- Lagos govt launches campaign to battle omo-oniles
By Job Osazuwa
FOR millions of Lagos dwellers, their names ring an immediate bell. They are known as omo-oniles, which literally means owners of the land.
But in Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta and in many parts of the South West, omo-oniles are no longer mere owners of the land. All that many of them have done, for ages, is to violently seize already sold parcels of land and resell them. They perpetually harass property owners and collect taxes on lands that had been sold and developed.
They are seen as small gods over anything that has to do with ownership of any piece of land. They call the shots when it comes to developing it. They rule and reign supreme like emperors in their respective kingdom.
These self-acclaimed kings are often referred to as land grabbers. But their illegal activities go beyond grabbing lands. With an army of gun-totting, machete-wielding thugs, they terrorise entire communities, sacking people from their homes and seizing as much land as they can get.
Well, their reign might soon be coming to an end. Lagos State Governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, recently raised a five-man special task force to address the issue. The governor said his government was ready to prosecute anybody caught forcibly taking another person’s land in the state.
Many landlords would never forget the evils that omo-oniles do. After purchasing the land, there are different taxes for the aspiring homeowner. The first is owo foundation, which is paid before you start working on the foundation. There is the owo roofing, which must be paid before the building is roofed. There are others, including owo plastering (paid before the building is plastered); owo soak away (to be paid before the septic tank is built); owo borehole (paid before the borehole is constructed) and owo fencing (a must before you can put a fence around the house). Those constructing a storey building will, in addition to all the taxes, also pay owo decking.
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.
Where there are no more virgin plots at strategic areas for the people to sell, any purchased but undeveloped land becomes a main target. Even owners of already developed lands are made to repurchase their lands or levied some amount of money to retain their property. As a matter of fact, these chronic grabbers can resell the same piece of land to as man 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.
These folks also rent out undeveloped government land to people. And when the government later comes for the same land, the omo-oniles simply vanish.
Daily Sun gathered that some five or six decades ago, residents of any area in Lagos and other parts of the South West actually did persuade, encourage and support prospective land owners to build their houses.
A landlord at Fagba near Agege area of Lagos, Elder Arowole Oredoyin, said there was then no standing order, compelling those building houses to pay certain amount to those already living in the community. He recalled that when his father built his house at Ipaja area, people from the community actually helped the old man to handle the manual works on his site.
Then, in the days of yore, cooking, buying drinks or giving money to omo-oniles was purely at the discretion of the landowner, the reporter was told.
Said he: “l cannot really remember how people began to make paying certain amount mandatory. It is a display of laziness by the youths and nonchalant attitude on the part of our government.
“When one hears of different kinds of money these people demand these days, one wonders how we actually landed ourselves at where we are. You hear of money to lay a foundation, to roof and many others. What annoys me most is money to sink a borehole for yourself after government has failed to provide you water. The irony is that some of the omo-oniles might come to that same borehole later to fetch free water. This can’t happen in a sane society.
“When I started building my own house about 26 years ago, it was a thing of joy in my area. Houses were scanty in the whole area, but people were already living there and few roads or footpaths were there too.
“I paid no money to anybody. I remembered how two young men volunteered to watch over some building materials that were left at the site. When I later completed the house, we all celebrated together and I saw them as sort of joint owners of my house because they contributed in no small measure.
“I believe it is not too late to stop the trend. Government needs to make a clear policy and ensure that it is enforced. No individual or group of persons can be bigger than government.”
Non-indigenes as omo-niles
In many cases, many people claiming to be ‘sons of the soil’ are actually non-indigenes of the area, the reporter learnt. Some non-Yoruba men have also become sudden omo-oniles.
A young man in his late 30s, popularly known as Arthur, was a dreaded omo-onile at Tollgate area between Ogun and Lagos States. His chest, it was gathered, could virtually ward off bullets from AK47. The reporter learnt he’s actually from Kogi State although he was born and raised in the area.
