The Nature of African Customary Law

By T. Olawale Elias | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
AFRICAN CONCEPTS OF OWNERSHIP AND POSSESSION

A CLEAR distinction is everywhere drawn between ownership and possession, particularly of land on the one hand and of all other forms of property on the other.


A. LAND

With respect to land it is interesting to begin our analysis with this notable statement which a Nigerian chief is reported to have made to the West African Lands Committee in 1912: 'I conceive that land belongs to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living, and countless members are unborn.' The universality of this concept throughout both Sudanese and Bantu Africa has been confirmed again and again wherever indigenous societies have been studied.1

Whereas land is corporately owned and normally inalienable (with exceptions to be stated presently), other species of property may be individually owned and alienated either inter vivos or on death. Of course, the use of land can be transferred temporarily or permanently, as when immigrant settlers are allowed to settle on family land, at first conditionally upon proving in course of time to be satisfactory components of the host community, and later absolutely upon virtual absorption by and complete assimilation with the landowning group.

It seems that family or group land is regarded as remaining such whether or not continuous physical control (corpus) or even active intention (animus) to retain such control is in fact exercised or shown. It does not matter for how long the land may be unused by the owning group as group, so long as the reputed 'ownership'

____________________
1
The present writer was pleasantly surprised when in Nov. 1952 Hosea B. Nkojo, Esq., the then Prime Minister of Toro in Uganda, after reading a few pages of his Nigerian Land Law and Custom at random, exclaimed: 'These are the same as our own principles of land rules in Uganda, you know. We can use your book with only minor modifications regarding names, and, perhaps, a few details.'

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