AUTHOR: OYIBOTHA EWOMAZINO
Student (LL.B), Faculty of Law, University of Lagos.
Growing up as a child, no story about land in any part of the Nigeria was complete without tales of Land grabbers popularly known as “Omo-Onile”. They became so popular that they became plot twists for books and movies and the likes. Land grabbing became a job description. So fierce and menacing were their activities that commercial activities relating to land began to dwindle. The land grabbers who often claimed to be sons of the soil could come into any land at any time they chose and exercise rights over the land which at times prevented the original owner from accessing the land and carrying out his activities without payment of huge and exorbitant amounts. Thus, land grabbers became the proverbial fly that always follows the cow, the cow being land and land owners.
Land tenure in Nigeria is governed by the provisions of the Land Use Act. However, before the enactment of the Land Use Act, land tenure in Nigeria was largely governed by customary law which vested ownership of land on certain families or on traditional rulers. These customary laws had their own procedures for sale and allocation of land within the community and this varied from one community to another. Although the Land Use Act altered the traditional land tenure system and vested the title in land in State Governors taking them away from communities, families and land owners, it suddenly became a nonexistent law that land purchasers had to settle families or communities that initially owned the land before they could peacefully enjoy the land.
Although land grabbing is not peculiar to only Lagos state, Lagos state being the center of commercial activities in Nigeria has the most cases of land grabbing. Tales of woes and the menace of the activities of omo-onile have constantly been told without any form of remedy whatsoever. The society was thus in a dilemma as to whether land grabbing is authorized by law or they are stronger than the government or beyond the control of the government. Although the right to property is guaranteed by the constitution, land grabbing has constituted an infringement on this right of many individuals. The Lagos State government, has, however, made commendable effort to put an end to the menace of land grabbing in the state. The Criminal Law of Lagos State, 2011 has several provisions that are geared towards addressing some of the challenges faced in land transactions and ownership such as forcible entry to land, fraudulent alteration of title documents at the Land Registry and other nefarious activities by land grabbers (Section 324 of the Criminal Law of Lagos, 2011). Most commendable is the newly enacted Lagos State Properties Protection Law 2016 protects the proprietary rights of Land and Property owners in Lagos State and also criminalizes actions of forceful and unlawful entry or occupation of premises. The 2016 Law, however, may well be described as the most specific and most decisive so far.
The 15-sections Law, which according to its title is enacted to save would-be property owners and investors from being harassed and exploited by land grabbers. The main objective of the law is to ensure that investors, businessmen and the general populace carry on their legitimate land/property transactions without any hindrance or intimidation henceforth.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the provisions of this law, in order to determine whether the Law is aimed at curbing the menace of land grabbing in Lagos state or whether it is to be categorized as one of those laws that exist for the sole purpose of existence with no effect whatsoever on the society.
PROVISIONS OF THE LAW
The intendment of the Law is stated as “a law to prohibit forceful entry and illegal occupation of landed properties, violent and fraudulent conducts in relation to landed properties in Lagos State and connected purposes” and commenced on the 15th of August 2016.
The interpretation section (Section 1) of the Law, defines some key terms used in the law including agent, access, landed property etc.
PROHIBITION OF FORECEFUL LAND TAKE OVER
The Law prohibits the use of force or self-help by a person or group of persons to take over any landed property or engage in any act inconsistent with the proprietary right of the owner. The section further provides that anyone that has taken any land by force, before the commencement of the law and still remains in possession of the land, three months after the commencement of the law commits an offence (Section 2(2)). Although this provision seems to have a retroactive effect on the surface, it however, only seeks to prevent any person, who has forcefully taken over any land before the commencement of the law to hide under the umbrella of the law coming into existence after the takeover and possession had taken place. Thus, such person in unlawful possession will still be liable under this provision after the three months expiry date provided in the law. Both offences under this section are punishable with 10 years’ imprisonment (Section 2(3)). This provision is aimed at preventing takeover of land by force. Often times, whenever there are disputes involving land, persons who feel that they have a rightful claim to the land, often engage in self-help and forcefully evict the occupants of the property. Land owners also engage in forceful eviction of encroachers. This provision frowns at the use of violence and tends to encourage any person who feels that his interest in land is being affected to approach the courts for proper redress and not adopt self-help or the use of violence. However, the question of whether the defense of bona fide claim of right provided for in the Criminal Law of Lagos State (Section 23) will avail land owners with reference to this particular provision prohibiting forceful takeover of land even by land owners.
