REPORT ON THE FIRST EARTH RIGHTS CONFERENCE HELD AT THE NIGER DELTA UNIVERSITY, BAYELSA STATE, NIGERIA ON MARCH 3RD 2011

REPORT ON THE FIRST EARTH RIGHTS CONFERENCE HELD AT THE NIGER DELTA UNIVERSITY, BAYELSA STATE, NIGERIA ON MARCH 3RD 2011

The best of legal minds, estate surveyors and Valuers, traditional rulers, the academia, environmentalists, civil servants and representatives of non-governmental organizations in Bayelsa State on Thursday, March 3, 2011 converged at the state owned Niger Delta University to tackle issues relating to land ownership, housing costs and the prosperity paradox in the state and Nigeria.

The one-day interactive forum, which was organized by local Georgist NGO, Africa Centre for Geoclassical Economics, US based Earth Rights Institute and the Niger Delta University was attended by well over 150 participants.
The conference highlighted proactive perspectives on Nigeria’s Land Use Law, root causes of conflicts, resource wars, environmental degradation, poverty and homelessness and charted a pathway for addressing these challenges.
It also helped to clarify grave misconceptions about Nigeria’s Land Use Laws and land tenure practice amid current calls for radical reforms while encouraging participation in the study and gathering of information on land as a distinct factor of production.

Participants were made to understand the dangers inherent in the commercialisation of land that has led to land speculation resulting in high cost of land which has further pushed access to land usage away from reach of the common man.

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 Earth Rights Institute land rights online course.
Delivering the opening remarks, the Chairman of the occasion, the Bayelsa State Commissioner for Housing and Urban Development, Hon. ThankGod Apere, represented by his Technical Assistant, Arc. Boufini Richman directed participants’ attention to the theme of the conference; ‘Land Ownership, Housing Costs and the Prosperity Paradox’ which he said, sharply brings into focus the imperative need to evolve policies that will ensure easy access to land and affordable 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 said.
The implementation status of Nigeria’s Land Use Law, noted Commissioner Apere, has lately come under severe criticisms by different sections of the society resulting in calls for radical reforms and even outright abrogation.
“Can these proposed reforms”, he asked, “ensure that the poor have easy access to land and housing especially in the urban centres as well as help eliminate profiteering in land by land speculators who exploit the increase in land values?”.

He assured participants that it is the policy of the Bayelsa State Government to ensure an accelerated housing development by initiating several housing projects, and provision of plots within the state capital for various development projects by investors.

He revealed further that the city’s Central Business District which has been acquired and compensation paid to the customary landowners will be allocated to investors to develop commercial properties to increase the housing stock in accordance with the Yenagoa master plan.

Delivering the keynote speech, the Executive Secretary of Yenagoa Capital City Development Authority (CCDA) Mr Ebiowei Doukpola expressed appreciation for being invited to the forum, asserting that, his vision as the CCDA’s helmsman, is to develop a clean decent and functional Yenagoa City.

The implementation strategy he has adopted in developing the state capital, he said is by establishing characteristic urban districts with each of the city districts so designated, offering a balance of different land uses and services.
Mr. Doukpola emphasised that the most important ingredient of implementing a master plan is the control of a scarce and valuable commodity called land.

The urban developer identified five basic ingredients necessary for operating an effective land administration system which include easy land title documentation process via land registration, proper identification of land parcels, promotion of efficient land market and protection of land ownership rights and effective service delivery. He was however yet to see the negative implication of private ownership in land.

The guest speaker was Professor Emeritus, Reuben Udo, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Niger Delta University who is perhaps best known for his contribution towards the promulgation of the Land Use law of 1978.
Prof. Udo in his lecture, described the Land Use Law as one of the most vilified in Nigeria. He asserted that those who have condemned the Land Use 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.

Prof Udo told participants:” 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”.

According to Prof. Udo, the Third Development Plan of Nigeria (1975-80) had observed that “another area of relative neglect in physical planning in Nigeria is land policy”. It noted that both government and the private sector required land in an increasing scale for development projects and that, 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.

The point, he further noted, was made that an increasing number of land speculators “purchase land which they do not intend to develop, hold on to them till development had substantially increased their market value, then sell at abnormal profits”. The plan therefore recommended a firm land policy 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 will have the effect of vesting all land in principle in the state to State Governments under which policy, all future transactions in land will require the approval of the respective State Governors and will be on leasehold basis for 99 years.
This fundamental provision, according to Prof Udo, 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 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.

Prof. Udo further told his audience that the land policy, like most land policy enactments and land legislations, sought to achieve a number of political, economic and social objectives by making a modest attempt to redistribute land so as to achieve a wider measure of social justice and had sought to tackle the economic ills associated with extreme fragmentation of farmlands.

