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Analysing the role of customary land secretariats in effective land administration

The Land Administration Project sought to strengthen the customary land management by establishing Customary Lands Secretariats for recognised and organised land owning communities. It is argued that the establishment of CLS will help improve management outcomes like security of land rights to a greater extent

It is almost hackneyed to say that land is the greatest resource that society has. Therefore, access to land and secured land rights are instrumental to the socio-economic development of a village, town/city, or nation. In Ghana, land is largely owned by private groups and individuals under traditional arrangement. These groups own and control about 80% of the land mass and basically determine who has access to what parcel of land and for how long. Ownership of these lands is vested in traditional political institutions or structures, headed by chiefs, clan and family heads or tendamba, as the case may be. Technically the heads of these institutions are supposed to hold and manage land resources for and on behalf of the entire land owning group under customary rules and regulations. The management of customarily owned lands has been the preserve of these traditional political institutions with the state having an oversight regulatory responsibility.

In Ghana, land administration is governed by both customary practices and enacted legislation. There are two principal types of land ownership in Ghana. These are the public or state lands and private or customary lands. Public or state lands are lands that have been acquired by the state through its power of eminent domain. These lands are vested in the President and held in trust by the state for the people of Ghana. Customary lands are vested in chiefs and clan/families. Chiefs are recognised as traditional political heads of centralised communities.

Thus, land administration in the country covers a range of formal systems established by state institutions to record rights to land and informal customary administered systems that allocate, disposes and records land rights. The formal system is regulated and managed by state land sector agencies. These include the Lands Commission and it various divisions, and Office of the Administrator of Stool Lands (OASL). These deal directly with land rights documentations. The other formal institutions that deal with land rights and whose role is critical to orderly development of land are the Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies, Town and Country Planning Department and the National Development Planning Commission. The informal system is manned by tradition political systems regulated by customary laws. Two systems are identifiable under the informal land administration system. These are the Stool/Skin land ownership and the family/clan or tendamba systems. The state influence over the customary sector has mainly been to impose some restrictions on customary land administration and management.

Problems and constrains in the land sector and the Land Administration Project: In spite of the seemingly perfect blend of customary practices and formal land administrative machinery on the ground to ensure security of tenure, the land sector in Ghana is beset with a myriad of problems. These are general indiscipline in the land markets which is characterized by land encroachment and multiple land sales, use of unapproved development schemes, haphazard development, indeterminate boundaries of customary lands, a weak land administration system and conflicting land uses and time-consuming land litigation in courts.

The Land Administration Project has made attempts to introduce administrative reforms in the land sector. These reforms seek to promote harmonisation and regularisation of land management between state and customary authorities. One of the primary objectives of the project is to create a more comprehensive land documentation system which links the formal and customary systems and further create more transparency and efficiency in land administration in Ghana. The obvious agenda has been to attempt to devolve land administration to customary authorities. This has led to the establishment of the Customary Lands Secretariats (CLS) for every organised and recognised land owning communities and the subsequent resourcing of these to take the role of customary land administrative functions.

One of the principal outputs of LAP in the Project Manual is to promote effective land administration through the CLS’s accountability in line with the constitutional provisions. This in a way protects the rights of all land holders within their communities, recognises the community interest in land management and provides an effective interface with democratic local and national government.

Supply of developable customary land for residential, commercial, education and industrial purposes is administered and controlled by the tendamba. It was established that, some other families within the Wa Municipality who are not necessarily first settlers have been identified as tendamba by the Lands Commission, giving them that inherent right to administer land under their control. The appropriation of land by these families is being contested by the WCCLS and this poses a challenge to customary land administration. This situation has created land rights insecurity in the form of multiple sales of land amongst unsuspecting purchasers and developers. In a move to guarantee the security of individual land rights, the WCCLS prevailed on the Lands Commission not to recognise these other families as tendamba. This means that the payment of ground rents to these families should be discontinued by the Lands Commission forthwith. This move was meant to curtail the multiplicity of tendamba in land administration to the only five recognised first settlers all of whom belonging to the Balung clan.

The demand for land for building in the past decade was very low and restricted to the rural folk. This situation, however, has changed as there are many agricultural lands that have been demarcated and sold for residential and commercial uses to strangers as a result of the spillover effects from the immediate nucleus of Wa Town. Besides, it was established that there are 31 communities that are under the WCCLS. Visits to the sampled communities revealed that, it was only one or two tendamba who have affiliation to the Balung clan and are part of the WCCLS. The other tendamba belong to the Sagmaalu Customary Secretariat.

