March 7, 2021

Legalizing Land-grab in Nigeria

By Masara Kim

In 1953 when sovereign national government was first mentioned in the Nigerian parliament during the John McPherson constitution review, the idea was to curb any tendency to give out any part of the country’s geographical, economic or political landscape to foreigners. The later contemplation of sanctions against trespass in the Criminal Code Act 1990 was to guard against similar acts amongst citizens in the country.

Trespass to land, referred to in legal parlance as “quare clausum fregit” (breaking the close of a person’s land) means the interference with the possession of land without lawful justification. By implication, the slightest crossing of boundary of an individual’s land could be trespass. In other law definitions, when a person lawfully enters a land but subsequently abuses the privilege of that law by committing some wrongful acts, or stays beyond his allocated time in the affected land, he would be held liable for trespass ab-initio on that property.

The rule, according to M.P Daniel (2017) is that the authority, having been abused by doing a wrongful act under its cover, is cancelled retrospectively such that its exercise becomes actionable in trespass. In other words, Daniel holds that even though the defendant enters the land lawfully, the law presumes him to be a trespasser from the very beginning since he went there with a wrong intention in mind.

In Nigerian Middle-belt States, where minority tribes are the dominant population, hardly is there a community that does not have at least a Fulani herder settlement. Most of these herders got the lands within which they reside with the consent of the native land owners. However, with time, many of them began expanding their base beyond their donated territories, often without permission, and sometimes through violence and intimidation.

Dozens of petitions, court cases and media outcry exist wherein individuals allude to forceful acquisition and inhabitation of their rightful lands by visiting herders. However, such acts have persisted, clearly due to the weak enforcement of the relevant laws by the Nigerian authorities. More worrisomely, the actions of some government officials have seemed to be endorsing the illegalities. From the contemplation of grazing routes and reserves in the 1960s and 1970s, pursuant to government’s constitutional powers over land, and the subsequent abolition of animal tax, removing all restrictions to free movement by herders, government has directly or indirectly empowered herders to displace and/or takeover any land for residence and/or grazing.

Ardo Mamuda School, Mahanga, Riyom LGA

The reintroduction of the grazing reserves policy, several times from 2011, under different names and descriptions against widespread public objection, the widespread intimidation and harassment of attacked communities by government Forces on supposed peacekeeping missions, as well as the constant denial of, and/or failure to condemn and punish attacks on local communities by government has all the more emboldened criminals to continue their misdemeanor.

In Plateau State for instance, government in February 2020 enacted a law that criminalizes “land-grab”, but only affecting government reserved land. The “land grabbers” according to the law are people who encroach into such properties reserved by government for any purpose whatsoever. Given the incumbent State Governor’s sympathy for herders, the land protection law was believed to be aimed at confiscating private lands for the federal proposed grazing reserves, cattle ranches, cattle colonies and/or Rural Grazing Areas which he persistently indicated interest in.

The State government had yet to address those concerns, when the President Muhammadu Buhari led Federal government, to which the Governor has demonstrated unflinching loyalty, built two ultramodern primary schools furnished with VIP toilets in Rankum, a Plateau native community sacked and taken over by herders, and renamed Mahanga. Named Ardo Mamuda Primary School after a renowned Fulani leader, the double 12 classroom blocks facilitated by the Sustainable Development Goals program, without mincing words, legitimizes land grab.

The previously Berom native village was displaced in 2012 by herders who were initially accommodated by the locals. The government is aware the community was annexed, but it still recognized and sited the project therein. “I agree that Mahanga is not the name of the village,” the SDGs spokesperson, Moses Azi told The Vanguard. The body’s only excuse is that the displaced original land owners never complained until the project was completed. However, the community has been no-go area for non-Muslim private civilians. The project only became known after pictures of its commissioning were published by the new occupants of the village during the coronavirus lockdown in the State.

Be that as it may, the government siting the project in the community without consultation, despite knowing that it was annexed, and completing it within a short period, believed to be three months, brings to question the government’s claimed fight against terrorism, corruption and injustice. This is not the first time such irregularity is happening.

In 2018 after herders killed nearly 300 natives of Gashish, Shonong and Ropp Districts in Northern Plateau State, government delivered relief materials to over 30,000 displaced people taking shelter in over 15 IDP camps in the State, but not without allegedly giving a portion of the items to herders in another annexed community, Hywa in Berom dialect, renamed Lugere in Fulfulde. This was after the government allegedly paid millions of naira as compensation for missing cattle to herdsmen.

Presently, over 50 attacked communities in Plateau State have been taken over by the supposed aggressors. They include Fass renamed Tafawa, Rotchun, renamed Rafin Acha, Dahwak, Maseh renamed Lugel and Farandong-Hai renamed Josho. Others currently occupied by herders but not verifiably renamed are Dahwak, Chwelnyap, Lyoho, Dakar and Angwan Dalyop. Darin, Janda, Shonong I and II, Rakweng, Dashugu, Diyan-hei, Kampwas, Kasa, Zere, Ninja-Hei, She, Nicha, Pwabeduk, Hyai, Kufang, Sharu, Dogo, Ningon, Rantis and Angio.

In all of these villages, schools operated by government exist with funds generated through taxes from the displaced natives used to maintain them. Meanwhile, in most communities attacked by the herders, whether taken over or not, public facilities including schools and hospitals are often destroyed. The government allowing such and approving infrastructural developments after the takeover of communities suggests disempowering the locals and empowering the attackers who should be dislodged and/or punished based on relevant laws.

More so, the new occupants of the sacked villages have always been recognized during elections. Beyond just endorsing such illegal inhabitation of communities, such actions by government could suggest encouraging the aggressors to attack, takeover and occupy more communities. Even if they do not attack, with their unrestricted marriages and birthrates, the herders are soon able to take over the political decision making processes of the State or at least the communities within which they reside, since Nigeria operates a democracy, which is governed by numbers.

The conclusion of the whole matter is, perhaps, that government is complacent in dealing with herdsmen attacks in minority communities. By its actions and inactions, which mostly end in verbally condemning attacks, verbally directing securities to fish out perpetrators and appealing to the injured population not to take the laws into its hands, government has appeared to be supporting wrongdoing. Unless urgent steps are taken to prove otherwise, the affected populations would keep growing in discontent against both the government and the perpetrators. This could one day lead to violent rebellion which the government might not be able to contain.