TITLE AND MANAGEMENT OF LAND UNDER NATIVE LAW AND CUSTOM OF THE PEOPLE OF THE MIDDLE-BELT OF NIGERIA
The term “Middle Belt” was introduced into the literature on Nigeria by Forde in 1946 when he used the term to describe the area of the Central zone in Nigeria where the political Cultural, economic, social and population characteristic are quite distinct from those of the forest land of the South and Sudan zones of the North. The region has been specially defined as the area roughly coinciding with some parts of the former provinces of Adamawa, Benue, Ilorin, Kabba, Niger and Plateau, The whole of the Middle Belt region is an open Savannah. The main occupation of the inhabitants is farming. This includes crops such as millet, yams, cassava, rice, guinea-corn, beans, and maize. beni-seed, cotton, ground-nuts, shea-nuts, palm oil, palmkenels and timbers. The Middle Belt consists of numerous groups of people or communities. They include: the Tiv, Igala, Idoma, Bassa, and Agatu of the Benue State. The Alago, Egbura, Afo, Gwari, Mijili and Eggon of the Southern part of Plateau State. And the Nupe Community of the Niger State. The areas covered by this dissertation include Nasarawa, Keffi, Akwarga, Lafia and Awe Local Government Areas of Plateau State; Suleija Local Government Area of Niger State the whole of Benue State. Others are: the Koton Karfi District of the Kogi Local Government Area of Kwara State and lastly, the New Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. In the past, land did not commend an enhanced economic value in the Middle Belt, inspite of the fact that much importanfce was attached to it as a primary source of maintenance. This low economic value of land was attributed to three factors. Firstly, Land was plentiful. Secondly, the population of the Middle Belt was sparsed due to exeessive wars and raids by the Hausas and the Fulani’s of the far North. Thirdly, with the exception of the few traditional transactions such as loans and pledge there were virtually no transactions involving land due to the absence of ash economy. Under these conditions, the tenurial system of the peoples of the Middle Belt was bound to be a simple, ordinary and tumid one; evolved principally, to meet their simple requirements. Because of this, land was owned by villagers, Communities or by family members in a form of group. Hardly was land owned by an individual. This led to a conclusion that under native law and custom, the concept of individual ownership of land was foreign to native ideas. Therefore, under the ancient traditional land law, the bases of ownership of land are two. First,land is owned by communities. Under this system, the title to the communal land is vested in the community as a whole. And in most cases the management of the communal land is the responsibility of the Village head or chief who in loose mode of speach is referred to as the owner. He allocates, collects tributes and all proceeds arising from the management of the communal land. Secondly, the family land. Similarly, a family land or property is the property of every member of the family. It is owned jointly indivibibly and no part of it is capable of being owned by an individual member. The management of it is the responsibility of the family head who in most cases acts in consultation with the principal members of the family. However, because of the modern developments, a third type of ownership of land namely, individual ownership is in the bud in the Middle Belt, particularly in the urban centres like Gboko, Makurdi, Lafia Nasarawa, Keffi just to mention a few. Earlier, it was mentioned that in the Middle 3elt of Nigeria, in the past, transaction involving land was unknown. With the arrival of the modern cash economy transactions such as sale, gift, loans and pledge are on the increase. Inshort, alienation of land which was hitherto not possible can now be made provided that the consent of the Majority of the principal members has been obtained by the head of the family. In the whole, a careful perusal of the customary land law in the Middle Belt of Nigeria today would show that, the system evolved in order to meet the simple, ordinary and local requirements of the peasant farmers. Economic consideration, therefore, was the least factor taken care of by the system in the past. Rather, the communal nature of landholding was seen as an important factor which could sustain and promote social cohesion in the community or family. For instance, the communal or the group farming system is a device which provides both social and individual securities which could be resorted to in time of need. However, despite these lofty ideals of the customary land tenure, it was observed that, the communal nature of customary landholding is unsuitable in the context of modern developments. Several reasons could be accounted for this. Firstly, customary land law does not provide adequate security of title held under it. This is because under native law custom, the use of documents to prove title is dispensed with. In most cases, therefore, title to land is proved by oral evidence which is usually not coherent. Secondly, there is the problem of uneasy disposition of property even at the time when-the need to dispose it is dire. This is so because of the doctrine of concurrence which provides that for a valid alienation to take place under native law and custom, there must be the concurrence of the family head with the majority of the principal members of the family. In view of the realities of the present circumstances it is always not easy to get such required concurrence. Thirdly, the community of landholding has been a major factor for the lack of economic incentive which is vital for the developing and enhancing the value of properties in the Middle Belt. Fourthly customary land law does not provide a general rule for the distribution of land equitably among the communities. This, it could be noticed that certain communities or families have enough tracts of land while others are suffering from acute shortage of lad. Infact there is no limit as to the number of accrage or hectre a family could hold at a time. These and other reasons are the major problems which customary land law suffers. Inview of the above mentioned shortcomings it is suggested that security of title should be guranteed by compulsory registration of titles, held under native law and custom. Secondly, there should be established a committee known as Family Property Management Committee which should be responsible for the management of family property. This will check frauds and minimise heckering and squables which always threaten the stability and cordial relationships which normally exist in families. Thirdly, there should be an effective means of land distribution whereby vacant lands could be allocated to families and commmnities who have not enough of land to farm. One way of doing this is by settlement schemes Fourthly, individualization of land through the grant of certificate of Occupancy should be encouraged. Already in the Urban towns of the Middle Belt region this method of ownership of land is rapidly gaining recognition. In the main, it can be concluded that the problem which has beset title and management of land under native law and custom in the Middle Belt of Nigeria is that of the tenure system itself. The system despite its advantages cannot cope with the demands of the people economically. Therefore, notwithstanding the availability of land in abundance, land owners in the Middle Belt still live in abject poverty. This is because, the system is obsolate, antiquated and un-incentive. The only hope is that, as the society grows and becomes more sophisticated the system will eventually die a natural death. This pessimism is particularly eminent with the establishment of the present Land Use Act.