By Job Osazuwa
Like someone on an important emergency assignment, he raced into a construction site yelling at the top of his voice, ordering every labourer to stop work on a building project at the Ologede area in Ado-Odo/Ota Local Government Area (LGA) of Ogun State.
He seized some shovels and a few other tools being used by the workmen. Once again, he roared like an angry lion, screaming in Yoruba, “Owo da?” The phrase means, “Where is the money?”
No one dared disobey him. A mere mention of his popular nickname triggers panic in communities. He is an ‘omo-onile’, a member of a ruthless, deadly gang that seizes land from genuine owners with impunity, confident that no one would query the evil act.
For any aspiring or prospective landlord in many parts of the South-West, the fear of the omo oniles is the beginning of wisdom.
They are known by different names in some other parts of the country. In Owerri, the Imo State capital and its environs, they are known as umuama.
Even when one buys a land, gets all the necessary documents and government approval and erects a structure, these omo-oniles, infamously known by many as land grabbers, believe they still have a stake in the property. Some believe the property partly remains theirs, even in spite of a Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) duly issued by the authorities.
It is undisputable that land-related crises have become common phenomena in Nigeria. They are, probably, as old as the society and are believed to be rooted in structural, historical and socio-economic dynamics, often compelled by growing urbanisation. The more a particular city develops, the more there is likely going to be land conflicts among the people.
The effects of the criminality being perpetrated by these unscrupulous elements on commercial activities and peace of the citizenry cannot be over-emphasized.
Though a national challenge, it is argued that land-grabbing activities is pronounced in major cities across the South West states. But among all the urban areas, Lagos appears to have taken the lead in the unhealthy activities.
Considering its status as the nation’s commercial and economic hub, buying a piece of land in Lagos and putting up a structure on the same is usually a herculean task to accomplish. The situation is, however, further complicated by the confrontational actions of land grabbers and land speculators, who oftentimes jettison the law of the land to achieve their selfish and money-motivated motive.
In Lagos, Ogun and many other parts of South West, many of the omo-oniles have violently seized already sold parcels of land and resell them. They perpetually harass property owners and collect levies on lands that had been sold and developed.
As a matter of fact, these chronic grabbers can resell the same piece of land to as many people as possible. And usually, they always go scot-free, leaving those that bought the land to lick their wounds in silence. Those who are lucky among the victims might be relocated to some remote area and given land of lesser value when compared with the forfeited land.
Many people are perturbed by their impunity and have wondered why governments have not been able to decisively deal with them for the interest of the common man. It is a fact that development has been slowed down in many communities as a result of the nefarious deeds of these sets of hooligans.
These omo-oniles play small gods over anything that has to do with ownership of any piece of land. When preparing a budget on developing one’s land, one must clearly make provision for a substantive amount of money that will be used to rub the palms of these land grabbers. This must be done to allow peace reign while the construction lasts. They rule and reign supreme like emperors in their respective kingdoms.
But their illegal activities go beyond grabbing lands. With an army of gun-toting, machete-wielding thugs, they terrorise entire communities, sacking people from their homes and seizing as much land as they can grab.
In spite of the fact that successive governments in serious states have taken steps, enacted laws to address the issue, these illicit activities have continued unabated.
As observed by many pundits, eradicating or curtailing them now seems to be an impossible mission.
Many landlords and would-be landlords would never forget the evils that omo-oniles have inflicted on them. After purchasing the land, there are different levies for the aspiring homeowner. The first is the owo foundation or ‘foundation levy.’ That must be paid before you start work on the foundation. There is the owo roofing (roofing levy), which must be paid before the building is roofed. There are others, including owo plastering (paid before the building is plastered); owo soakaway (to be paid before the septic tank is built); owo borehole (paid before the borehole is constructed) and owo fence (a must before you can put a fence around the house).
Those constructing storey buildings will, in addition to all the forcefully collected levies, also pay owo decking before another floor can be added.
The demands vary from one state to another, and one community to another. In some areas in Lagos, a builder may be forced to cough out as much as N300, 000 as owo foundation.
Innocent skilled labourers and artisans coming to work on the site are expected to settle the omo-oniles. In fact, these workers are usually the first targets that the thugs unleash terror on whenever they storm any site.
It was learnt that the omo-oniles attack workers and seize their tools to send a message that the ‘original owners’ of the land are around. Many of the workers who failed to promptly comply have received the beating of their lives and got wounded in the process.
In a situation where there are no more virgin plots at strategic areas for them to sell, any purchased but undeveloped land becomes a main target. Even owners of already developed lands, in some instances, are made to repurchase their lands or levied some amount of money to retain their property.
These folks also sell or rent out undeveloped government land to people. And when the government later comes for the same land, the omo-oniles simply disappear, leaving the landlord tobear the consequences.
In many cases, land conflicts have led to the destruction of lives and property as well as the displacement of people.
It was gathered that some five or more decades ago, residents of any area in Lagos and other parts of the country actually did persuade, encourage and support prospective landowners to build their houses.
