Lagos community petitions Sanwo-Olu over month long siege by land grabbers

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One month after land grabbers have invaded and laid siege on a Lagos Community at Ajasa-Command area of the state, the 20,000 strong residents have sent a strong ‘save our souls’ petition to the State Governor, Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu, asking him to save them from daily harassment and bullying by the land grabbers.

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On February 16, 2024, the residents of Ifelagba and Aniya Community Development Areas woke up to the invasion of one Chief Mutairu Owoeye, a notorious land grabber from Ogun State, leading over 200 thugs to invade the the community on the pretext of executing the judgment of a Lagos High Court over a land tussle between Oba Subaru Odualabe, and Kehinde Ologunebi families over an expanse of land measuring 11.370 hectares and delineated in survey plan no: AGB 247A and lying at Igbo Esinsin. Owoeye is well known and feared in Ogun State, particularly at Atan-Ota, where he has his base.

The litigation started with suit no ID/937/2006 before Justice Atinuke Ipaye of the Ikeja Judicial Division who delivered her judgment on September 29, 2011 in favour of the Ologunebi family. The matter thereafter proceeded to the Court of Appeal, Lagos in 2012 before Justices Amina Augie, Abimbola Obaseki-Adejumo, and Tijjani Abubakar. In a unanimous decision, and in the lead judgment read by Justice Obaseki-Adejumo, the appellate court affirmed the decision of the lower court. Not satisfied with the Court of Appeal decision, Oba Odualabe proceeded to the Supreme Court where Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun in December 2022 struck the case out due to withdrawal and incompetence.

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Meanwhile on December 8, 2023, Oba Odualabe filed another application seeking leave to relist the appeal before the Supreme Court. But prior to this, the plaintiff had filed an ex parte application before Justice Ipaye seeking to take possession of the land in question. In granting the application, Justice Ipaye said: “It is trite that every court of law has the inherent and bounden duty to ensure that a litigant enjoys the juicy fruit of success in the legal contest. This court having also extracted an undertaking from the judgment creditor to the effect that execution of the judgment shall not be used as an occasion to unleash violence and mayhem in the holders of third-party interests created over the subject property in the course of litigation”. Based on this extraction of undertaking signed by Alhaji Suraju Ologunebi, Justice Ipaye granted the application for possession on November 15,2023. Alhaji Suraju Ologunebi swore to an oath not to execute judgment with violence on December 12,2023. However, despite the pendency of the appeal before the Supreme Court, it also granted a consequential order granting possession to the judgment creditor to take over the land on December 15, 2023. The lower court further granted the order of execution on January 24, 2024.

Meanwhile, the residents became aware of the litigation only in 2015 just after judgment was delivered at the Court of Appeal and immediately instructed its lawyer, Mr Jiti Ogunye to establish contact with Mr Idowu Kokumo, the Ologunebi family lawyer. Correspondences were exchanged between the two lawyers between 2015 and 2020 to the effect that the residents will be willing to negotiate with the judgment creditor, without prejudice to the outcome of the matter before the Apex Court.

It was therefore baffled communities that woke up to see over 200 thugs led by Chief Owoeye that invaded their communities, contrary to the ban on activities of land grabbers by Lagos State Government. They accompanied court bailiffs who marked the possessed properties. There were also 40 policemen and 20 soldiers with a Military Police pick up van. The army vehicle was later traced to the Nigerian Army Dog Center, Ipaja, where it was parked.

Since then, the Owoeye thugs have remained in the communities, destroying properties, locking people’s homes, and extorting residents. They lock gates preventing residents from either going out or coming in. The residents, pushed to the wall, are getting more and more restive by the day. It got to a head that Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Mr Fayoade Adegoke Mustapha on Tuesday March 12, 2024 held a meeting at his office with all the parties involved in the case. In attendance at the meeting were Alhaji Suraju Ologunebi, the judgment creditor, representatives of the Odualabe Royal family, and Elders of the Ifelagba CDA. The police boss admonished all parties to prevent a breakdown of law and order within the community. He told Alhaji Ologunebi to respect the undertaking he made in court and that he should not expect the residents to negotiate with him under duress, while also admonishing the residents to quickly facilitate negotiations with the judgment creditor.

Mr Fayoade’s advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears as thugs up till Tuesday, March 19 continue to be on the prowl. At no 6, Morakinyo Street, the thugs broke down the gate to the premises of a property that contained six lock up shops and within a week, built a bungalow on the property. On the same street, they locked the gate of a house, leaving only the pedestrian passage. The residents could not use their vehicles for three weeks running. The gate is still locked. Pa Kehinde Awokoya in his mid 70s is a blind retired civil servant. His only home at No 9, Captain Kola street was completely locked. The thugs extorted N50,000 from him before he could gain access into the small bungalow he built at the time of his youth. “I have nowhere to go”, he told the thugs, tears streaming off his face. Alhaji Ola Badmus is a respected community leader whose business is block making. The thugs have turned his premises, which also serves as his home, to their base, disrupting his business and family life. Religious centers are not left out. A Methodist Church on Arepo Street has been under lock and key since the invasion, every plea by members to be allowed to hold even Sunday services was rebuffed.

Mr Ogunye has written to Mr Kokumo that the residents are ready to negotiate but that such negotiations could only be done in an atmosphere of peace and not under duress and chaos that has been unleashed on his clients.

