Relief for victims of land grabbers as Lagos enacts property protection law

Featured in The Guardian Newspaper 16 August 2016

The menace of land grabbers, notoriously known as Omonile, a group of hoodlums who claim to be members of legal or illegal family-owners, with penchant for extortion at construction sites, is an unending nightmare for Lagos property buyers and developers. Most Lagos residents will be happy to see the state do away with this group of monsters, that has become a big pain on the neck of property owners. JOSEPH ONYEKWERE AND GODWIN DUNIA report that the Lagos State Government has put a mechanism in place to curb their illegal activities through the instrumentality of the law.

It is a cheery news for property owners in Lagos, who detest the troubling activities of omoniles. The governor of Lagos state, Akinwumi Ambode, has signed into law, the property protection bill passed by the state house of assembly, outlawing the activities of the miscreants.

Already, Lagos State Task Force on land grabbers, unknown to many residents, is existing, and is also working to curb the nefarious activities of omoniles by ensuring that offenders are apprehended, investigated and put on trial once such cases are reported to them.

The bill, which is now signed into law is titled: “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 for connected purposes. ”

The taskforce, together with the Police, will help to enforce the law aimed at streamlining and regulating the activities of right of agents among others, when it comes into force.

According to the law, anybody found guilty of forcible land takeover will be liable to 10 years imprionment upon conviction. Also, a person who, without lawful authority uses or threatens violence for the purpose of securing entry into any landed property for himself or for any other person commits an offence and upon conviction liable to 10 years imprisonment. Interestingly, all the provisions above have no option of fine.

Section 6 of the law says: “No law enforcement agent, vigilance group, ethnic, cultural/traditional militia shall execute the judgment of a court in respect of any landed property except, as may be provided for under the Sheriff and Civil Process Act or any other law.”

In addition, the law prohibits demand of fees in section 11 (1). It says: “A person shall not, whether for himself or acting as an agent demand any fee or levy in respect of construction activities on any property, disrupt or obstruct construction works provided that the provision of this section shall not be interpreted to preclude land owning families under the authorisation of the family head to demand the customary fee for possession (in the name of foundation levy) from buyers, or ratification fee pursuant to judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction.”

According to Mr Akinjide Bakare, chairman of the task force, who is also a lawyer, their work is to enforce existing laws, waiting for the governor’s assent to the new law.

He said: “The law will be more effective to curb the menace, because it is comprehensive.”

The law, also in retrospect, provides penalty for those who use force or self-help to take over landed property three months before the commencement of the law. Section 2 (2) states: “A person or group of persons, who, having used force to take over a landed property in the state before the commencement of this law and still remain in possession of the said property three months after the commencement of this law, commits an offence”.

The law went further to say in sub section (3): “A person who commits an offence under the provisions of the 2(2) stated above shall on conviction be liable to ten (10) years imprisonment.”

Apart from prescription of jail term for defaulters of the incoming law, it also added fine not exceeding N5million, in some cases. For example, in Section 4 (5) of the law, it provides that: “A person who commits an offence under the provision of section 4 (1-5) shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding N5million or five years imprisonment or both.”

Section 6 of the law also prohibits the use of force or fire arms to acquire or encroach into lands. In section 7: “A person who is on any property as an encroacher and having with him on the property any firearms, dangerous and offensive weapon (s) commits an offence and is liable on conviction to 10 years imprisonment”.

On how they have been working towards curbing the omonile menace in the state, while awaiting the assent of the governor, Bakare said: “The state has been using Section 52 and 53 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State. In section 52, it states that it is unlawful for anybody to enter into any land that is lawfully held by another person, while section 53, states of same as unlawful after entering or encroaching forcefully, to remain on the land.”

He said such a crime is punishable with two years imprisonment. “What we do right now is when a report or petition gets to us, we conduct investigations and based on our findings, we may make arrest of defaulters where necessary and after that, we prosecute the alleged offenders.

“We often take the time to study the various cases raised in petitions, when they get to our office and then take the appropriate steps. Some of the cases, for example, need only mediation and in that, we bring parties together and settle them.

“Lagosians should always tarry and not be in a hurry to give money to omonile, when they are confronted by them. They are cowards and they do it to people they know or think cannot challenge them. So my advice is that people should not be afraid of them”, he counseled.

How quick is the taskforce in responding to cases? Bakare said the taskforce should not be mistaken for the ‘rapid response squad of the police force’, but stated that within a minimal period of time as soon as a report or petition gets to them, such a victim will definitely get response. He also noted that another legal remedy, which can be used against omoniles, is the Torts of Trespass, which is in the Criminal laws and Torts of Lagos state.

He also said the taskforce is planning a town hall meeting as part of its efforts in sensitising the public in places like Ikorodu where land grabbing is predominant.

“We will also continue to use the press to sensitise the public to our efforts and our distress numbers are 09096667123 and 09020085005. The phone lines are effective and in situation of complaints, such could also be directed to: The Chairman, Lagos State Task Force on Land Grabbers, Alausa, Ikeja.”

In the course of enforcing the law against land grabbers in the state, Bakare said they have been working in concerted efforts with the Ministries of Environments, Physical Planning and the Police with the support of the Lagos State Police Commissioner, Fatai Owoseni, who is also the head of the Operations of the Task force. He also noted that a lot of arrests have been made and the cases will be prosecuted accordingly.

One of the victims of omonile, Alhaji Abubakar Aro, who spoke to The Guardian said: “I live in Kayetoro area of Ibeju Lekki. I reported a case of one Alhaji Jubril, who has been terrorising us with thugs and destroying our property, claiming he is the owner of Kayetoro land to the taskforce. He has destroyed all the coconut trees planted by our ancestors with impunity, despite the fact that the land does not belong to him and the case is at zone two Police Station.” Aro added that the Task Force has promised to wade into action.

Expressing his confidence to the ability of the taskforce to handle the case, he said, “they will handle the matter successfully and effectively and that is why I went to them to report. They are now expecting my written petition.”

Another petitioner who will not want his name mentioned said: “My case is in Ejigbo in Oshodi-Isolo Local Council Area and it involves the Oba of the area”.

Giving another perspective to the issue, a Lagos lawyer, Rafiu Bello, said legal redress is the best option against land grabbers. He said when land grabbers forcibly encroach on ones property with phantom court judgment, as the case may be, the first step is to conduct a search at the Court, where the judgment was purportedly obtained.

According to him, that will enable the aggrieved party to ascertain the validity of the judgment and if valid, to also know the scope and effect of the judgment.

“One does not necessarily have to be a party before a court judgment can bind one. A judgment obtained for instance against someone claiming ownership of land will bind his privies, asssigns, successors-in-title.

“Assuming the judgment in question was valid but illegally enforced, the aggrieved party can approach the court that gave the judgment to set aside the illegal enforcement and seek damages and an order of mandatory injunction to undo what has been done,” he stated, adding that a criminal process may also be commenced against the perpetrators by lodging a petition for malicious destruction of property and conspiracy et cetera.

About the Author

Rafiu Bello has a broad experience in diverse areas of law and adequate experience in both litigation and corporate commercial practice. He contributes articles for  renowned newspapers like The Guardian and The Punch on topical legal issues.