The Lagos State government, last week, blazed the trail in combating the menace of land grabbing. Notorious in Lagos but equally pestilential in so many states of the federation, land grabbers, locally called Omo Onile in Lagos, appear in different forms with varying names and degrees of notoriety, and have come to dominate the land and property sphere in many parts of the country.
The land grabbers’ notoriety was inherited from their parent irritant widely known as Area Boys, a set of miscreants who preyed on the absence or haphazard enforcement of law and order to inflict pain and agony on the people. Mutating from the initial mode of harassing politicians for money on the streets, Area Boys graduated into more combative and confrontational crimes, stamping their authority of lawlessness on the places they besieged. It was from this parent form that land grabbing grew.
The modus operandi of land grabbers is to storm lands when construction work has just begun, and demand outrageous and unlawful payments from the land owners, refusal to do which is met with unqualified violence and limitless brigandage. In another form, land grabbers storm lands that do not belong to them with commando-like violence and drive away their legitimate owners, demanding that a re-purchase be made from them and asking for exorbitant and illegal payments. At other times, they even demand remuneration when a landlord is undertaking major repairs on his or her home.
The resultant effect of this violent possession of lands by miscreants cannot be overemphasised. They scare away investors, stall growth in the real estate sector and promote the ascendancy of violence and inequity in the property sector of the economy. Indeed, land grabbing slows down the wheels of progress in society and promotes the Machiavellian concept of might is right and the Darwinian survival of the fittest. Indeed, that the most obvious impetus for the rise of the phenomenon is the absence of law enforcement is very obvious. For under normal circumstances, the owner or rightful possessor of land who has authentic documents that proclaim authority over the property does not need to be troubled by an adverse claim to land ownership or the benefits therefrom. A mere presentation of documents of ownership is the only requirement needed by law enforcement agencies to smoke these violent trespassers from their illegal activities.
In the same vein, once a property owner has conformed to all the relevant rules on land ownership, he or she should ordinarily deafen his or her ears to all illegal demands from individuals or groups. In both circumstances, the property owner should receive the rightful protection of the law. However, the failure of law enforcement and the complicity of various strata of society in this notorious and nefarious endeavour have ensured a festering of the menace in the land.
With the signing of the Lagos State Properties Protection Law, which stipulates a 21-year jail term for convicts of land grabbing, the rug seems to be leaving the feet of the notorious dealers in this unhealthy business and their patrons. While signing the law, Governor Akinwumi Ambode had said that its enactment was borne out of the gross discouragement of investors from the state by the activities of land grabbers which, according to him, hindered the ease of doing business in the past. A number of potential property owners whose property development would have enhanced the economy of the state, he added, had suffered untold harassment from exploitative land grabbers. “The 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 works 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,” Ambode said.
While we reckon that there are a number of extant laws that deal with land grabbing, we commend this renewed focus on the need to smoke the miscreants out of Lagos. We call on the government to fully implement the law and not rest on its oars until the evil is fully extirpated. More fundamentally, government must dislodge all the artificial grid locks erected by corrupt agents and agencies on the process of obtaining certificates of occupancy. Absence of this certificate lionizes land grabbers in a way.
We also acknowledge that because Lagos is becoming too hot for the land grabbers, they are migrating to contiguous states like Oyo and Ogun. We call on the helmsmen in these states to take a cue from Lagos and face the menace and its patrons headlong. If only the dislocation, tears and sorrows that land grabbers sow in several homes were factored into the social disequilibrium plaguing society, governments would be more than inclined to arrest this pest with all the energy at their disposal.