreover, customary authorities increasingly lease land for commercial reasons. Not only for tenants does the expansion of the market economy into rural areas mean increasing insecurity. The government-driven expropriation that is partly supported by chiefs and emirs has severe implications for affected smallholders, the poor, youth, and women in particular .
Women’s land rights
Nigeria’s Constitution provides equal land, divorce, and inheritance rights to men and women .However, these are largely undermined by customary law, Sharia law, and traditional gender norms .Despite special decrees providing for women’s land and widow’s rights , legislation only applies to registered marriages whereas most Nigerians are married based on common or religious law. Especially women in rural areas and in polygamous marriages remain disadvantaged and excluded.
Land is inherited patrilineal all over Nigeria. According to customary practices, women are regarded as their spouse’s property and as such are not entitled to own land themselves .The Sharia legal system provides women some more rights. Women have the right to own property, have equal access to courts, and can also inherit land with daughters receiving half the share given to sons and a widow a quarter or a one-eighth share. Besides, women often lack financial security and need to maintain good relationships which is why they concede their shares to male family members in most cases. Some courts also ignore existing laws .There were various initiatives to promote gender equality and strengthen women’s land rights, such as the National Gender Policy, but the implementation has remained weak.
The Land Use Act undermines gender equality indirectly as only the household head can register the land. Moreover, landholding is tied to financial capacities and bureaucratic procedures which women are usually less familiar with . Accordingly, women rarely own land so they are even more vulnerable to eviction and the adverse impacts of land acquisitions.
Urban tenure issues
Since independence there have been two key laws addressing urban planning and development: The Land Use Decree (1978) and the revised Urban and Regional Planning Decree (1999). Urban land management and tenure face various issues in Nigeria. Apart from high population growth - Lagos might become the first 100 million habitant city worldwide – there is an excess demand of land. Especially women and the poor lose out vis-à-vis urban development investments. Large parts of Nigeria’s cities are sprawling informal settlements with at best limited access to sanitation, water, health or other basic services .
Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Tenure (VGGT)
In collaboration with the Africa Land Policy Initiative, the Federal Ministry of Works, Power and Housing (that houses the National VGGT Secretariat), and several state ministries for land agriculture, rural development, environment, and natural resources, FAO has held a number of workshops for the implementation of the VGGT. FAO has also provided IT equipment in order to support the registration process, map grazing areas and forest reserves. A multi-stakeholder platform was established to implement the VGGT, with particular emphasis on harmonizing legislation with the management of pastoral lands.
Timeline - milestones in land governace
Precolonial times – Customary law
Customary tenue is a local and constantly evolving system of norms and principles that has adapted to sociopolitical changes, the impact of land commodification, and the individualization of land titles.
1978 – Adoption of the Land Use Act
Passed under military rule in an effort to limit the power of customary authorities, the Land Use Act nationalized all land.
1992 – Establishment of the National Agricultural Land Development Authority
Established under the National Agricultural Land Development Authority Decree, the agency is in charge of promoting (agro-industrial) export capacities and improving living standards in rural areas.
1999 – Revision of the Urban and Regional Planning Decree
The decree seeks to combat unplanned urbanization and to ensure basic services in cities.
Since 2000 - Promoting agribusiness investments
The government provides attractive incentives for investors in hope for revenues and economic growth.
Since 1990s – Violent conflict in the Niger Delta
Environmental destruction resulting from oil extraction and the marginalization of local communities has led to a protracted violent conflict.
2011 – Reconstitution of the Presidential Technical Committee on Land Reform
The committee evaluates options to systematize land registration and documentation, and improve transparency.
Where to go next?
The author's suggestion for further reading
A different take on the construction of herder-farmer conflicts in northern Nigeria provides this well-researched study by Kodili Chukwuma.
This recent analysis deals with the longstanding conflict in the Niger Delta.
Isaac Oluwatavo offers insights into the Nigerian land acquisition-food security nexus.
 World Bank. 2021. Country Statistics. URL: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NV.AGR.TOTL.ZS?locations=NG
 FAO. 2020. Nigeria at a glance. URL: http://www.fao.org/nigeria/fao-in-nigeria/nigeria-at-a-glance/en/
 Land Use Act [Decree] of 1978, Chapter 202 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria.
 Boudreaux, Karol. 2005. The Human Face of Conflict: Property and Power in Nigeria. Global Policy Initiative Working Paper. Fairfax: George Mason University.
 Government of Nigeria. 1992. National Agricultural Land Development Authority Act. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/lex-faoc018385/national-agricultural-land-development-authority-act
 Oluwatayo. Isaac B. et al. 2019. Land Acquisition and Use in Nigeria: Implications for Sustainable Food and Livelihood Security. In: Land Use: Assessing the Past, Envisioning the Future. by Luis Loures. URL: https://www.landportal.org/library/resources/land-acquisition-and-use-nigeria-implications-sustainable-food-and-livelihood
 Ikejiofor, U. 2005. Equity in informal land delivery: Insights from Enugu, Nigeria. Land Use Policy, Volume 23, Issue 4, October 2006. Amsterdam, Elsevier.
 Land Use Act 1978. Chapter 202 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria.
 Land Use Act 1978. Laws of the Federation of Nigeria.
 World Bank. 2020. Country statistics. URL: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.RUR.TOTL.ZS?locations=NG
 FAO. 2020. Nigeria at a glance. URL: http://www.fao.org/nigeria/fao-in-nigeria/nigeria-at-a-glance/en/
 Ugboma PP. 2015. Environmental Degradation in Oil Producing Areas of Niger Delta Region, Nigeria: the Need for Sustainable Development. AJOL 4(2): https://landportal.org/library/resources/environmental-degradation-oil-producing-areas-niger-delta-region-nigeria-need-0
 ICG. 2020. Violence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolling Back the Mayhem. Report No 288. URL: https://landportal.org/node/93970 and Chukwuma, Kodili H. 2020. Constructing the Herder–Farmer Conflict as (in)Security in Nigeria. African Security 13(1): 54-76.
 Oluwatayo et al. 2019. Land Acquisition and Use in Nigeria.
 Butler, Stephan. 2012. Nigerian Land Markets and the land use law of 1978. Focus on Land in Africa Brief Series. URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/brief-nigerian-land-markets-and-land-use-law-1978
 Agheyisi, J.E. 2020. Informal Land Delivery and Tenure Security Institutions in Benin City, Nigeria. Urban Forum 31, 1–20.
 Land Use Act [Decree] of 1978
 Oluwatayo et al. 2019. Land Acquisition and Use in Nigeria.
 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, Article 15(2)
[<23] Oluwakemi D. Udoh et al. 2020. The influence of religion and culture on women’s rights to property in Nigeria. Cogent Arts & Humanities. 7(1). URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/influence-religion-and-culture-women%E2%80%99s-rights-property-nigeria
 Married Women’s Property Act of 1882; Marriage Act of 1990, Chapter 218 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria; Matrimonial Causes Act
 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). 2003. CEDAW/C/NGA/4-5. Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under Article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of States parties. New York, USA https://landportal.org/library/resources/consideration-reports-submitted-states-parties-under-article-18-convention
 Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. 2004. Promoting and Protecting Inheritance Rights of Women: A Survey of Law and Practice in Sub-Saharan Africa. Geneva: COHRE.
 Chigbu, Uchendu E. et al. 2019. Differentiations in Women’s Land Tenure Experiences: Implications for Women’s Land Access and Tenure Security in Sub-Saharan Africa. Land 8 (22). URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/differentiations-women%E2%80%99s-land-tenure-experiences-implications-women%E2%80%99s-land-access