A landlord in Benin City, the capital of Edo State, Mr Oronsaye Osayande, said that there was then no standing order compelling those building houses to pay certain amount to those already living in the community. He recalled that members of the community were expected to assist the would-be landlords to complete their houses.
He stated that in those days of yore, cooking food, especially pounded yam, buying drinks or giving any amount of money to those already living in the area was purely at the discretion of the landowner.
Said he: “The youths of these days came and changed everything. They became brutal in their ways. I will always blame government for most of the things happening because this cannot happen in any sane society.
“At a point, it got worse in Benin until our highly respected Oba Ewuare 11 and Governor Godwin Obaseki intervened. Many of the so-called youth leaders and self-acclaimed bush inspectors who proved stubborn were arrested and taken to Abuja. It served as a deterrent to others. Today, people are buying land in Benin and building their houses in peace.
“Government has the power to deal with these enemies of the state, but most times it won’t due to the fact that many of the youths are thugs employed by politicians. But how long can we continue on this dangerous path? No individual or group of persons can be bigger than the government,” he submitted.
Lending his voice, a human rights activist in Lagos, Mr Dada Remilekun, told Daily Sun: “When certain things happen for over a period of time, people, out of ignorance, will begin to accept it as the norm. Many things are responsible for this. Those who summon the courage to confront these omo-oniles either end up having their building projects stalled or totally destroyed in mysterious circumstances.
“I will blame the system that has failed everyone of us. When these thugs are taken to the police station, they are released in a matter of minutes. They all have godfathers that empower them to cause trouble and bring pain to other Nigerians who have worked hard to get their money. But the fact that it has been happening over the years does not make it lawful.
“It is only in Nigeria and some other African countries that things like these happen. It can’t continue and it is only a responsible government that can stop it.
“You can’t really blame the omo-oniles. When a child does something wrong and his or her parents refuse to challenge him or her, he or she would think that the right thing is done. This is exactly what the grabbers have turned themselves into,” he said.
A businessman, Mr. George Nnamdi cannot forget in a hurry how his plot of land in Ibafo area of Ogun State was sold by omo-oniles without any form of compensation.
He told the reporter that he had bought the land in 2009 and left it undeveloped for about a year. But when he went there on a particular Sunday to cut the grass, he couldn’t believe what he saw. He was bewildered when he discovered that there was a foundation on his land.
After several threats and pleading with the same people who sold and resold the land, he was shown another plot of land in the same area, but was asked him to pay a fresh sum of N400, 000 for it.
“I left everything for God. I wasn’t sure if the new one they gave me was also genuine. I thank God that I now have a building of my own in another location. But it wasn’t easy for me throughout the period,” he said
A real estate agent, Mr Agbon Michael Agbon, said: “If we must progress as a nation, we need to curtail this raw use of power, coercion and extortion.
“You don’t expect serious investors to put their money in a business that can’t guarantee their client’s safety. You can’t buy a land and keep it for too long; the same people will resell it and leave you empty.”
Also commenting on the issue recently, Oluwatoyosi Ogunrinde, who works with the Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos, noted that the activities of omo-oniles became more pronounced in Lagos with the expansion of the metropolis, courtesy of its ever-growing population.
“They operate via force, deception and intimidation to gain access and control over increasingly scarce land. In this way, they are key actors in exacerbating tensions, including conflicts between landowners, buyers and private investors.
“They also sell lands with no proper planning or cognisance of a mapped out environmental outlay. This ugly trend is particularly common in the state’s satellite settlements,” he said.
The enactment of the Lagos State Property Protection Law on August 15, 2016, which prohibits the forceful entry and illegal occupation of landed properties, and violent and fraudulent conduct in relation to landed properties in the state, appears to be in a coma.
The law seeks to eliminate land grabbing in its various forms that include forceful possession of landed properties, encroachment, illegal sale and resale of land, illegal use of law enforcement agents and vigilante groups to enforce judgements, misconducts by professionals in land transactions, writing of frivolous and false petitions, unlawful demands by ‘omo-oniles’, touting and other ills.
Specifically, Section 2(1) of the law prohibits the use of force or self-help to take over any landed property or to engage in any act inconsistent with the proprietary right of the owner. The law criminalises the use or threat of violence for the purpose of securing entry into any landed property either for oneself or for another, without lawful authority. The provisions of the law in Section 4 criminalises any encroachment on peoples’ properties and provides for a fine not exceeding N5 million or five-year imprisonment or both, against any such encroachment.
People have called on the Babajide Sanwo-Olu administration to wage an all-out war against land grabbers.
Mr Jeremiah Adeoti, an estate agent in Lagos, told the reporter that not prosecuting land grabbers was a major setback hindering the elimination of the age-long practice in many states.
“The law is nothing if not implemented. When there is no prosecution, people will continue to flout the law. It will get to a point that the violators will begin to see it as a normal way of life.
“Let the government arrest and jail any of the offenders, especially the big names, and you will find out that others will learn their lessons from it. The law is all about implementation. These people have taken lives and wrongly destroyed houses without being punished for their actions,” he said.
At a different forum, Governor Sanwo-Olu has also described land grabbing as criminal and primitive, with a pledge to completely eliminate the evil practice from the state.