Land Documentation is Not a Blanket Solution for Tenure Security | Land Portal
Uchendu Eugene Chigbu
Language of the news reported: 

Land tenure security is the protection people can have from the state that their land parcels will not be bullied away from them by vested interests through unfair evictions. 

It is the opposite of land tenure insecurity.

There are many forms of land documentation. This includes land titles (a legal document that outlines a person's rights) and deeds (legal document of transfer of land/title from one person to another). 

They can also be administrative documentation obtainable in acquiring and recording land transactions (e.g. survey maps and reports). 

They also include non-legal and paralegal documents from social or informal land transfers, which can be used in times of dispute as proof of access, occupation, ownership, use, inheritance, or other forms of rights that subsist on land. 

Land documents should work against insecurity. This is because having recognisable land documents – whether in the social, formal, informal or legal context – can help to protect the rights of landowners and users against claims  to their property made by anyone else.

The problem is that in countries where the legal systems are overstretched with land conflict cases – or where there is corruption or ignorance of the need to document land in social spaces – people's attitude towards landholding can make even those with legitimate land documents feel insecure. 

By a legal system 'being overstretched' with land conflict cases, I mean a situation where courts are overburdened with too many land conflict cases. 

It is so bad in some countries that even if they abandoned all other matters to deal with existing land conflict portfolios, it might take 100 years to litigate them. 

If you want to know more about courts overloaded with more land conflict cases than they can oversee in this lifetime, look at Ghana and Nigeria.


In countries like Nigeria, where land is nationalised, it is not unusual for political office holders (especially governors of states) to arbitrarily revoke a certificate of occupancy (the highest tenure-securing title document in the country) of those they consider in their way to achieving political dividends. 

In several other countries (e.g. Zambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Uganda and Ghana), it is not unusual for a land conflict to spill over from one area into another. 

The adjacent effects of conflicts or disputes on neighbouring landowners have sometimes forced peaceful owners to vacate or dispose of their property to relocate away from troublesome owners or troubled areas.

I have a personal experience. In Nigeria, my tenant (a pastor) using my registered and documented land refused to pay rent for three years. 

I followed the legal processes to serve him with an eviction notice from the court. He refused to vacate the land and continued to do his church business there for another five years. 

When I sent my lawyer to have a tete-a-tete with him to establish his reasons for neither paying his rent nor obeying court orders, the pastor responded that the land was not mine, claiming 'it is the land of God'. 

The man is no longer on that piece of land. I resorted to a hybrid approach to get him to move away.


In the Zambezi region of Namibia, traditional rulers are not so keen on encouraging people to register their land because they remain partly unconvinced that land registration is the way to securing tenure. 

In this region, when you are a rural dweller with complete trust in traditional rulers, it is not unusual to feel insecure when you document your land, knowing that your traditional ruler has little or no faith in the process. 

In Ghana, where landholding is primarily held communally with powerful chiefs in charge, there are cases where cocoa farmers (lessors) on communal land denounced documentation to evade community eviction. 

In this scenario, the farmers wanted to document their landholding. However, they were accused by their communities of wanting to fortify their leasehold interests into a freehold. They were threatened with eviction or accused of wanting to steal the land. 

Hence, insecurity set in where it never was, and they had to trust more in their community rather than the expected pieces of land papers.


It cost me money and a network to evict the pastor from my land. What about politicians who find ways to revoke already documented land to achieve personal gains or because of a vendetta? 

Thinking of the cocoa farmer who resorted to not documenting his communal farm – he had to do away with documentation to continue enjoying customary tenure to avoid community eviction. 

Here, the community has more security in their trust of themselves or their chief (a custodian of land) than in land documents. 

What about the traditional rulers who believe they are worth more than legal documents? These are all different forms of human behaviour at play. 

These behaviours are present in high and low places in our communities. Therefore, possessing formal documents does not make people feel more secure in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. 

This behaviour even has a gender dimension. For women, being named on a document seems to have hardly any effect in some communities where men have no respect for legal documents. 

These scenarios suggest that formalising property rights (a process of providing legitimate documents to landowners) may not be a blanket solution to insecurity. 

This is because people's behaviour matters in securing land tenure with or without land documents.

* Uchendu Eugene Chigbu is an associate professor (land administration) in the Department of Land and Property Sciences at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (Nust). The views expressed are entirely his own, and not those of Nust.

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