No Paper, No Land, No Compensation.
Saturday, March 23rd, 2013
It was when I traveled home from school for the Christmas and New Year holidays that I noticed the changes that have taken place in my hometown. My family lives in Ijebu-Ode in Ogun State, and since the coming into power of the ACN government in 2011, there have been series of development projects across the state. The latest of such projects in Ijebu-Ode is the attempt of the government to expand the busiest road in the town known as Folagbade or Ibadan road. This road was built during the regime of Olabisi Onabanjo, the first Civilian Governor of Ogun State. It is a dual carriageway comprising of three lanes on each side. The present administration, in line with its urbanization drive, felt the need to further expand the road by widening it to four lanes on each side. Whether this project is desirable, considering the huge expense involved, the fact that funding for the project will come from loans, or that there was hardly any traffic build-up on the road to justify the expansion, is not the focus of this paper. That will be an issue for discussion in another forum.
The issue that piqued my interest was the controversy over the issue of compensation for those affected by the road expansion project. The entire length of the road is bounded on both sides by houses, offices, banks, and even religious places of worship. The government, under its inherent power as absolute owner of land, compulsorily acquired all these lands and buildings along the road to pave way for the project. However, the government stated categorically that only those with documentary evidence in form of Certificates of Occupancy and other documents of title as proof of their ownership will be compensated.
There is clearly nothing wrong with the government providing the machinery to ensure that only people with genuine claims over land are compensated for the loss of their land. However, the attempt to pay compensation only to people with certificates of occupancy and documentary evidence clearly amounts to the government doing the right thing the wrong way. Documentary evidence is not the only means by which title to land is proved in Nigeria. Rather, it is one of several means of proving ownership of land. In practical terms, the documents are only prima facie evidence of ownership. The court of law, on various occasions where the validity of a certificate of occupancy has been in issue, has found reasons to impeach the document where it was procured by fraud or misrepresentation. Thus, the certificate of occupancy is often regarded as the least acceptable means of establishing title to land.
Other means through which title to land can be established include acts of long possession, traditional history and exercise of rights of ownership over land for a long period of time, which raises a presumption of ownership. All these means of proving title to land are recognized under Nigerian statute and case law.
The Land Use Act, which converted all title to land to a right of occupancy, made provisions for the protection of rights that were in existence before the commencement of the Act. Such owners of land are deemed grantees of a right of occupancy, and there is no obligation on them to obtain a certificate of occupancy as evidence of their title. Only actual grantees of a right of occupancy are obligated to possess a certificate of occupancy as evidence of their grant.
Similarly, the Supreme Court in Ogunleye v. Oni, held that where a certificate of occupancy is issued to another person over a piece of land to which another person’s right subsists, the certificate would not be worth the piece of paper it is written on.
The above analysis is to show that the certificate of occupancy is not the only acceptable means of proving title to land. Where the state government continues to insist on compensating only those with certificates of occupancy, it will then be contravening the law. What the government should do is to set up a panel of inquiry, where people without documentary evidence of their title can prove their ownership through other acceptable means. The panel will also be able to verify the authenticity of whatever certificate of occupancy is presented to it, to ensure that the certificate was not issued in contravention of a subsisting and valid land right. If the government can do this, it would have saved itself the considerable trouble and expense of a barrage of litigations it would have to grapple with from aggrieved landowners under its present scheme.
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