An image of the country's flag.

Nigeria‘s status as a large, populous, lower-middle income country with an economy buoyed by significant oil and gas exports and achieving a five percent or better GDP growth rate (2000–2008) is not reflected in indicators measuring human development. Overall, Nigeria ranked 158th out of 182 developing countries in the United Nations Human Development Index for 2007, and reached only the 167th position regarding life expectancy at birth. More than half of Nigeria‘s population reportedly lives on less than US $1 a day, with the greatest poverty in the northern region, which is primarily Muslim. Water contamination, air pollution, and urbanization are stressing natural resources throughout the country. Disputes regarding the allocation of rights and benefits to the resources of the oil-rich Delta region of southeastern Nigeria have repeatedly sparked civil conflict.

Oil and gas exploitation accounts for 80% or more of government revenues and 95% or more of export earnings. Agriculture and oil account for approximately equal shares of GDP, largely because the agricultural sector employs more than half of the working population. Most observers agree, though, that as Nigeria‘s population grows to more than 150 million, land for agriculture is becoming increasingly scarce for most farmers. Smallholder producers have compensated for land scarcity to some extent by increasing their productivity through intensification of labor, but smaller farms generate smaller per capita household incomes, perpetuating poverty.

Public investments in agriculture have been extremely low (less than 2% of total federal expenditure between 2001 and 2005), and corruption has been identified in areas where the federal and state governments have played a role (e.g., fertilizer distribution). Pressures have been growing, however, for the federal government to revitalize agriculture as well as to deal with the continuing political, social, and economic instabilities associated with the oil and gas sector. Responding to these pressures is likely to require both the federal and state governments to consider reform of their positions on resource governance and the ability of citizens to access productive land and acquire secure rights to that land.

Nigeria is a heterogeneous society, ethnically, socially, and in the people‘s relation to the land. The 1978 Land Use Act delegated authority over land allocation to the 36 states and their local governments in an effort to ensure that rural and urban populations had access and secure tenure to land. Land-allocation advisory committees were intended to assist in the issuing of customary certificates of occupancy to applicants, reducing speculation and streamlining access.

Most observers believe that not only have the objectives of the Land Use Act not been achieved, but that the law has contributed to further distortions and abuses of citizens‘ rights to access and own land. Further, government‘s land-use administration has not constrained the unrelenting expansion of agricultural land into fallow and forested areas or the overuse of forest resources to meet the population‘s energy and food needs. Environmental destruction and pollution from oil extraction operations threaten Nigeria‘s forest and water resources as well as agricultural livelihoods.

Stakeholders have expressed differing views as to the most effective methods of land tenure reform. These can be summarized as follows:

  1. Allow smallholder farmers to expand in adjacent plots and otherwise consolidate their holdings to encourage mechanization and economies of scale;
  2. Preserve smallholdings and provide smallholder farmers with appropriate technologies;
  3. Tax landholdings to obligate farmers to increase their efficient utilization and bring large tracts of underutilized land into production; or
  4. Redistribute lands that have been acquired in dubious fashion.

Some feel that individual freehold tenure should be granted, especially in urban areas, while others believe that maintaining usufruct and communal options will allow for more flexible responses to changing economic opportunities and demographics. Still others maintain that markets should replace the administrative allocation processes enshrined in the Land Use Act. In any case, in March, 2010 the Lower House of the National Assembly rejected President Umaru Yar’Adua’s Bill to establish a National Land Reform Commission for the restructuring of land matters across the country.

Nevertheless land tenure issues remain critical to Nigeria‘s future. The greatest urgency is in urban areas, where unplanned, sprawling informal settlements without public water or sanitation facilities have continued to expand, in some cases engulfing smaller towns whose own property governance systems have been overridden. But as investments in low-lying riverine agricultural production ramp up with the Fadama III project (especially for rice) and new technologies for boosting production of cassava, yam, and maize are applied, the urgency of addressing land and water access and tenure security for rural land will also rise. Several of these activities fall within the scope of USAID‘s program for Economic Growth and, with greater US attention to food security in sub-Saharan Africa, should receive higher priority.


  • Engage with the federal government under President Jonathan or his successor through the Bi-National Commission to determine opportunities to introduce legislative reforms. Donors are undertaking a number of activities in the economic growth and agricultural sectors that could benefit from a clear analysis of land tenure issues. To obtain more current, comprehensive and investment-relevant land tenure information from all regions of the country, donors should be encouraged to document:
    • how land is held and used;
    • who is on the land under what terms (with particular attention to women and marginalized groups);
    • how the land is being cultivated\;
    • how land markets are functioning;
    • the nature of the pressures on the land in various areas;
    • the nature of land disputes and the mechanisms for managing them;
    • what institutions are operating at state and local levels; and
    • how the formal and customary legal systems are impacting the rural population.

On the basis of this work and further engagement in dialogue with the federal government, donors should be able to better assess the priorities for reform and, potentially, pilot areas for testing implementation of different options. The results of the work could also give USAID a basis on which to design its own strategy and set priorities for its work in the area of land and other natural resources.

