The Historical Evolution of Land Law


The Historical Evolution of Land Law by Deborah Ayomiposi Fapohunda

Land is an immovable property and as such, just like almost every other thing on earth is governed by laws and these laws help to regulate how it is used and maximised. Land Law is a prominent aspect of the Nigerian Legal System and it plays a major role in the advancement of the Nigerian Legal System on all grounds. However, the laws governing land in Nigeria did not just emerge out of the blues, they have been in existence ever since the colonial era and has helped to shape what obtains today in the Land Use Act. The Land Use Act which came into play in 1978 is the major legislation governing the Use of Land for Public and Private purposes in Nigeria.

Before the full use of this Act in Nigeria, there has been a number of laws and regulations guiding the use of land in Nigeria, even before the advent of colonialism. The Pre-colonial era saw the use of land being regulated by the various indigenous and customary practices across the various regions in the country at the time. These customary practices included communal land holding, where the land was believed to belong to the whole community and every member of the community had a collective responsibility towards the use of the land. There were also customary means of acquiring land and it included acquisition by descent, by conquest and other means. In customary land tenure system, using the Yoruba land tenure system as a case study, it is said that communal land cannot be totally alienated and the sale of communal land was not a common practice. However, there were provisions for conditional leases and rent of land for both members of the community, as well as strangers.

The colonial era saw the introduction of the laws applicable in England from January 1, 1900, become applicable in the colony, that is, Nigeria. This was as a result of section 45 of the Interpretation Act which stated that all common law, rules of equity and statutes of general application in force in England as at January 1, 1900 would be in force in the colony of Nigeria.

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On the strength of this section, the  English Law of Real Property was applicable in Nigeria, subject to the exceptions contained in the section. Also, the English Common Law rules relating to tenures, dispositions of real property, estates, inheritance, perpetuity and a number of others became enforceable in Nigeria. The doctrines of equity, which included the construction of wills, institution and settlement of land, legal and equitable estates and interests in land and the doctrines of notice, also became applicable by virtue of the section.

The colonial administration went further in enacting Ordinances to regulate the public use of land by and for the government and some of these Ordinances includes, Public Lands Ordinance of 1876 later re-enacted as Public Lands Acquisition 1917, which empowered the Government to acquire land compulsorily for public purposes subject to the payment of compensation to the land owners. This also makes the land acquired become state (formerly crown) land, and therefore, a property of the state. This strategy helped to free land from the prevalent customary land tenure which restricts the land ownership and holding strictly to the family and communal and hardly individual. This allowed for the increase in urban development without customary restrictions. The Act also empowered the Government to grant leases of state Land to private individuals. The title of such grants is therefore free from any communal claims.

Some of the other Ordinances passed with the aim of acquiring land for use of government and private development include; Native Lands Acquisition Proclamation 1900, the Native Lands Acquisition Proclamation 1903, the Crown Lands Management Proclamation, 1906, as amended, the Native Acquisition Ordinance 1917, the Niger Lands Transfer Ordinance 1916 and the Crown Ordinance 1918.

In 1935, the Registration of Title Act was enacted to provide for the registration of land instruments. Land Registration Act Cap 99 and the Registered Land Act 1965 was also enacted for the purpose of registration of titles to land.

In 1958 the State Lands Act Cap 45 was enacted which vested the ownership of all public lands in the state. This also saw each region enacting laws regarding its land. The Western Region enacted the Property and Conveyancing law, Cap 100 Laws of Western Nigeria 1959; Land Instruments Preparation Law Cap. 55; Land Instruments Registration Law, Cap 56; Administration of Estates Law, Cap. 2; Public Lands Acquisition Law, Cap 105; Registration of Titles Law Cap. 57; Native Lands Acquisition Law Cap. 80; and Recovery of Premises Law, Cap 110.

In the Eastern Region, the Land Tenancy Law 1935 was enacted. Acquisition of Land by Aliens Law, 1957; Land Instrument Registration Law 1963; Land Instrument Preparation Law, 1963 and Recovery of Premises Law, 1963.

In the Northern Region, Crown Lands Proclamation 1902, which was an agreement between Sir Frederick Laggard and representatives of the Royal Niger Company under which all lands, rights and easements were vested in the High Commissioner for the time being in trust for His Majesty, was enacted; Niger Lands Ordinance of 1916; Land and Native Rights Proclamation 1908 which was re-enacted with amendments by the Land and Native Rights Ordinance of 1916. This was the position until the Land Tenure Law 1962 was enacted by the Northern House of Assembly, basically re-enacting the 1916 Law with some amendments. 

Coming from a long line of historical evolution of land law in Nigeria, the Land Use Act of 1978 (formerly a Decree) has come to stay as the primary and most important legislation on land matters in Nigeria and this has proved to be a sustainable legislation for the regulation of land in Nigeria.

Conclusively, there's hardly a concept without an historical evolution and the same is said of Land Law in Nigeria. This historical evolution has been affected and influenced by a number of factors including the colonial impact and the need for development both for the government and private individuals. It is important to study and look critically at this evolution to ensure that more efforts are being put into place to improve the sustainability of land laws in Nigeria.

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