Nailing Lagos land grabbers
Some years ago, well-known African Philosophy teacher, 80-year-old Prof. Sophie Bosede Oluwole told the world about her experience at the hands of indigenous land speculators (land grabbers) popularly called omo-onile. She said she had bought a land in Lagos several years earlier. Trouble came when she wanted to develop it. Her account: “I bought my land 18 years ago. A fellow, who was six years old at the time, now comes to me, saying his brother did not give him his own share of the money. I can’t understand whether he wanted to take his own share in the womb…Somebody would come and say ‘I was not around when you bought the land, pay me my own share.”
Mamalawo as Prof. Oluwole is fondly referred to, lived to tell the story. She was fortunate, unlike others, who had more macabre encounters with the omo-onile. Some have been maimed for life. Others have died. Several more have been traumatised after having their land seized and resold without a kobo for compensation. Many more are locked in a cycle of unending court cases over trespass on their land that is taking forever to settle.
Governments that have tolerated these vampires called omo-onile have violated the constitution that says government should protect life and property.
So when last week, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos moved in to roll out a law nailing the nefarious activities of the miscreants, he met not only a popular demand, but also he adhered to the fundamental essence of government. He has continued to receive deafening applause for his action.
The instrument, known as Lagos State Property Protection Law, will make the menace of land grabbing in Lagos a criminal act and a thing of the past. It stipulates a 21-year jail term for convicts. Ambode said: “The need for the law followed the fact that one of the issues that discouraged and hindered the ease of doing business in Lagos in the past had always been the menace of land grabbing.” He noted that a lot of would-be property owners encountered untold harassment from the exploitative land grabbers, declaring that the law now marked the end of the road for such people.
“The main objective of this law,” Ambode says, “is to ensure that our investors, business men and the general populace carry on their legitimate land-property transactions without any hindrance or intimidation henceforth…The Property Law will eliminate the activities of persons or corporate entities who use force and intimidation to dispossess or prevent any person or entity from acquiring illegitimate interest and possession of property…”
The government has followed it up with the establishment of a Special Task Force on Land-Grabbers and a Neighbourhood Safety Agency and Corps to assist the Police and other security agencies maintain law and order across the communities.
Given the virulent operations of the land speculators also called ajagungbale and how they have killed, maimed, defrauded and retarded investments, property developments and housing delivery in this state of close to 20 million persons, many agree that this law had been overdue. They have a point, if we consider some salient statistics.
The Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria said some years ago that Nigeria is in grave deficit of housing of about 18 million housing units. Government (federal, state and local councils) cannot fill the gap, as we thought they could with the Land Use Act which put ownership of all land in the hands of state governors. Even the so called private sector mortgage system hasn’t been of help.
Part succour lies only in individuals having unfettered access to land for housing in the communities. But there, the omo-onile have ambushed this critical window of intervention. They present land titles which they alter or disown at will to swindle buyers. Then at various stages of building on your property they throw in more obstacles: You pay them huge sums for laying the foundation, for decking, roofing, erecting a perimeter fence, digging a borehole, in a word for putting up any extension in your compound! At other times, as in the case of Sophie Oluwole, some other group of omo-onile surfaces to stop your project on the claim that there is a court judgement wresting ownership of the land from those who sold the land to you.
Outlawing the activities of land grabbers completely as the Lagos State government has done is the answer to the nightmare the citizens have been subjected to all these decades. It is also in the interest of government because the authorities can now streamline the levies the land grabbers have been collecting into a tax regime to boost the revenue of government. The authorities must implement the law to the hilt. In the past, the people had been distrustful of government when it came to lifting such laws from the cold print and giving it prosecutorial teeth. The government should offer the people a new impression of seriousness in giving life to the law.
The citizens also have a role to play if the law must work. The citizens would need to report omo-onile infractions to relevant agencies. Hotlines and social media contacts are needed for the public to reach the newly created operatives of the Neighborhood Safety Agency and Corps.
Law courts and the Police must be advised not to allow themselves to be compromised in cases patently meant to defraud property owners and thwart the spirit and letter of the new law. There have been occasions where security agents allegedly worked hand in hand with the land grabbers to perpetrate heinous acts.
It is expected that with Lagos State taking this radical step of finally hemming in the land grabbers, its fellow south-west neighbours, notably Ogun which is on a new drive to boost investment and Internally Generated Revenue, will follow suit to save its citizens from the hoodlums euphemistically called omo-onile.
• Ojewale is a writer in Ota, Ogun State.