Lawlessness with impunity
Interestingly, there is no law backing the activities of these omo-oniles. But even lawyers and lawmakers always give them their dues.
Many described the development as unfortunate, noting that such absurdity could only happen in Nigeria.
A human rights activist, Mr. Dada Remilekun, said: “When certain things happen for over a period of time, people, out of ignorance, will begin to accept it as a norm. Many things are responsible for this. Those who summoned the courage to confront these omo-oniles either end up having their building project 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. For 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 parents refuse to challenge him, he would think that he is doing the right thing. This is exactly what the grabbers have turned themselves into. Since no one challenges them, they wreak more havoc,” he said.
Victims, victims, victims
Adeola Mustapha, a businesswoman in Lagos, bought a plot of land at Atan in Ogun and left it for about eight months. The day she took some blocks to the place so that she could begin work was when her trouble started.
She was perplexed when she got to the site the following day with her own workers and met other set of workers who had already quickly laid a foundation for a three-bedroom apartment on the site. She was later told that the piece of land was illicitly sold to her by the same omo-oniles, who sold it to the other party many years back.
After several threats and pleading, she was given another plot, which she was advised to develop immediately or stand another chance of losing it.
Babalola Niyi bought a plot of land, measuring 60 by 120 feet seven years ago in Ayobo area of Lagos and he began to develop a portion of it so that land grabbers would not snatch it from him. But he was wrong.
The land grabbers proved they were smarter and went ahead to grab about half of the land and sold it to another person. When he raised the alarm and threatened to let heaven loose, he said they promised him a half plot in another location as a replacement. Till date, he is still waiting for the fulfilment of the promise.
Keen businessmen and many others who are conversant with the omo-onile syndrome, will readily submit that the trend throws spanners in the wheels of real estate development, investment and property ownership.
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 help you to sell it.”
There is the belief that in a country that lacks an encouraging mortgage regime, the activities of the omo-oniles are tolling the death knell for the sector.
A journalist with a national daily told the reporter that it was very painful that after struggling to eke out a living and saving money to buy a land in order to erect a property, people would have to cough out additional money to ‘settle’ some omo-oniles.
“I bought my land about two years ago at Mowe area of Ogun State. It took me another one year to raise the owo foundation, the N300, 000 that the omo-oniles asked me to pay before I could start the foundation. It was when someone called me that they were about selling my land to another person that I ran to borrow some money with high interest to start the building,” he said.
Lagos govt to the rescue?
Recently, the Lagos State government fired a warning that it was no longer going to be business as usual. It vowed to curtail the evil activities of omo-oniles in the state using the instrumentality of the law to deal with offenders.
The warning was delivered through the state Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Adeniji Kazeem, who said the state was ready to prosecute anybody caught forcibly taking another person’s land in the state.
While inaugurating a five-man special task force for the task, the government said it would, henceforth, enforce the state government rights over land in Lagos and to also work with all security agencies to implement the private property rights in the state.
The terms of reference of the committee, include: “To reduce to a barest minimum 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; to coordinate the efforts of the various agencies of government charged with enforcing the state government rights over land in Lagos and to work with all security agencies to ensure enforcement of state government and private property rights in Lagos State.”
Kazeem explained that the state government decided to set up the task force after realising that in recent years, the land grabbers had caused havoc and unrest in different parts of the state by dispossessing legitimate land owners of their properties, thereby destabilising commercial activities in the state.
“The state government will not only identify the effects of the problems being perpetrated by these unscrupulous elements on commercial activities and peace of the citizenry but would also find a lasting solutions to the menace,” he assured.
The commissioner said the task force was to protect investors and maintain law and order, adding that it would encourage the verification of legal claims through litigation rather than resorting to violence.
He said that the Lagos State House of Assembly was about passing a law that would exclusively deal with the activities of the land grabbers and prescribe appropriate stiff penalty for offenders. The Sun