21 Abisi Land Ownership

The Hill and the Plain

Abisi Hill was occupied for two reasons.

First, it afforded protection against enemies, cavalry could not climb up and they could be attacked by Abisi archers.

Second, there was some patch of land on the Hill that could help with survival subsistence for their small community.

This situation divided their world into two parts: the safety of the Hill and the danger of the Plain and its bush .

The Hill had therefore taken the appearance of a sacred place and was the object of many spiritual and ritual actions that symbolically linked it to its population.

All collective ceremonies and cemeteries for important people (heroes, leaders of clans, old men, and women who have had a ceremonial funeral due to their great age) and a cave housing human trophies are on the hill.

Although the living space was divided into five main exclusive sections, they all formed a single community with common language and customs under the representation of a mystical and political office, the uyikut, the One of the Land.

The Hill was thus, the first patrimonial heritage land controlled collectively through the symbolic representation of the uyikut but concretely, by each of household’s heads (uyikirat; the One of the House) who managed the small parcels of land. But, their main farmlands were in the lower savanna.

The Zaria plain was divided into 23 bush areas, each bearing a proper name. Each was a hunting track during the dry season.

Control of these hunting territories was invested in the function of many uyikpe (the One of the Grass) representing the rights of their patrilines on collective or periodical hunts.

By their particular location, Abisi had to use two types of agriculture: one, more intensive, adapted to the limited space of their Hill and another, more extensive, for the wide open space of the savanna. Food production differed for /kidene/, people living up the hill) and /ki∫ti/, those downhill.

On the Hill, they cultivated on rounded gardens (arↄnu) consisting of mounds of 3-4 meters in diameter. This method required intensive and precise work that are still used for some crops in wetlands and young men still find it the hardest hoeing work to do. Now it seems that it is mostly women who use it for okra and maize.

With the occupation of the bush fields, they had access to enough land to limit the use of these gardens. Hoeing these new fields was faster and easier. In 1973, Abisi were nearly all living on what they called their bush farms.

But another reason for moving down was sleeping sickness. They were warned by Europeans sanitary services of infestation by tsetse flies.

The personal relations of descent and marriage determined access to the land. Social status, a person’s place in society, preceded the economic relation to the land.

Ancestral Settlers

To clean and exploit portions of the bush for agriculture, each householder could go down the hill with a working party and mark the four corners of a lot that he wanted to use.

Even if the clearing was not done immediately, nobody sought to appropriate it.

“Young men would sleep in Fulani type house when working on bush fields and would go back to the Hill at the end.”

Contrary to the Hill, the opening of these bush fields (ridↄ kit∫ɜ) did not need the supervision of the uyikut nor of the uyikpe.

As a result, the agrarian space was structured in an heterogeneous ways. It resulted in the juxtaposition of different production groups who rarely had the same neighbors from one lot to another.

The only regulation was to respect the residence rules of each section: do not tolerate people from another section to settle near your farm. This is easy to understand because men of different sections could try to seduce each other’s wives, especially when they were in the bush or farm away from their house!

Land Rights and Heritage

Patriline Ownership

When asked who is the owner of a field, (adↄ emma agonanna), the usual answer is adↄt∫erik, our ancestors which are the at∫ekirat, house ancestors or ba a ba , the father’s father which refers to the patrilines.

They are the men to whom the opening of the bush fields is attributed and with whom existing domestic groups make a connection. People in small hamlets, exploit parcels generally located within a radius of 2 to 3 km.

Land rights belong to patrilines but members of a particular household may have priority because they retain control over accessible lots open by their own ancestors. Other households of the same patriline can use these fields if the last user does not show his priority.

Demographic weakness and the abundance of fertile land cleared of primary vegetation have given the Abisi a rich heritage of a collectively controlled land.

There were less than ten persons (approx. 8,75) for one square kilometer. A very good ecological equilibrium.

Land exchanges

Absent in the past on the Hill but possible today since the occupation of bush farms, some land can be exchanged or loaned between people of different sections who would like to have their different parcels nearer each other.

On a sample of 23 farms, in 7 cases (30%) sections exchanged lots for periods ranging from 2 to 6 years. Two others had rented for 6 Naira lots for 3 and 6-year.

All others, the majority, had no money to provide to use these other lots.

However, if needed, rented land could be claimed by a member of the heritage group of the owner and some of the rent repaid to the renter.

Sometimes, conflicts arise between a renter and agnates (brothers and cousins) of a deceased owner. It is then arbitrated by a committee of house heads and elders who will determine which uyikirat had “opened” the land to prove the just ownership.

Land in Abisi customary law cannot be subject to permanent alienation. It cannot be sold like any consumer goods. It has to stay in the family line.

Allocation of land

The allocation of land between household members is defined by sex and age.

In centralized households, land is under the responsibility of a father, an elder brother or a paternal uncle (father’s brother).

They control either one large agricultural tenant (/rinↄ adↄ/: great land) or disseminated plots according to heritage and initial clearance. The paternal lands (ridↄ eba) exceed in size any other landholding group.

Married sons or brothers and married women have access to surfaces of varying sizes. Younger married men, brothers, and sons, could exploit parcels corresponding to their productive capacity who grew with the addition of children.


When a granary group (those who share the main granary) divides, the distribution of land follows the rule of primogeniture that is expressed thus:

“the brothers are like the fingers of the hand, the largest receives the largest share”.

This rule is said to make the older brother the keeper of the dependents and the same rule applies to the inheritance.

If there is a surplus of land, paternal cousins or even further patriline ones, can get some parcels.

Abisi land tenure is organized in such a way that every member of a family can claim, when necessary, a share of Pitiland to be used for their subsistence and to control their standard of living.

This land ownership regime differs fundamentally from those where owners do not work the land but have a legal right to its fruits. They usually ask for a rent to the peasants who work their land and history as seen so many revolts against all kind of abuse by those who control political force.


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