PROHIBITION OF ENTRY BY VIOLENCE
This part of the law makes it an offence to use or threaten the use of violence for the purpose of gaining entry into any landed property for oneself or another (Section 3(1)). However right to possession or occupation does not constitute lawful authority for the use of or threat of violence by the owner or anybody acting on his behalf for the purpose of securing entry into the property (Section 3(2)). The offence is committed whether or not the violence directed at the person or the property even if the violence is intended to secure entry for the purpose of acquiring possession or any other purpose (Section 3(3)). Forceful entry is punishable with 10 years’ imprisonment (Section 3(4)) and the use of firearms or other offensive weapon whether it causes injury or not is liable to 4 years imprisonment (Section 3(4)(b)). A person who encroaches with a weapon and commits an offence is liable to imprisonment for 10 years (Section 7). This provision is aimed at preventing entry by force or threat of force into a property. This provision seems to cover all individuals including land grabbers, land owners and even officers of the law for the purpose of carrying out their lawful duties. It’s a total prohibition of any form of violent entry into any property.
ILLEGAL OCCUPATION OF PROPERTY
The law prohibits occupation of property by encroachers including those who fail to leave the land when asked to do so by or on behalf of the property owner (Section 4(1)). Any person who enters into the land either by title given by an encroacher or license given by an encroacher shall also be treated as an encroacher. An encroacher does not cease to be an encroacher by virtue of being allowed time to leave the land (Section 4(4)). An encroacher is punishable by either 5 years imprisonment or a fine of five million naira or both (Section 4(5)). In a commercial city like Lagos, the cost of living is very high and there tends to be a lot of inflow of people into the state for the purpose of seeking greener pastures. However, individuals who have difficulties in sustaining themselves or who cannot afford proper accommodation often just occupy any vacant land and begin to use it for their own purposes. Vagabonds usually move from place to place and occupy and use any land they can find around. This provision however, is aimed at preventing the illegal use and occupation of land by those who know that they have no lawful claim to the land. Some of these illegal occupants or encroachers tend to constitute a nuisance wherever they settle and sometimes pose as security threats to those living in that vicinity. Thus, this provision, which is prohibitive in nature, not only protects land owners from the menace of encroachers but also helps curb vagabonds and helps promote security within the state.
USE OF LAND AGENTS
The placing of land agents on any land for the forceful takeover of any landed property is prohibited. This provision is aimed at preventing forceful takeover of property by the use of land agents. Often times, land grabbers and sometimes land owners, who feel that they have lawful right to the possession and occupation of a property, engage the use of land agents or some other individuals to forcefully take over the land and evict the occupants. However, the law is aimed at preventing such unlawful takeovers without a proper court order to that effect. This will help to prevent the use of violence to effect ownership and possession of property.
ILLEGAL USE OF LAW ENFORECMENT AGENTS
The Law prohibits the use of any law enforcement agent, vigilante group, ethnic, cultural or militia shall execute the judgment of a court except as may be provided for under the Sheriff and Civil Process Act or any other Law (Section 6). This provision prohibits law enforcement agents, whether traditional, cultural or provided for by law, from carrying out duties not ascribed to them by law or that is illegal. Law enforcement agents are expected to carry out their duties in accordance with their governing laws, which is why a breach of this provision is punishable by the law that empowers such official.