Parts of the law (Section 6 sub section 2) stipulates that for land in an urban area, no single customary right of occupancy shall be granted in respect of an area in excess of 500 hectares for agricultural purposes or 5,000 hectares if granted for grazing purposes except with the consent of the governor said Udo.

“Twenty years after the Land Use Law was enacted”, lamented Prof. Udo, “I carried out an appraisal of the law in a survey to obtain the general poor performance of the law and found that the persistent opposition to the Land Use Law by the Nigerian elite started when the Land Use Panel was set up in 1977. Such opposition tended to give the impression the Land Use Law was not a popular Law. This is far from the truth because the Land Use Decree at the onset was received with fanfare by the urban working class in the hope that it will impact positively on the urban housing situation. 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”.

“Many members and high officials of the Government”, noted Prof Udo, “usually come from or 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”.
Among the deficiencies of the land law, noted Prof. Udo, includes the abuse of revocation of Rights of Occupancy by Governors particularly in the Federal Capital Territory who flagrantly revoked rights on land allocated to Nigerians and illegally transferred them to family members and friends.

The forum also examined current wealth distribution modalities adopted by mainstream neoliberal economists all over the world that has today produced an unjust and inequitable society where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This was highlighted in the paper presented by the Executive Director of Africa Centre for Geoclassical Economics, Georgist Gordon Abiama, the organizers of the forum.

Quoting from the article, “Who Owns the Earth?” by Alanna Hartzok (2001), Mr. Abiama commented on the capitalist and socialist type solutions to the wealth distribution problem and concluded that both systems have failed. The socialist system he said resulted in “unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracies that, while more evenly distributing produced wealth, depresses productive powers by inhabiting individual incentives and freedom”.
“The capitalist arrangement, while maximizing efficiency in production through competition and reward for individual incentive, cannot resolve the misdistribution of wealth problem because of a basic flaw in putting land base in the same market category as labour-produced wealth”.

Mr. Abiama then introduced the audience to Geoism, otherwise known as The Third Way Economics paradigm which recognizes land as a distinct factor of production. He further quoted from Alanna Hartzok’s article, ‘Who Owns The Earth’, which says 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”.

Mr. Abiama enlightened participants on the evils of land speculation and its manifold impact on the social and economic development of a city. Landlords and land speculators he said do hoard lands by holding onto them for many years without developing them, hoping that someday they can be sold at a very good profit. Land, Mr. Abiama emphasized, becomes cheaper when speculation is no longer profitable and this can best be achieved by drastically increasing tax on land values of these unused lands in order to encourage the owners to either put them to productive use or sell them to those who will.

Mr. Abiama observed that land values in Yenagoa is rising very rapidly with land speculators already cashing in on the situation, thus pushing access to land out of the reach of the common man. He warned that unless the Government discouraged private property in land as enshrined in the county’s current land use law, land access will continue to favour the rich at the expense of the poor who will be consigned to perpetual tenancy to the rich landlords.
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 told participants that land value taxation, unlike other confiscatory taxes, recovers the value that government spending on services and infrastructure gives to land, distributing it to all citizens equitably.
Land value taxation, declared Abiama, when robustly implemented on all land sites based on fair and current valuations eliminates incentives for speculation, reduces land prices and keeps land accessible and affordable for those who need it.

By replacing harmful, unfair taxes on production, exchange and labour, land value taxation increases wealth production while ensuring fairer distribution of wealth - both essential in order to dramatically reduce poverty, prevent urban sprawl, skewed settlement patterns and eliminate bloody conflicts, said Mr. Abiama.
Mr. Abiama quoted Economist Fred Harrison (The Losses of Nations):” If land rent is available for private appropriation, it acts like a candle drawing a moth to a flame. There is an inevitable thrust of investment activity away from job-creating enterprises into speculative activity in land market”.

Mr. Abiama concluded: “It is my belief 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”.

The Chairman of the Bayelsa State Chapter of the Nigerian Institution of Estate Surveyors and Valuers, Mr. Moses Teibowei spoke on the Bayelsa State experience in terms of land value increase.
“The state transformed from a rural status to an urban one by the singular act of state creation on 1996. The state capital, Yenagoa witnessed an influx of people and the demand for land increased tremendously. The implication of massive demand for land by individuals, companies, corporate bodies and the government for various uses such as residential, commercial, industrial, recreational, religious and agricultural purposes is the sharp upward movement of land values or prices in Yenagoa and its environs.

“It is not out of place to say the value of land is basically influenced by its location and nearness to availability of basic infrastructures such as good road network, drainage facilities, public water system and electricity as well as population”.

Mr. Teibowei then concludes by calling 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.
At the end of the conference, participants were introduced to Earth Rights Institute online course on Land rights and were encouraged to enroll.

Hassan Ahmed from Abuja and Prince John Ebulu from neighboring Abia State also graced the occasion.

Forums: