By Dr. Christopher Gbelokoto Okojie, Ofr:
Land in Esanland was strictly COMMUNAL and held in trust by the Onojie for his people. It could neither be sold nor bought. If there was a dispute over a piece of land in the village, the Edion looked into it and effected a settlement. If it was a dispute involving two villages , the Onojie decided the matter.
There was a system of understood ownership, for example:
(i) The Market Placet- This, like the palace grounds, constitutionally belonged to the Onojie, in his office, hence main markets in all Esan Communities are called after their Onojie - Eki Ojieuronmun, Eki Ojieugbegun etc.
(ii) Building Site :- A man owned the piece,of land on which he had his house. The land with the cleared area around it belonged to him and his children. If he left it to go and build somewhere else within or without the village, no one else had the right to build on the site which thus, had become the man's IJIE or ITEKEN or IJIOGBE. If the house had fallen down and the place had become bush, the old building site or ITOLUWA or ICHUWA was still his sacred possession. No one had the right to go there without the expressed permission but once he had given that permission, his claim to that land lapsed. Although a man owned his Ijie or Iteken, he could not sell it to another villager or a stranger. This means that the 'ownership' was not absolute. Absolute ownership was vested in the elders of the community. In the case of Ijiogbe, the ancestral Ijie, the statutory owner was the Qminjiogbe.
(iii) Farm,Land:- The basic law over farm land was that HE WHO FIRST FARMED A VIRGIN FOREST, A LAND HITHERTO UNCLAIMED, OWNED IT. That means that in Esan custom the first man to clear a forest, cut down the trees for the purposes of farming, owned it OVER GENERATIONS. This is expressed as ONON GBE EGBO YAN EGBO (He who de-virgined a forest owned it). The piece of land thus acquired became family property,passing from father to son. If the owner left it to farm somewhere else,no other farmer could go there for fanning without permission of the first owner. Even where this consent was given, at end of the fanning year,the land reverted back to the owner after the new farmer had taken off his crops.
The man seeking permission to farm had no right to plant economic trees or permanent crops like pear trees, dicanuts etc. This must not be confused with the ownership of land in the village. Land for building purposes in the village is owned by the elders. They could discipline anyone overtly greedy or trying to debar progress in the village.
2. SYSTEM OF LEASING LAND:
The system depended upon the lessee. If an individual came into the village, he must have come in through a friend, an hi-law or to become a rich man's servant. If later he wanted to build a house the man he had come to live with,leased him a piece of land near his own house.If a number of people,say three to five came together from the same district and wanted to live in a village,they had to tell the Edion, who, in this case,formed the lessor. Where there was a wholesale migration of a village to another district belonging to another Onojie the matter was on a higher level and the Onojie, had to be informed. He as the custodian of the communal land.had the authority to allocate a parcel of land on which the new arrivals settled. For example,when the people of Unea deserted Otua,they first came to Akho, and when it was necessary for them to have abode of their own the then Ojirrua gave a parcel of land which today contains the virile people of Unea, Irrua.
Should any of these various categories of lessee vacate, the land reverted back to the lessor. Outsiders, either individually or 'collectively,who had been accepted.could be adopted into a linage and secure land rights as full members of the community. The only way to realise they are of different stock is the fact that .they could inter-marry with the original people who gave them sanctuary.
Oil palms on the land were common property. Any climber could harvest the nuts so long as the trees were not actually in another man's farm, for fear of damaging his crops.
3. PERMANENT ECONOMIC CROPS:
The question of economic trees is very recent and is now bedeviling and confusing Esan laws and custom regarding ownership of land. It is now being claimed as custom that he who owns permanent economic trees owns the land on which they grow.
Permanent economic trees are cocoa, rubber, palm, trees, dicanut, pear and kolanuts. Cocoa and rubber are very new to Esan. Para-rubber was introduced around 1915 and cocoa,in the early twenties. Dicanut and pear (OLUMUN) trees were planted singly,usually along the paths to the farms,and so although the planter and his family owned these trees they did not confer ownership of the land on which they grew,on the planter. If a man wanted to build a house,he would .have to seek permission from the owner of any of these trees before cutting them down (remember the strict custom on kola nut trees). If the owner proved difficult, he referred the man to the elders who will force the owner to yield. Thus, owners of cocoa and rubber which came to be planted in the form of plantation farms, owned the economic trees but NOT THE LAND. If the trees were destroyed by natural means - fire, white ants, diseases etc, the land reverted to the community. Also if such a plantation fell on a piece of land needed for community purpose - a school, a community hall etc., the trees were destroyed and no compensation was paid. It would be a most foolish man who would accept such money collected in cowries, naira and kobo by the Edion, Igene and Egbonughele of his village. It would alienate him.
Everywhere rubber grows luxuriantly.
In modem times people have tried to use rubber. 'cocoa and palm trees to lay claim to ownership of land. It is a fallacy in Esan laws and custom. Owners of such trees can attempt to prevent buildings since it is not possible to build ON TREES but their case is weakened when the plantation is within the building site of the village. The elders will always find against any member who tries to hinder progress of the community which buildings, churches. schools. colleges etc. constitute. Once the owner has given permission for the trees to be cut down his claim ceases to exist.
4. LAND BOUNDARIES: OKOVEN SYSTEM
No one knowing something about inter-village boundaries in Esan would fail to be impressed with the rarity of land disputes: it was either due to the cool-headness of Esan people as a people or due to the vastness of land.
Land was demarcated by OKOVEN - COMMON OATH and existed between two adjacent villages. which might be situated in different clans. Two such villages in the olden days wanting to live in peace with their neighbours. made their desires known to each other. and on the appointed day, came together at a spot on the path connecting the two villages. They then took the oath of friendship. kinship and non-aggression. From then on they 'treated each other as' kindreds - no wilful destruction of each other's property. no taking ofveach other's wives. and they swore never again to cause each other any injuries capable of drawing blood'. this latter being expressed as 'Not seeing each other's blood!'. it was a most binding oath. The spot at which the oath was taken was the ALU OKOVEN. Usually marked with an UKHINMIN TREE (Neubodia Leavis). This Alu Okoven formed the boundary between the two villages. The Egbonughele of each village cleared the inter-village road up to this spot. Thus far. things were simple. but the hard thing was that the boundary was known definitely only along the road - usually a footpath. Outside this. the boundary was anybody's guess! All that matter was that each seemed to have kept to its own side of the Okoven, and in the bush they farmed in concord since they were then members of the same stock by oath.
Thus, if there was a land dispute between Uromi and Ugboha, the nearest village of Amendokhian Uromi and Emaudo Ugboha with their various Alu Okoven would be used and a rough line drawn. Until modem times when people ceased to believe strongly in the power of departed spirits and the sure destruction following false oaths on JuJu, the Okoven system kept people honest and rarely bore false witness against one another. Also the system brought such a strong feeling of sincerity and brotherhood that many described the existence with 'they are our brothers' , even though but for the Okoven they might have been as related as all descendants of Adam!
With the advent of the white man and civilization however, the hitherto, easily satisfied Esan people knew the powerlessness of the departed ancestors (sic!), and also, how easy it was for one to gain one's end by a false testimony. Things which before could be decided in a matter of minutes by introduction of oaths on juju or shrines, got more confused and difficult to unravel or settled ..An example of this is given by the great land dispute between Eromosele the Great, and his equally famous father-in-law, Akhigbe of Agbede, in 1910.
As I have said already the demarcation of land between two villages was the Okoven. This meant that along the road the boundary was known but beyond that the land was no man's land or common property used with respect for the Okoven. Many years before 1910, Itepu and Ukokobili of Atuagbo Irrua went and made a camp on Oguanran land, between Atuagbo the last village in Irrua and Agbede. When a .dispute arose later over this settlement the land being claimed by Akhigbe with all his influence and the land with all the inhabitants by the insatiable Eromosele, instead of the usual simple method of Okoven, the matter went up to the District Commissioner at Ubiaja and after adrawn out harangue the land went to Irrua; but by then , the traditional friendship between Agbede and Irma, following Eromsele's conversion into Islam by Akhigbe - Eromosele's father-in-law, had been ruined. Bad blood had been so created that when Akhigbe died three days after the decision over the land it was generally believed that this
was evil work of Eromosele, an unforgiving enemy.
5. ILU OTO:
This was the earth worship. When the farm yields were getting poor, there was increasing sickness and death in the land or a Native Doctor had at a mass divination (UKHUEBO), divined that the earth had been fouled, then the earth needed purification. Every village of the district had to subscribe to the cost of buying the materials required for the purification. It was the duty of the Ihaza to go round and collect each village share. This done, the actual worship and purification of the earth was done by the most senior or oldest settlement of the district. This needs explanation: in all districts of Esan land, Eguare is taken to be the senior not because of its age but because it is the seat of the Onojie. Usually there was a settlement in existence before the arrival of the more superior settlers, whose leader became the Onojie. Despite the domineering attitude and over-shadowing of the indigenous inhabitants, the importance of the original settlement was acknowledged by their being made the caretaker' of the earth on which the district had settled. Examples: Ihumundumun in Ekpoma, Akho in Irma, Ehanlen Oniha in Ewu, Egbele and Unuwazi in Uromi, Idumabu in Ugboha, Idumun Oshodin in Ubiajaetc.