Earth Rights Conference Held at Niger Delta University

by Gordon Abiama

A group of over 150, including lawyers, surveyors and appraisers, traditional rulers, the academia, environmentalists, civil servants and NGO representatives gathered in Bayelsa State on March 3rd at the state-owned Niger Delta University to tackle issues relating to land ownership, housing costs and the prosperity paradox in Nigeria. The forum was organized by our local NGO, Africa Centre for Geoclassical Economics, the Earth Rights Institute (with support from the International Georgist Union) and the Niger Delta University.

The forum helped to clarify grave misconceptions about Nigeria’s Land Use Laws and land tenure practices amid current calls for radical reforms, while highlighting the economic importance of land. Participants were introduced to the economic and political dangers of land speculation. Mr. Abiama began with a power-point presentation of great thinkers of and their views on the land question.

Opening remarks were given by the Bayelsa State Commissioner for Housing and Urban Development, Hon. ThankGod Apere, represented by his Technical Assistant, Arc. Boufini Richman, on the need to create policies that will ensure affordable access to land and shelter. “Our efforts at urban development are faced with many challenges ranging from lack of effective enforcement of planning laws, increasing cost of construction materials to rural urban migration which has put Yenagoa city under tremendous social and economic pressure.”

Commissioner Apere noted that the implementation status of Nigeria’s Land Use Law has lately come under severe criticisms by different sections of the society, resulting in calls for radical reforms or even outright abrogation. He assured participants that despite these difficulties, the Bayelsa State Government plans to initiate several housing projects and commercial developments in the state capital of Yenagoa.

Mr. Ebiowei Doukpola, the Executive Secretary of Yenagoa Capital City Development Authority, expressed his vision to develop a clean, decent and functional Yenagoa City, by establishing characteristic urban districts offering a balance of different land uses and services. He emphasized that the most important element of implementing a master plan is the control of land. He identified the five basic ingredients of an effective land administration system: 1) easy land title documentation process via land registration; 2) proper identification of land parcels; 3) promotion of efficient land markets; 4) protection of land ownership rights and 5) effective service delivery. He did not, however, acknowledge any negative implications of private land ownership.

Professor Emeritus, Reuben Udo, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Niger Delta University is perhaps best known for his contribution towards the promulgation of the Land Use law of 1978. Prof. Udo described the Land Use Law as one of the most vilified in Nigeria. He asserted that those who have condemned the Law and are asking for its abrogation have not taken the time to study it, adding that they appeared not to be aware that the law came about as a response by government to numerous complaints about development constraints posed by existing land tenure systems in the country. “I was convinced from studies of migrant farmers in the South-South and South-West regions of Nigeria, that a firm and revolutionary land policy was necessary for the planned development of Nigerian economy and for ensuring political stability and fostering national integration.”

Prof. Udo observed that both government and the private sector required land in an increasing scale for development projects, and, although legislation existed empowering government to acquire land compulsorily for public purposes, it had become difficult to do so at reasonable cost in some urban areas. An increasing number of land speculators “purchase lands which they do not intend to develop, hold on to them till development had substantially increased their market value, then sell at abnormal profits.” He said a firm land policy was needed to check artificial inflation of land values and to minimize ‘unearned’ income from land speculation.

The result of this development, said Prof Udo, was the promulgation of a decree that, in principle, vested all land in the state to State Governments, and all future transactions in land would require the approval of the respective State Governors and will be on leasehold basis for 99 years.

This implied a revolutionary change in ownership, usage and control of land in the Southern states — but not so in the Northern States, which had operated under a similar law since 1916. This meant that the Governors in the Southern states replaced the Family (or Clan) head, the Oba or any other traditional ruler as trustee of land for the people.