Part of Ogunye’s letter stated: “The above narratives are the true facts of the situation in the Community wherein our clients, law-abiding citizens of Nigeria, and residents of Lagos State are daily being subjected to a horrendous maltreatment by their land-grabbing traducers. Our clients bought their respective landed property and developed same legally and legitimately, without any knowledge of any encumbrances or interest of any adverse claimants;

It is our well-considered opinion that there is a distinction between a legitimate, legal and civil enforcement of a court judgment for recovery of possession of land by the sheriffs and bailiffs of a high court, and a wanton and unlawful destruction of property by land recovery warriors under a guise of enforcement of judgment for recovery of lands. In the case of the former, if after the recovery and taking of possession by a judgment creditor with the assistance of the court’s sheriffs and bailiffs, the persons against whom the judgment was executed adamantly remain in occupation and possession of the subject of the judgment enforcement, the judgment creditor has a right to return to court, cite for contempt the defiant persons who refuse to surrender possession of the lands in disobedience to the order of court, and have them committed to prison for contempt of court. This is the path of the rule of law. It is impermissible in law for a land judgment creditor to resort to self-help and take the law into his hands by recruiting thugs and land recovery mercenaries to terrorize persons against whom a judgment is being allegedly enforced, more so when the persons were not a party to the suit from which the judgment arose, as in this case;

We acknowledge that first in 2015 and early 2016, and later in 2020, our firm, acting for our clients, and your good self, acting for your client- the Alhaji Suraju Ologunebi Family, had inchoate meetings on the possibility of your client ratifying their titles. That meeting could not reach a conclusion because of certain circumstances;

In the light of the prevailing circumstances, however, our clients are ready, willing and prepared to enter into negotiations with you and your clients in order to ratify their respective titles with your client;

As a starting point, however, our clients, deserving of immediate relief at the outset of the said discussions and negotiations, demand that you advise your client to immediately put a stop to the sustained invasion of the Community, and remove forthwith the trespassing land recovery mercenaries from the Community. Compliance by your client with this civil demand must be a condition precedent to the discussion and resolution of this matter;

Upon compliance with this demand, our clients shall be willing and ready to participate fully in the judgment enforcement and compliance deliberations, leading to the said ratification of titles for the benefit of your client. It is our clients’ wish that at the said meetings, to be organized under the auspices of the Lagos State Government (Office of the Attorney-General of Lagos State and Commissioner for Justice), the two families who are involved in the land dispute (or your client, to the exclusion of the Oba Sule Odu Alabe Family), and the Ifelagba CDA, whose members are in physical occupation and possession of the disputed land, will discuss and agree on the mode and mechanism for a violence-free, orderly and civil enforcement of and compliance with the said judgment, or, in the event that no agreement is reached, stick to the path of the rule of law in the judgment enforcement process, devoid of any role for, or intervention of the land recovery mercenaries;

Esteemed Colleague, we shall be grateful if you could revert to us immediately to enable us to jointly set the machinery in motion for the meetings, negotiations, and resolution of this matter;

TAKE NOTICE, however, that should you fail, refuse or neglect to revert to us as expected, our clients may be constrained to take legal steps to protect their interests, including filing the requisite application before Hon. Justice Atinuke Ipaye to set aside the execution of the said judgment which has been carried out in total disregard to the specific and trenchant orders and directives of His Lordship that same shall be devoid of violence, destruction of properties and flagrant breach of the rights of third parties, who having acquired interests in the subject-matter of the litigation and judgment in the course of litigation, deserve to have their vested rights protected. Also, our clients shall unhesitatingly take advantage of criminal law enforcement in Lagos State, outside the Police, whose responses have been understandably lukewarm, to seek remedies on their travails which border on internal security in Lagos State”.

In his letter to the governor, Ogunye urged Governor Sanwo-Olu to come to the rescue of residents as law abiding citizens of Lagos State. “That the entire Community has been thrown into a state of permanent pandemonium, and the landlords and residents are left at the mercy of the invaders, with no intervention of a governmental authority to arrest the breach of the peace and restore breakdown of law and order. Your Excellency, these are law-abiding citizens of Nigeria, and residents of Lagos State are daily being subjected to a horrendous maltreatment by their land-grabbing traducers. Our clients bought their respective landed property and developed same legally and legitimately, without any knowledge of any encumbrances or interest of any adverse claimants. In the acquisition of their respective landed property and development of same, our clients paid duties, fees and taxes to the Lagos State Government, for stamping of their title documents, for obtaining their certificates of occupancies, for physical planning and building developments permits, and are also paying tenement rates and ground rents, thereby making their modest contributions to the revenues generation of Lagos State. It is our considered submission that in the circumstances, they deserve due protection of the law when their constitutional rights to own a property without forcible acquisition is being flagrantly violated”, he stated.

He then added: “As a starting point, the Lagos State Special Task Force and the Governor Monitoring Team Task Force should intervene in the acts of criminality being perpetrated against our clients’ Community by immediately putting a stop to the sustained invasion of the Community, and removing the trespassing land recovery mercenaries from the Community, with a directive that the two families who are involved in the land dispute, and the Ifelagba CDA, whose members are in physical occupation and possession of the disputed land, should submit to a government organized meeting, under the aegis of the Office of the Attorney-General of Lagos State and Commissioner for Justice, to discuss and agree on the mode and mechanism of a violence-free, orderly and civil enforcement of and compliance with the said judgment, or in the event no agreement is reached, stick to the path of the rule of law in the judgment enforcement process, devoid of any role for, or intervention of the land recovery mercenaries”, he concluded.

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