SALE OF PROPERTY WITHOUT AUTHORITY
Any person who offers land for sale with the knowledge that he has no lawful title to the property or authority of the owner is liable to imprisonment for 6 months or a fine of five hundred thousand naira or both (Section 8(1)(a)). Furthermore, any person who sells any property knowing that he has no lawful title to the property or has previously been sold by him or by his agent, or any person who sells any property without the consent of the owner, is liable to a fine of not exceeding 100% of the value of the property or to imprisonment for 5 years or both, and the property shall revert to the original owner (Section 8(1)(b)(c)). Family and government property shall not be sold without requisite permission (Section 8(2)). A land that has been sold cannot be resold unless there is a court order repudiating the previous sale (Section 8(3)), breach of which alongside unauthorized sale of family or government property is punishable with 21 years’ imprisonment (Section 8(4)). The benefits of this prohibition against unlawful sale of property cannot be overemphasized. Over the years, various cases have arisen where as many as four buyers claimed to have bought the same property leaving the courts in a dilemma as to who is the real owner of the land. Also, this provision will serve as a check against sale of land without proper authorization which usually occurs in relation to property belonging to families or communities. In the long run, this provision seems to be aimed at preventing fraudulent sale of land and save prospective buyers from rogues who sell land knowing they have no right to do so and disappear, leaving the various purchasers to struggle for ownership of the land which obviously can belong to only one person leaving the other purchasers at a loss. In extreme cases where the original owner of the land surfaces, the rule of nemodat quad non habet (you cannot give what you don’t have) will apply and such property will revert to the original owner. This provision is thus generally and commendably aimed at protecting prospective land purchasers.
Professionals shall not in conducting their professional duties facilitate a contractual agreement between a land owning family and any other person knowing that such agreement will be in breach of the provisions of this law or any other law or execute a judgment of court without following due process and any professional in contravention of the provisions of this Law shall be reported to the relevant body for action (Section 9). The purport of this provision is clear. Professionals are not allowed to use their knowledge and authority to carry out any activities or facilitate any contracts which will be in contravention of this law, or any other law.
DEMAND FOR FEES
The Law provides that a person shall not demand for fees or levies either for himself or as a person’s agent in respect of any construction on any landed property. This provision does not preclude demand by families in respect of customary possession or ratification fee pursuant to judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction (Section 11(1)). Any person in breach of this provision shall be liable to a fine not exceeding one million naira or two years’ imprisonment or both (Section 11(2)). This provision prohibits one of the major activities of land grabbers which is, extortion of money from land owners or users in respect of any construction being made on the land. Usually, they demand fees for every stage of the construction and sometimes, go as far as preventing continuation of such construction if such monies are not paid. Usually, using building of residential houses as a case study, land owners are levied at every stage of the construction from the foundation to the roofing level incurring high cost to land owners. This provision however, protects any person, who wishes to undergo any development or construction on his land from extortion.
Section 10 provides for petitions, the way and manner they are to be brought in respect of landed property. The section further prohibits frivolous petitions.
Section 12 provides for the establishment of a task force for the enforcement of the provisions of the Law. Section 13 further confers the power to arrest on the task force and any other law enforcement agency in the state.
Section 14 confers jurisdiction on the Special offences court or any other court.
The Law can be said to be huge step on the part of the Lagos State government in the fight against land grabbers and other such related activities if the state is ready to follow through with the implementation of the law. As can be clearly seen from the provisions highlighted above, the Law will go a long way to ensuring the security of commercial transactions regarding landed property and ownership of property generally. The government should also ensure that the citizens are aware of the law and have a duty to report any activities relating to land grabbing to the government for action.
Oyibotha Ewomazino is a 400 level student of the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos. She is very passionate about greatness, perfection, excellence, and hard work. She has served as the Deputy Head of Chambers for the Justice Kayode Eso students Chamber and has worked on several committees in faculty. She is a lover of books and arts. She aspires to be an environmentalist and a tax expert based on her love for environmental law and taxation.