  • Pilot land-rights formalization processes. Nigeria‘s planners t have not yet determined how best to formalize land rights, particularly in areas of great sensitivity, such as informal urban settlements, communal lands that are under pressure for development, land used by pastoralists, and encroached forestland. Donors can provide critical perspectives on formalization of land rights in these and other areas of the country to ensure that the rights of the economically and socially disadvantaged are protected. USAID experience in both Nigeria and elsewhere can assist planners in creating program designs that include components for legal literacy and dispute-resolution. Support for pilot efforts can provide the government with valuable information as well as begin to compile lessons learned and best practices as reforms proceed.
  • Pilot and expand more effective forest management projects. Nigeria‘s forests are heavily used by local communities for both timber and non-timber products. The current legal framework is not providing adequate protection for all forests and for unclassified forests in particular. Nigeria has had some experience with community-based programs but may also be assisted by donors to prepare a national program that addresses forces for deforestation or poor forest protection practices that stem from factors beyond the communities’ control. USAID could provide useful support: collecting information regarding Nigeria’s experience with community-based natural resource management, documenting lessons learned and best practices, assisting with the design of a national program, and conducting pilots in various regions of the country.


With an estimated population just over 151 million representing more than 250 ethnic groups, Nigeria is the most populous nation in sub-Saharan Africa. Since Independence in 1960, Nigeria has become a powerhouse in the global petroleum market, among the 10 largest exporters of oil in the world, sharing the top position in Africa with Angola. Since 2003, oil has generated an average of about a third of Nigeria‘s GDP, 80% of government revenue, and about 90% of the country‘s exports.

Despite the dominance of the country‘s oil sector, Nigeria has a large agricultural economy, principally serving domestic consumption needs. Once robust exports of palm oil, cotton, and peanuts have disappeared, but agriculture contributes a significant percentage of GDP and provides employment for more than half the rural population. Still, agricultural productivity in Nigeria has languished for decades, suffering from low rates of both public and private investment, an inadequate enabling environment, and, at the farm level, from land scarcity. In peri-urban areas and in the southeastern Delta region where oil is extracted, soil, water, and air pollution also constrain productivity.

Almost half of Nigeria‘s population lives in cities; 80% live in slum conditions. Rapid growth of cities has engulfed nearby towns and villages, pushed back forests and coastal mangrove areas, and created conditions of congestion, poor health, and poverty. Sixty-four percent of Nigeria‘s population lives on less than $1.25 per day; women-headed households are among the poorest.

Prior to 1978, Nigeria‘s system of customary land tenure provided families and individuals with use rights to rural land for agriculture and urban/town plots for housing that were heritable within families and lineages. In 1978, the Land Use Act (or Decree) was enacted. The objectives of the Land Use Act were to: (1) make land accessible to all Nigerians; (2) prevent speculative purchases of communal land; (3) streamline and simplify the management and ownership of land; (4) make land available to governments at all levels for development; and (5) provide a system of government administration of rights that would improve tenure security.

According to most observers, the Land Use Act achieved none of these objectives. The effort to replace the customary system made land less accessible to most people. Allocation procedures are highly discretionary, allowing opportunities for corruption and self-dealing by state and local government officials and politicians. Individuals can obtain land use rights, but they have no foundation of communal land holdings and no presumption of inheritance within families or lineages. Registration of Certificates of Occupancy under the Land Use Act is costly, time-consuming, and places the land- certificate holder on the tax rolls. Customary law continues to govern land tenure for the majority of Nigerians, even though tenure security in urban areas (and as against the government and community outsiders in rural areas) is low. Land rights are transferred mostly in informal markets.

The Land Use Act of 1978 is incorporated into the 1999 Constitution, making it difficult to revise or replace. An effort to introduce new land reform legislation was buried in committee in March 2010 and is not likely to resurface before the 2011 elections.

While Nigeria has substantial freshwater resources, it has been unable to develop these resources to boost agricultural productivity significantly. Further, poor governance of water resources has allowed water quality to be compromised by soil erosion, saltwater incursion, inadequate sewerage and sanitation facilities, and pollution from urban and industrial sources. Illness due to waterborne diseases is common.

Between 70 and 90% of Nigeria‘s household energy supply comes from forests, which also provide building materials, medicinal plants, spices, and fodder for livestock. Nigeria‘s forest land and its timber and non-timber resources are under threat from the expansion of agricultural land, the overuse of resources to meet the population‘s energy and food needs, and destruction and pollution associated with oil extraction operations. The expansion of the city of Port Harcourt has destroyed areas of coastal mangroves.

Nigeria‘s laws establish total national ownership of all subsurface resources, including all minerals, oil, and gas. The governance regimes established to collect and redistribute the revenues generated by the oil and gas industry, therefore, assumed federal government control. One of the issues in the 1967–1970 Nigeria-Biafra War was this approach to resource governance. Protests against the distribution of benefits from oil wealth continued after the end of the war as people realized the substantial negative environmental impacts associated with the industry‘s expansion. Militant groups supporting the rights of local communities have disrupted oil production in the Delta with years of targeted violence and sabotage. The government of President Umaru Yar‘Adua negotiated a ceasefire agreement in the fall of 2009, promising local communities a share in profits and cash payments to the militants, but the agreement is in question following his death and reports that communities are not receiving promised benefits.

Published / Updated: September 2010