Property, Life and Liberty: Housing Policy in Nigeria

In July 2012, Nigerian authorities certified the destruction of one of Lagos’ prominent slums, Makoko, otherwise known as the “Venice of Africa.” Housing approximately 250,000 residents who live afloat Lagos Lagoon in hovels built on stilts, Makoko serves as a self-sustaining fishing community for those who migrated to the city with hopes of leading better lives, but didn’t succeed in the urbanization game. Its contaminated waters and dilapidated housing conditions are easily visible from the bridge that connects Nigeria’s wealthy island districts with the mainland. Due to its proximity to affluent neighborhoods, Makoko has often been accused of undermining the “megacity status” of Lagos by state authorities, which epitomizes Nigeria’s modern urban crisis: the lack of accessible amenities, overcrowding, poor or informal housing and the continuing growth of slummy communities.

After the nation gained independence in 1960, Nigerian cities enjoyed a certain degree of economic prosperity. Now, however, they are all experiencing the problematic process of “ghettoization” and urbanization with uneven growth. Felix Morka, the Executive Director of the Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC), has even argued that calling Lagos “a city in crisis” is an understatement of the enormous challenges it now faces, including a severe housing shortage. And although there are a myriad of causes behind Nigeria’s urbanization troubles, a primary cause is the country’s discriminatory housing and land use. Very few low-income Nigerians can afford to purchase land or live in a house in cities, and this is a direct result of the government’s prejudicial application of the Land Use Act of 1978. Created to harmonize pre-existing land distribution systems, free up land for development, and centralize technical land ownership under the office of the Governor, the 1978 Act is a declaration of the government’s power of eminent domain over all lands in the country. It allows the State Governor and local government to determine and manage land use; authorities are given the power to revoke any individual’s property to prioritize “overriding public interest.” But despite its purported objective of promoting “public interest,” the Land Use Act of 1978 is implemented discriminatorily, giving preferential treatment to government officials and wealthy private developers. For example, in Lagos, only expensive plots of land are demarcated for distribution; the poor cannot purchase any of the land available in the city based on their meager income. Furthermore, even after the purchasing of land, any attempt to develop it requires getting the Governor’s consent, which is a costly (with fees of approximately 35% of the land’s market value) and lengthy bureaucratic process. These restrictive policies prevent the majority of low-income Nigerians from ever acquiring land in cities, ultimately forcing them to settle in slums.

In an attempt to reduce the number of slums, the Nigerian government has taken up the practice of “urban segregation,” intervening in the name of “progress” to forcefully evict the poor from slums and redraw spatial boundaries to the advantage of foreign investors and the wealthy. Thus, the urban poor have essentially become nomads, constantly in a state of forced relocation. One particularly egregious example of this trend is the tragic destruction of the Maroko slum in 1990. This former fishing village was completely bulldozed in order to build high-income residences in the area, leaving nearly 300,000 people homeless. The Nigerian government continued its disruptive evictions in Lagos when it cleared a vast corridor through dense slums to create an expressway for state officials who live in the wealthy suburb of Ajah. Due to these practices, over 700,000 people have been forcefully evicted from their homes since 1990 in Lagos alone. Across the country, nearly three million people have been forcibly evicted since 1999.

If it is serious about eliminating slums and facilitating positive urbanization, Nigeria must improve state regulatory functions to encourage citizens to get business licenses, buy land, and own property.

There are two key issues with the forced evictions in Nigeria. First, the residents of slums are not given adequate notice before their homes are destroyed. In fact, in 2009, 19,000 people were dislodged from their homes at the Njemanze waterfront without any prior notice, leaving all of them helpless and vulnerable. Second, most of those affected receive inadequate (if any) compensation for their eviction. According to SERAC, between July and September 2000, approximately 50000 slum residents were displaced without any compensation or alternatives for resettlement. This willful disregard for human rights places the urban poor in a perpetual cycle of poverty as their lives are constantly upheaved and demolished, leaving them with few options buts to settle in slums.

Moreover, according to Professor Daniel Smith of Brown University, the discriminative land licensing has an inhibitive effect on the development of small businesses, further establishing uneven development. The constant bulldozing and the knowledge that property can be confiscated at any moment have repelled people from settling and starting their own businesses. Not only does this process intensify people’s insecurities about legal practices and their livelihoods, but also, as former Supreme Court Justice Augustine Nnamani expresses, the interminable fees and overall difficulty of obtaining a certificate of occupancy slow business activity further. A World Bank publication corroborates Justice Nnamani’s claims, ranking Nigeria 176th of 183 nations in terms of the ease of registering for property. A large portion of the property in Nigeria is not formally registered while informal titles cannot be used as security in obtaining loans which limits financing opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses. As such, the difficulties with obtaining property and maintaining ownership have slowed industrial take-off in Nigeria, contributing to the existence and prominence of slum communities.

If it is serious about eliminating slums and facilitating positive urbanization, Nigeria must improve state regulatory functions to encourage citizens to get business licenses, buy land, and own property. This will entail increasing access to legitimate licensing for businesses and providing credit at reasonable rates for viable small business projects. Under such reformations, land would no longer be demarcated to sell to wealthy private developers and investors; the state would provide the poor with easier access to land ownership and insure greater property security by not utilizing the Land Act to bulldoze communities. There are several benefits to creating such a climate of economic security. According to Professor Erica Field of Duke University, secure property rights and a stable economic environment can generate economic growth for three reasons. First, secure property rights can incentivize investment and ensure that resources are not over- or under-utilized. Second, the enforcement of resource entitlements that comes with secure property rights can reduce the costs of transaction between parties. Finally, secure property rights facilitate greater access to credit and allow for easier conversions of dead assets into investment capital. By enabling easier land ownership, providing more business licenses, and providing credit at a reasonable rate, the Nigerian government can mobilize and diversify its economy through the development of small and medium-sized enterprises, leading to a more positive embodiment of rapid and productive urbanization.

As such, the Nigerian government can improve state regulatory functions by first drafting a national housing plan to provide resources for the development of physical infrastructure to create adequate housing. In order to speed the grant of land consent, the state could also delegate powers to different officials such as the commissioners for Lands and Housing. Gimba Ya’u Kumo, the Managing Director of the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria, further adds that in order to increase the land bank, the state should revise the country’s status of Rights of Occupancy and improve its land registry systems. By allowing for proper documentation for properties in rural areas and giving them the same economic status as urban properties, Nigeria will be able to add much to its available land bank for commercial activities.

The Nigerian government should have implemented these measures at the outset of the national housing crisis, but it suffered from low political will due to the economy’s heavy reliance on oil. With its large oil reserves, the Nigerian state could get away with not investing effectively or appropriately in local development initiatives. Nigerian officials and elites were able to maintain their own privileged lives merely through the use of the oil revenue. But now, with the fall in oil prices and the dawn of an era of renewable energy development, the Nigerian government is beginning to realize that it can no longer rely on its natural resource endowments to keep masses silent. Therefore, it is now an opportune, if not urgent, moment to improve the nation’s regulatory environment and fix its discriminatory housing policies once and for all.

I would like to thank Professor Daniel Smith for his time and informative interview that greatly improved the article.

Photo