Farmer Shobantaruba, a father of seven, was stunned to arrive at his small farm in Adamawa state in northeast Nigeria one day about five years ago to find barbed wire fencing off the plot cultivated by his family for decades.
Farmland belonging to hundreds of other villagers had also been cordoned off as had land on which their livestock graze. They soon found out that it had been sold to an unknown businessman by the district chief who lives in a nearby village.
“They told us that we were not the owners of the land,” said Shobantaruba, 41, who asked that his surname not be used for fear of reprisal.
Shobantaruba explained that while his parents were born and bred in Namtari and farmed there for decades, they did not have deeds to prove ownership, a requirement under Nigerian law.
Like many other Nigerian farmers who have lost their land, he felt powerless to do anything but campaigners are now trying to raise awareness among small scale farmers of their rights.
Agriculture is the largest sector of the Nigerian economy with studies showing 80 percent of the nation’s food is produced by small-scale farmers, the majority of whom are women, and loss of land can impact millions of the 175 million population.
Reverend Father Maurice Kwairanga, who works with rural communities, including Namtari, said over the past five years, he has seen the same fate befall hundreds of people in at least five different communities in Adamawa.
“The local people are not educated and so the rich can get away with it,” Kwairanga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.
Many district chiefs are told if they sell local land this will lead to benefits for the local population, including jobs and development opportunities, he said.
“But the reality is far from that. The lands are fenced off and are not cultivated, and the locals are not allowed to use it,” said the priest, who wrote a dissertation last year on the impact of large scale land acquisitions on rural people.
He added that the suspicion is that the land is bought for speculative purposes, sometimes by former government officials “fronting for international interests”.
“Even in rare cases where the locals are employed as labourers to work on the land they earn very little, often less than 500 naira ($1.75) a day, and during the seasons when their services are not needed, they do not earn any income.”
Asked by the Thomson Reuters Foundation to comment on allegations of arbitrary land sales in Adamawa, the state’s commissioner for land and survey, Ibrahim Mijinyawa, said he could not comment.
“We cannot comment because we have not received any complaint from any people that their land was snatched by any individual or company,” he said. “All are rumours.”
“It’s really happening,” said Azubuike Nwokoye, advisor for the ActionAid Food and Agriculture Program in Nigeria, which is working with local communities to create awareness of land rights.
“But if the people are united and know what they should do, it won’t happen,” he said.
Nwokoye said in one recent case in Taraba state, in north east Nigeria, a united response from local communities stopped the acquisition of 30,000 hectares (74,131 acres) of land by a Texan company.
The lack of a proper land registration framework is a serious problem in Nigeria, said Andrea Staeritz, who used to worked on the West Africa programme at the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a German-based think tank.
Staeritz, who now works with charity Transparency International, said when land is not registered officially, anyone who has money and power can simply take it.
Transparency International said land acquisition has been used as a vehicle for money laundering in Nigeria and there have also been cases of foreign investors acquiring land without consultation with land users.
“But we can’t blame the foreign forces (investors) because they cannot do it without the help of Nigerians,” Staeritz said.
Many rural people are uneducated, she added, and simply do not know their rights and will accept their district chief’s decision as final.
In a telephone interview from Namtari with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Shobantaruba said the fenced off land remains idle and snakes have begun to breed in the area. He said his friend, Danladi, died from a snake bite two months ago.
The farmer said the local pond, on which the Namtari community depends for water, was fenced off as are the trees used to pluck thatch to build or repair local houses.
Before his farmland was sold off, Shobantaruba said he was able to cultivate enough food for his family to eat as well as a little extra to sell and help fund his children’s education.
Now he says he is barely surviving and is forced to buy food and to source money for his family’s upkeep. His eldest child, a 19-year-old girl, has had to drop out of school.
“She has decided to get married this year,” he said, adding many people he knows in the community have migrated to other territories, occupying land which, yet again, they do not own, and which they will probably be forced to evacuate sometime.
Now, he too is considering moving.
($1 = 285.0000 naira)
(Thomson Reuters Foundation)