Relationship between CLS and Lands Commission: The CLS is duly recognised by the Regional Lands Commission as a key stakeholder in customary land administration in the area. Its functions are designed to assist the Public and Vested Lands Management Division (PVLMD) of the Lands Commission in land administration and management in the area. The PVLMD is currently responsible for recording, documentation and registration of public and vested lands as well as customary lands. The CLS indicated to the PVLMD that, in order to assist in the effective administration and management of land rights, the PVLMD should support them such that the PVLMD makes a condition that all prospective land purchasers must have allocation notes from the CLS before their land documents can be processed by the division. They are convinced this will assist them in keeping up-to-date records and monitor their land allocation processes. This, the PVLMD declined for the reason that this will increase the cost of land registration.

CLS and Wa Municipal Assembly: Land allocation function of tendamba could be enhanced with proper land use planning. Land owners have unilaterally contracted private surveyors to prepare planning schemes for their areas but this has not been approved by the Municipal Assembly. Some are willing to contribute to the cost of preparing planning schemes but the assembly is not forthcoming and appears uninterested in physical planning of the area. It was revealed that land owners will also contribute in kind by allocating a number of plots to the surveyors so as to defray the cost involved. It was established that the last planning scheme approved by the Assembly was in 1994 and ever since all planning schemes have not been sponsored and approved. The simple reason is that the assembly has not taken physical planning as a priority area but often blames their inefficiency on lack of financial resources. This is further making land administration in the area ineffective. This has also not been well coordinated with the state institutions involved and resulted in a chaotic situation of land allocation that never makes provision for basic services.

It was established that the traditional role of the Wa Municipal Assembly is to sponsor the preparation of a base map for its jurisdiction since the law provides that every assembly be declared a statutory planning area. In addition to this the assembly is mandated by law to approve all planning schemes for the various suburbs so as to facilitate the control of physical development within its jurisdiction. This is the only point where the assembly interacts with the CLS in terms of land administration and management. Some land owning members of the CLS who fall outside of the Wa Central area, have championed the preparation of layouts and demarcation of land solely by themselves. Therefore, the initiation and preparation of planning schemes are done by the land owners. They only approach the assembly for approval of these plans, with the exception of the Wa Central area where a planning scheme has been prepared with layouts and demarcations. The rural urban periphery of the Municipality does not have well planned layouts and demarcations. The reason is that, some of these land owners do not contact the right professional Town Planners and Surveyors and hence often rely on non-qualified professionals who draw up plans and layouts that do not meet professional standards.

WCCLS land Documentation processes: A critical ingredient of effective land administration is land documentation, which is a sure way of guaranteeing the security of land rights. It is therefore of paramount importance for any system of land management to record and document all land transactions. The study found out that, the WCCLS has since its inception, assisted and documented 463 land transactions, which include land allocation letters from the various tendamba under the CLS. The WCCLS indicated that all the prospective land purchasers who have come to the secretariat to seek information on land ownership have never had any problems regarding multiple sales of lands. All their land transactions have gone through the land registration process successfully at the Lands Commission without any contestation from anybody. If this assertion is anything to go by, then it stands to reason that, prospective land purchasers are better off dealing with the WCCLS than dealing directly with individual tendamba and other land owning families within the secretariat’s jurisdiction. But what is apparent from the study is that many prospective land purchasers prefer to deal directly with individual tendamba. The Lands Commission indicates that this is rightly so because of the apparent disunity within the WCCLS. So that some of the tendamba who are members of the secretariat do not want to disclose their transaction in order that they can avoid paying the token fees due to the secretariat to effectively run the office.

Land Dispute Resolution Mechanisms: The nature of land disputes that have been reported to WCCLS are mostly those of multiple sales. It was established that some already sold lands which are lying vacant, can be resold by other family members of the land owning group unscrupulously. These disputes are normally reported to the tendamba who allocated the land. Many of those subsequently take the matter up to the WCCLS for lasting resolution.

Conclusion: The rise in individualism in land ownership is weakening the traditional tendamba system and hence the role of the tendamba in customary land administration has been called into question. The craving for money and parochial interest of individual families claiming right to land ownership has given rise to a multiplicity of tendamba. The result is that land rights cannot always be absolutely guaranteed within the traditional system of Land Administration. The impact of the traditional/customary land administration system, spearheaded by the CLS cannot be disputed. The inadequate coordination and cooperation of the WCCLS and the Lands Commission in the area has further weakened the secretariat’s ability to control and manage lands to the benefits of the general public. This lack of collaboration is the result of the disunity among members of the land owning families that prefer to deal with the Commission directly to the neglect of the WCCLS. Land disputes are most of the times referred to the judicial system for settlement rather than the traditional system. But this traditional system proves to be a better option with reference to minor cases like multiple sales.