In the popular discussion of the elements that serve as the condition for national development in Nigeria, there is often a deserved focus on socioeconomic issues and ideas relating to infrastructure, capital utilisation, power, human capital development, and other economic dynamics we could regard as constituting a major development framework tried and tested everywhere around the world. The issue of national development is a multidimensional matrix around which the progress of any nation is calibrated. And very often, attention is usually directed at other factors of production—capital, labour, and entrepreneurship—except land. The critical nature of land as a significant factor in national development is not a popular topic for discussion.
The transformation of the development profile in Nigeria is often hinged around a paradigm shift in productivity. I have equally written on the imperative of recalibrating Nigeria’s productivity paradigm through the reform of the public service institution. Productivity, for instance, is often stalled when government invests enormous costs on administrative activities without requisite returns in terms of productivity. And labour, for instance, automatically becomes the focus of such increased productivity. The bloated nature of the public service in Nigeria has remained a source of concern for many successive governments, as well as reformers and scholars of public administration. Yet, there are only a few reformers who have staked their reputations on the transformation of the existing legal architecture concerning land use in Nigeria.
That land has not received the deserved attention it deserves as a critical element in national development is best demonstrated by Nigeria’s stubborn fixation with the Land Use Act of 1978, and the political intrigues that have stalled any serious attempt at connecting the dots between the legislative intelligence that went into the crafting of the Land Use Act thirty eight years ago and the exigencies of development that confront Nigeria in the twenty first century. Land use in Nigeria is enmeshed in a lot of factors, beginning from the principle of primogeniture down to the idea of kinship. While the modern state in Nigeria exercises immense control over most dimensions of people’s lives, land use in Nigeria is still essentially a community and customary affairs. More than this, land use in Nigeria has been integrated within the dynamics of the political economy and the struggle for socioeconomic relevance that dictates how, for instance, the state governors in Nigeria have been reacting to proposed amendments of the Land Use Act in consonance with the imperatives of socioeconomic development.
At a superficial level, it is very easy to be incensed at the continued existence of an Act, since 1978, which contradicts all essential lessons of land use everywhere on the globe. It is even very easy, but more frustrating, to interpret the governors as mere political obstacles who are content to sit as lords of the manor and collect revenues accruing from the exiting state of land use in Nigeria. One’s frustration will definitely be compounded with the awareness that in the Ease of Doing Business Index for 2016, Nigeria is 169 out of 190! However, no matter how frustrated one might be, there is a need to see the big picture in order to be able to achieve a composite understanding of what is on ground and what needs to be done.
The Land Use Act and all the political drama that have attended its proposed amendments fall squarely within the ambit of a lopsided federalism with a unitary intent. The promulgation of the Land Use Act undermines the very spirit of federalism because the Act is a federal law which overrides any peculiar customary or legal dynamics existing within the states. In a true federal situation, land belongs with the local communities, and hence with the state governments. In this context therefore, the reluctance of the state governments to actively get involved in the amendment of the Act should be seen as one of the fallouts of a controlled reaction against a “federal” legislation which has consigned all sources of revenue to an exclusive constitutional list. The Land Use Act ought to be on the concurrent list which permits some levels of flexibility in the relationship between the government at the federal and state levels.
Such a structural hindrance to the insertion of land use into the socioeconomic calculation of national development in Nigeria has even a bigger implication. In The Mystery of Capital (2000), Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist, explores the question why capitalism is triumphant everywhere else in the West but its development charm has so far failed to rub off on the third world. Why, that is, has capitalism failed to deliver the kind of development wealth it has given to western societies? His answer: third world countries have all that it takes to reproduce the trappings of capitalism, but they lack the most essential requirement in capitalism—capital. According to de Soto, the non-Western societies may have huge resources, but they mostly “hold these resources in defective forms.” One example he gives is relevant to our discussion on land. In most third world societies: “houses built on land whose ownership rights are not adequately recorded, unincorporated businesses with undefined liability, industries located where financiers and investors cannot see them.” When, as is the case with Nigeria’s knotty land use dynamics, lands are not properly documented, then they cannot be turned into capital for investment and other purposes. Elsewhere, a house on a parcel of land together constitutes a huge investment capital for the owner because the government has already mapped out the procedural requisites for purchasing, leasing or owning lands.
It becomes immediately obvious to the discerning that the achievement of capital for development purpose requires sustainable institutional capability and capacitation. I remember that in his autobiography, Prof. Akin Mabogunje dedicated a chapter to his concern about land reform in Nigeria. He narrated the enthusiasm with which the late President Yar’Adua inaugurated the committee on land reform and how that led to the establishment of a larger commission that was to take up the herculean task of a cadastral mapping and registration of all land in Nigeria. His narration documented the political hindrances the committee witnessed in the attempt to put together the initial institutional conditions for the possibility of land reform. Could we then infer that the reason the chapter in Mabogunje’s autobiography ended so abruptly on the land reform initiative is that the enthusiasm for that critical reform apparently died with the late president?
Whether we know it or not, the land use act, and the structural hiccups it keeps engendering, continues to negatively affect individual and national socioeconomic growth and development. If de Soto’s argument is correct, Nigeria cannot replicate the conditions that will allow for the generation of developmental wealth. The administrative encumbrances that come with registering a business or obtaining a Certificate of Occupancy alone explains why the ease of doing business in Nigeria is so frustrating that it stifles capital inflow into the country.
Institutions matter. And where institutions are dysfunctional like they are in Nigeria, then a reform dynamics is facilitated by the urgency of the demands that development is making on the nation. Land reform begins as an administrative and legal engagement with the Land Use Act. If such a legal engagement with the Nigerian Constitution seems daunting, the preliminary cadastral mapping fieldwork, the type of which was assigned to the Mabogunje Committee some ten years back, signals the type of robust reform blueprint that the Buhari administration requires enormous political will to push the change agenda through to a successful transformation of Nigeria.
Change does not often speak to a gigantic project of comprehensive development. On the contrary, a change dynamics only requires that a government picks up from where another government stops. It requires also the committed government to outline specific elements of national development whose reform could be set in motion in creative ways that will ignite short-term, mid-term and long-term development objectives. The land reform project involves a long term objective of registering all the land in Nigeria for the purpose of generating enormous revenue for the government, as well as injecting capital investment into the country. Putting in place the institutional procedures that will make deeds and titles to land easy to obtain and the land blueprint of Nigeria ready at hand is an arduous project. But then, one of the mandates that Nigerians gave the Buhari administration is not only to intend some good policies, but to also put in place the administrative dynamics that will translate good intention into good policies.