All over Nigeria, customary or native land ownership, otherwise called land tenure system, is no child’s play as it usually has a lot to do with the custom, culture and tradition of the people. Land is generally held in high regard in both rural and urban communities.
Apart from the traditional importance attached to it because of its link to hereditary and ancestral lineage, land is a factor of production and, of all the other factors including capital, labour and enterprise, it is unique and most strategic. Its availability plays a pivotal role in the development of any economy and increases investment inflow.
Industrialisation, housing development, agriculture, mining, oil exploration and other economic and productive activities that lead to improved standard of living, job creation, economic growth among others are possible only when land is available and harnessed for such purposes.
In most Nigerian cities, land commands immense value. In Lagos, Nigeria’s mega city and commercial nerve centre, where it is needed not much for agricultural purposes as it is for housing and industrial development, land is gold. To an average Lagosian, especially among those who superintend its administration, land is an equivalent of oil well.
For this reason, both the state government and native land owners are gods in matters of land sale, purchase and use. Owning land and going ahead to build on it either for residential or commercial purposes in Lagos is, more often than not, a nightmare. The native land owner popularly called ‘Omonile’ is a ubiquitous and possessive god that must be appeased at every stage of development.
Unarguably, Lagos is a big city that, many believe, is a land of opportunities. Money is more easily made in Lagos than any other city in Nigeria, but any N10.00 income made in this city has over N20.00 problem waiting for it. And so, except for those who are super blessed, many residents of this city live below poverty level.
Here is a city with roughly 20 million residents and only 20 percent of them are said to be living in their own houses. The rest are living in rented accommodation, spending over 50 percent of their monthly income on house rent.
Almost all of these residents want to own their own homes. Many have taken steps to build by buying land, but these dreams and efforts have, at one time or another, been thwarted or frustrated by the activities of Omoniles who are always lurking by the corner and waiting for builders to prey upon.
“Omonile is a land grabber; Omonile is a land owner or administrator who has enormous powers to sell a piece of land to more than six buyers and still maintain ownership of the land; Omonile is that land owner who comes at every stage of housing development- foundation, lintel, decking and roofing- to demand and collect ransom from the developer; indeed Omonile is all the anti-homeownership problems put together,” says Amadi Nzeakor who lost his land to Omoniles in Ijegun- a Lagos suburb.
Many homeownership dreams have been dashed, many projects have been abandoned and a lot of investments frustrated by the activities of these parasites who live big and grow fat at the expense of people who, after toiling day and night, decide to own their homes by buying ‘their’ land and building on it.
Worried by this unwholesome development and in a move aimed at encouraging investment and boosting property development, the state Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, last month, signed a Lagos State properties protection law that criminalises the activities of land grabbers and Omoniles.
The law seeks to reduce to the barest minimum, if not totally eliminate the activities of persons or corporate entities who use force and intimidation to dispossess or prevent any person or entity from acquiring legitimate interest and possession of property acquired through state government or private transactions. It comes with a jail term of six years for anyone convicted.
The need for the law, according to the government, followed the fact that one of the issues that discouraged investors and hindered the ease of doing business in Lagos in the past had always been the menace of forceful land grabbing and imposition of illegal levies by those called ‘Omoniles’
Specifically, Ambode recalled that a lot of would-be property owners encountered untold harassment from exploitative land grabbers, adding that the law now marks the end of the road for such land grabbers.
“The Lagos State Properties Protection Law will give legal backing to the operations of our law enforcement officers. The main objective of this law is to ensure that our investors, businessmen and the general populace carry on their legitimate land/property transactions without any hindrance or intimidation henceforth.
“The properties 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 legitimate interest and possession of property, ensure that the special task force on land-grabbers work with all security agencies to ensure enforcement of state government and private property rights in the state, and ensure proper coordination of the efforts of the various agencies of government charged with enforcing the state government’s rights over land in Lagos,” the governor had said.
Mudashiru Obasa, speaker of the state House of Assembly, and Olufunmilayo Atilade, the chief judge of Lagos, gave their backing to the law. Obasa said the new law was central to the state’s focus on safeguarding the lives of all residents, as well as attracting, growing investments and improving the ease of doing business in the state.
Dele Oloke, chairman, who also spoke on the law, said it would go a long way in curbing the illegal activities of land grabbers and their sponsors, whom he said are sometimes respectable persons in the society.
Besides this law, the state also determined to improve its land administration and so, as part of a two-year projection for future development, the state government will be deploying integrated and automated system in its land administration and transactions.
The integrated land administration and automated system is the state’s response to the World Bank’s ease of doing business index which ranked Nigeria 169 out of 189 countries.
The state attributes this poor ranking, which used Lagos and Kano as reference points, to service delivery issues and too many bureaucratic bottlenecks, hence the need to put in place systems and policies that will create one-stop shop to facilitate access to all factors of production including land, capital, labour and entrepreneur with land as chief factor.
“There is therefore, a need for Lagos, being the commercial hub of Nigeria, to automate its entire land administration process and create a system where land titles will be guaranteed”, Bode Agoro, permanent secretary, Lagos Lands Bureau, said.
Agoro explained at a media briefing that the integrated and automated system is a suite of technology modules that can conduct rapid inventory of land rights, automate and manage land records, create and maintain integrated geographic data accurately and fairly value any property.
CHUKA UROKO & JOSHUA BASSEY