No doubt, housing is one of the basic comforts of life. It not only provides shelter for the people, the possession of a house confers a sort of social security and dignity on the owner. Sadly, our governments have failed to give Nigerians good and affordable houses. Worse still is our comatose mortgage system, which offers no succour either, going by the exorbitant prices of houses usually, being put out for sale.
The land speculators, popularly known as Omo-Onile often often sell landed property illegally to unsuspecting members of public. Not only that, when construction work begins, these mischievous people extort fees in-discriminatory and if anyone who dares to challenge them, he becomes vulnerable to violent attacks. In Lagos and some metropolitan states, the problem is compounded by the alleged active involvement of some traditional rulers – obas and baales – in this criminality.
Many Lagosians became the latest victims of land speculators, as residents of Atinporome, Badagry area of Lagos, contended with 200 policemen from the Lagos State Police Command, when they demolished over 500 buildings worth billions of naira, which were erected on a land marked for construction of a police estate.
The police was said to have acquired the property about eight years ago, having obtained the Certificates of Occupancy (C-of-O) from the Lagos State Government, to enable it build an estate for senior police officers. Unfortunately, nothing was done on the land after obtaining the C-of-O, thus creating a room for the Omo-Onile to resell the land to needy property buyers as the residents, claimed that they acquired their properties from Omo-Onile. Before the latest demolition, the police authorities alleged that they had issued two eviction notices, but the residents refused to leave. While some of the residents claimed that they were not aware that the police actually purchased the land, others alleged that a law court had given an injunction, restraining the police from taking possession of the land.
Recently, the Lagos State Government took a more decisive action, through an amendment to the state’s criminal law, by dealing with persons that engaged in fraudulent land speculation, for prosecution. The state’s new criminal law ensures that assault, manslaughter and murder constitute criminal offences. The state also launched the ‘Code of Conduct of Estate Agency Practice in Lagos State’, under the Lagos State Real Estate Agent Transaction Department.
Before the introduction of this new law, it has been taken for granted that landed property cannot be stolen which, in the real sense was not true but has only aided unscrupulous people to sell third party properties. That is why the Lagos State House of Assembly should be commended for passing a bill to curb illegal acquisition and selling of land by indigenous land speculators. The Lagos State Properties Protection Bill 2013 also contains the punishment to be meted out to offenders.
Aside Lagos, the ugly activities of land speculators are ever embarrassing in other states of the federation. More pro-active approaches should be deployed to tame what has now turned out to be a social, economic and financial crime. To begin with, property agents should be made to have a registered office – a rare prescription in many states – which encourages mischievous persons to dupe innocent people and quickly change base in a jiffy.
An agent should be made to maintain accessible record of his/her business and ensure that a prospective purchaser takes physical possession of the property paid for within a period, except otherwise stated in writing by explaining the necessary obligations. This is a necessity going by the frequent demands for payments by customers before their preferred property is found. In most cases, many people ended up being duped this way!
Again, the existing provisions of the Land Use Act that vest the ownership rights of all land in state governors, which are held in trust for all citizens, is not helpful. Rather, what I think should be of utmost importance to the people is a proviso that guarantees easy access to incontestable procedure and title perfection documents.
Government officials should be closely monitored to ensure that they do not collude or abet fraud. This was the assurance given by the Lagos State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Ade Ipaye, when he said, “Fraudulent staff, especially in the Land, Housing and Judiciary ministries, who aid and abet criminals outside in landed matters will be used to set example of how committed we are to checking fraudulent cases in landed property in the state”. Other states in the country should follow suit.
Stiffer penalty should be imposed on those found guilty of land speculation. For instance, the Lagos State bill, which stipulates a fine of N200, 000 or three years jail term for any person found culpable, is too lenient. The N200,000 option of fine is so meager that it may not serve as adequate deterrent. Or, how do we explain a situation where an Omo-Onile, who reeks out millions of naira from a victim is made to pay just N200,000 as fine? Hence, a more severe punishment of a long sentence without an option of fine should be ideal. The police should no longer be docile to land speculation cases but be up and doing in nipping this malaise in the bud.
Members of the public should take the pain to verify all claims that pertain to the landed property they intend to purchase. If this had been done, the Badagry land purchase, which invariably back-fired and led to demolition would probably have been avoided. For example, the Lagos State Bureau of Land is the registry that is responsible for all land matters in the state, where people can verify the status of land in the state. Usually, prospective seekers are made to obtain verification forms and a search process initiated that would tell the prospective land buyer if the land is free of government acquisition and unencumbered in anyway, in terms of litigation.
Finally, the disturbing role of traditional rulers in this illegality should be curbed without further delay. It is not only absurd, disappointing and shocking to hear that royal fathers – that are supposed to be custodians of traditions and respected leaders – are themselves collaborators. Well, since they have chosen to toe this path – though shameful – they should equally be ready to face the consequence of their action. After all, nobody is above the