Unfortunately, however, the Land Law was never fully implemented. Nevertheless, though it is criticized by the elite, it remains popular among most Nigerians. “Most newspapers carried headlines, articles and editorials describing the legislation as one of the few major and positive achievements that the military administration had to its credit,” said Prof. Udo. “Many members and high officials of the Government,” he continued, “…are closely associated with the landed aristocracy. The vested interest in land by such persons generally works to impede effective implementation of land reform legislation. The role played by this group is a major factor responsible for the widening gap between the declared objectives of land reform laws and the realization of such objectives.”

Gordon Abiama’s presentation highlighted the ways in which neoliberal economic policies have produced an unjust and inequitable social order all over the world. Quoting from the article, “Who Owns the Earth?” by Alanna Hartzok (2001), Mr. Abiama commented on failure of both the capitalist and socialist solutions to the wealth distribution problem. He introduced the audience to Geoism, otherwise known as The Third Way paradigm, which recognizes land as a distinct factor of production. He further quoted from Alanna Hartzok’s article that Geoism or the Georgist paradigm “arises from and brings into proper perspective an appreciation and unification of the highest values of both the left and the right. It shows concern for fairness in distribution of wealth and collective societal needs as emphasized by the left-wingers and the individual freedom and incentive in production valued by the right.”

An old woman had hobbled up to him. My son, they arrived this morning and dug up my entire farm, my only farm. They mowed down the toil of my brows, the pride of the waiting months. They say they will pay me compensation. Can they compensate me for my labours? The joy I receive when I see the vegetables sprouting, God’s revelation to me in my old age? Oh my son, what can I do?
What answer now could he give her? I’ll look into it later, he had replied tamely. Look into it later.
He could almost hate himself for telling that lie. He cursed the earth for spouting oil, black gold, they called it. And he cursed the gods for not drying the oil wells. What did it matter that millions of barrels of oil were mined and exported daily, so long as this poor woman wept those tears of despair? What could he look into later? Could he make alternate land available? And would the lawmakers revise the laws just to bring a bit more happiness to these unhappy wretches whom the search for oil had reduced to an animal existence? They ought to send the oil royalties to the men whose farms and land were despoiled and ruined. But the lawyers were in the pay of the oil companies and the government people in the pay of the lawyers and the companies. So how could he look into it later?
— from Forest of Flowers, by Ken Saro-Wiwa (1986)

Mr. Abiama enlightened participants on the evils of land speculation and its manifold impact on the social and economic development of a city. He observed that land values in Yenagoa are rising very rapidly. Land speculators are already cashing in on the situation, pushing access to land out of the reach of the common man. Dismissing assertions that land value taxation will not be enough to meet public finance commitments, Mr. Abiama referred to Lagos State whose major source of public finance is the collection of ground rent and has therefore gone out to tackle the menace posed by land speculators. Mr. Abiama explained how land value taxation, unlike other taxes, recovers the value that government spending on services and infrastructure gives to land, distributing it to all citizens equitably. Land value taxation, when robustly implemented and based on fair and current valuations eliminates incentives for speculation, reduces land prices and keeps land accessible and affordable for those who need it. He concluded by saying that “the land value approach in public finance holds considerable potential for addressing the varied distortions in land management and use. The result of an analysis of its potential impact on Yenagoa would be most instructive for our land policy planners.”

Mr. Moses Teibowei, of the Nigerian Institution of Estate Surveyors and Valuers, spoke on the Bayelsa State’s experience of land value increase. When the state, which was formed from parts of three other states, was created in 1996, land values in Yenagoa, its capital, skyrocketed. Mr. Teibowei called on the government to create an enabling environment for the people to make the best and judicious use of their assets, notably land while calling for a review of the Land Use Act of 1978 as demanded by the Nigerian Institution of Estate Surveyors and Valuers.

The conference also announced the intention of the organizers to embark on a Challenges and Opportunities Project for Land Value capture Implementation for Yenagoa and possibly other big cities like Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, while encouraging them to enroll in courses, such as those offered online by the Earth Rights Institute and the HGI.

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