Land, a gift of nature,is the main source of livelihood for many and the economic development of a nation or a state depends to a large extent on how it puts its land to use.At different times,man has exercised rights of ownership,usage and control over land to the extent that even legislation have been passed to ensure the proper administration of land.
A former governor of the State was once quoted as saying that land to Lagos is what crude oil is to the Niger Delta.This is a statement of fact as it is on record that Lagos State generates a sizable amount of its IGR from land through land transactions,Land Use Charge,approvals,land registrations,probate,stamp duties,valuations, building permits..etc.
By virtue of the Land Use Act(“LUA”) which was enacted in 1978, all lands in every state in Nigeria was vested in the State Governors who should hold such land in trust for Nigerians. By this proviso, the Governor is responsible for allocating land in urban areas to individual resident in the State and to organizations for residential,agriculture, commercial and other purposes.
Since all lands are now vested in the Governors,who then are the Omo onile( land owners ) and how did they come about the authority and the rights they have over land ?The history of the ‘Omo Onile’ can be traced back prior to the enactment of the LUA. At that time some lands were subject to customary land laws and vested in some land-owning families, or in the community as a whole.Thus, the practice in certain quarters was for the land-owning families or traditional rulers to, either lease the same under a tenancy system while still maintaining/exercising control over the tenants’ land or alienate the same out rightly.
Now what the LUA did was to alter the traditional land tenure system by transferring title and trusteeship in the land from the families and the communities to the State Governor. However,the question now remain as to whether leases concluded between the family land owners and individuals or organizations prior to the LUA are still valid and whether the omoonile can still exercise their rights over such lands despite the provision of the LUA. Yes they can. The leases are also valid but any transactions on those lands are now subject to the provisions of the LUA
The room for the omo onile to exploit people was created when someone who had bought a land out rightly from a traditional land holding family intends to sell but had to go to the omoonile as a courtesy to inform them or to seek another receipt from them if he had lost the initial one. With time individuals had to part with some form of payment to the previous land owning families.
For instance a woman who could not locate her receipt approached one of such families whom she bought the land from to ask for a re issue.She was asked to pay for the land again since she had no evidence that she had bought the land from them .After payment was made and another receipt issued,the woman found the previous receipt and with this evidence she demanded a refund but got nothing from them. All they told her was that the money had been shared and there was no way they could pay such back
So gradually, the exploitation began.to the extent that monies are demanded and collected from people in order to erect structures on the land.It even went as far as having a standard fee based on the stage of the construction. That is,there are different charges for the foundation,decking and roofing. Failure to pay these charges often lead to threats to the owner,the work men on site,the disruption of work and even the confiscation of construction equipment
There are extreme cases where people have lost their lives due to this development. The activities of the omoonile does not end there.There are cases where they resell a plot of land which they initially sold legitimately to another person because the first party did not develop his plot on time or they got a higher offer from another party.There are also cases where they have been hired as thugs to settle land disputes between parties with the use of force and intimidation in favour of who hired them.
An attempt to curb this menace in Lagos State came by way of a legislation which was signed into law by the governor in August 2016. The Lagos State Properties Protection Law, 2016 prohibits the forceful entry and illegal occupation of landed properties, violent and fraudulent conducts in relation to landed properties in Lagos State and for connected purposes.
The Law seeks to criminalize many activities of the ‘omo-onile’ and check a number of unwholesome practices in land related transactions such as forceful takeover of land ,forceful entry into land with weapons,unlawful sale of land,demand for a fee for construction and the use of self-help in recovery of premises.All these offences attract jail sentences or option of fines
At ask force was created to arrest and enforce the provisions of this law.The twist however is that though the law has criminalized a lot of the activities of the omoonile, instill granted land owning families a waiver to demand and collect the customary fee for possession in the name of the foundation levy. To make matters worse ,the law failed to specify a figure that should represent the foundation levy thus creating another room for this lacuna to be exploited. The only thing the omoonile needs to do is to charge a huge sum (which covers all stages of work) from the owner of the land for the construction and term the sum “foundation levy” and this will not be in violation of the law.
So can the Lagos State government curb the omoonile syndrome with this law?
Not really and our reasons are simple:
1.Little awareness about the law
There is little awareness about this law and its content.How many land owners have a copy of the law and how many omoonile families have read and understood the law.Even if they have,there is still the need to change the orientation of people and to build their trust that the government means well with this law and it will work on any information provided till justice is served. For this law to curb the menace of the omoonile,the first thing is to let people know their rights and how the law can protect them. unfortunately, the awareness has been low.
2.Failure of enforcement
Proper enforcement is crucial and goes beyond the government having the will to do so.Is the task force equip with the right manpower and the equipment required to monitor theactivities of the omoonile around a busy state like Lagos ? How fast is the task force at responding to issues and complaints that are often life threatening?. With the centralization of the task force and its command it is very likeable that there response rate will be slow and the damage would have been done before they come to the aid of the victim. In most cases, the task force will do more of damage control rather than actually enforcing the law.
3.Possibility of selective enforcement
There will come a time when there will be selective justice in the enforcement of the law.Many of the traditional land owning families are so rich and powerful that they are practically “untouchable”.Some of them belong to royal families and they have people occupying different positions in the government.How can such a law be enforced against such people?.
4.Fear of reprisal attack
When people step forward to report the activities of the omoonile,what protection does the law afford them ? There are cases of reprisal attacks that happen late in the night.They visit the construction site; break down walls, destroy the roof , cart away bags of cement,iron rods and any other thing they can lay their hands one. Without a witness ,the owner cannot prove the omoonile carried out the act but he has to bear the loss.If the cost of such a reprisal is more than what is demanded, the owner will prefer to deal with the omoonile rather than face their wrath.
There is no doubt that the Lagos State Properties Protection Law, 2016 is well intended but a lot needs to be done and put in place if the law is to become very effective.As they say,time is the true test of anything, lets wait and see if indeed this law will curb the menace of the omoonile in Lagos or will it just be another law made just to score cheap political points. Time will tell.
By Victor Madekwe
(Estate Surveyors & Consultants)