SHOLA ADEKOLA, BOLA BADMUS, AKIN ADEWAKUN, CHUKWUMA OKPARAOCHA and KEHINDE JAYEOBA look at the activities of land grabbers, otherwise known as Omo onile, which have truncated the aspirations of many potential landowners and homeowners in Nigeria’s commercial city – Lagos.
OVER the years, land grabbers have constituted a plague unto many Lagos residents interested in owning landed property. Their activities have increasingly caused social concern so much so that the Lagos State government had to take measures to run them out of business. A new law in the state now makes their activities criminal with serious penalties.
The law comes on the heels of the frustration many residents of the state face at the hands of the land grabbers who either sell a piece of land to different people or insist that people pay them some money before they can embark on any building.
Investigations by Saturday Tribune showed that many lives have been lost to the activities of these Omo Oniles, who will stop at nothing to make their victims part with N500,000 or N1 million, or even more, depending on their mood.
For any one nursing the ambition of becoming a landlord in Lagos, it is like attempting to fight with ‘principalities’ as the Omo Oniles do not only engage their targets physically but they also use diabolical means to deal with anyone they feel is too stubborn to succumb to their demands.
They go as far as placing charms on any land in contention and even sending killers after their victims in their desperation to extort money from their victims or scare them away from the land to enable them to resell to another buyer.
Their behaviour over the years has deprived many people of the opportunity of owning houses. It is for this reason that in Lagos, the name “Omo Onile,” is synonymous with “parasites, hoodlums and enemies of progress” who enjoy reaping from where they have not sown.
Rather than get themselves gainfully engaged, they inflict hardship on those who have worked hard to provide for themselves and members of their families good things of life like shelter, as they show up at the last minute to make demands on the excuse that their fathers own the land.
The Omo Oniles, who have become a thorn in the flesh of many Lagosians, particularly those who nurse the ambition of buying a land to build a house, wait for any excuse to extort money from them under the guise that their ancestors are the rightful owners of the land.
As many people living in Lagos would have loved to build their own houses, this dream has become almost impossible in view of the lawlessness being perpetrated by these so-called Omo Oniles who have made owning a land appear like an unrealistic ambition.
In Lagos, it has become an unwritten law for anybody attempting to erect a structure on a newly acquired piece of land to first settle Omo Oniles before any work can commence there.
In making their illegal demand, they often subject their victims to inhuman treatment if they feel they are not cooperating. They usually harm anyone found uncooperative on a building site.
Many of the victims of these Omo Oniles have pathetic tales to tell and harrowing experiences to share.
For Olu (not real name), his experience with the Omo Oniles is something he cannot forget and would not like to pass through again. He had, in 2012, secured a plot of land somewhere in the Ikorodu area at the cost of N400,000. He laid the foundation and did the perimeter fencing as well as a gate without any hindrance.
Olu, who was looking forward to owning his personal apartment soon, said he embarked on the foundation and perimeter fencing first in the hope to achieve further construction in phases within four walls and stave off attention to the structural development going on inside.
Unfortunately, he lost the possession barely two weeks after completing the first phase of the project. Information had reached him that some strange people had taken over his property and had even helped him build it up to lintels within a short period.
Olu, who found the information incredible, moved in his car in a great speed to the site, accompanied by two people. Upon getting there, what he found was unimaginable. Not only was the information that had reached him true but he abandoned his car and ran for his life as tens of weapon-wielding Omo Oniles chased him.
His car was later retrieved but those from whom he purchased the land could only assure him of an alternative plot somewhere else, an offer which he immediately rejected. He could also not secure a refund of the money that had gone into the property; he was only paid a pittance.
Like Olu, Mrs Shola Ajileye (not real name), who is now a landlady in the Bammeke area, narrated the nasty ordeal she went through at the hands of this illegal group while trying to build her house. According to her, after managing to pay for the acquisition of the property which already had on it a structure, hell was let loose when she mobilised bricklayers to site to begin full construction work.
Immediately the Omo Oniles around the area got wind of the development, they threatened to kill anyone who attempted to commence work there without settling them first.
“But for my swiftness, the leader of the Omo Oniles would have used a heavy block he carried in his hand to shatter the skull of one of the workers on site for daring to challenge them,” she said. Mrs Ajileye got more than she bargained for; she had to “settle” two groups of the Omo Oniles, who came at different times, with N400,000. While she paid the first group N150,000, the second group showed up and demanded N250,000, claiming that the earlier callers were fakes. At the end of the day, she was made to part with another N200,000 with cartons of wine before work could fully commence despite the fact that the property in question was not a virgin land.
Thinking that trouble was over, Mrs Ajileye got another shocker while laying the foundation as the Omo Oniles showed up again asking for a fresh N100,000. After hours of appeal, they settled for N50,000.
In the case of another victim, who wanted to be addressed simply as Tope, at a point, he almost called it quits with his housing project.
Tope, who is based in the United States of America, said he decided to heed the call of his people to build a house and begin the process of settling down in Nigeria. He came in September 2015 to buy a plot of land on Edun Street, in the Aboru area of Agbado Oke Odo Local Council Development Area of the state.
After filling the necessary papers and paying the required fee to the owner of the property, who happened to be a lawyer, he commenced work on the project, hoping to do something significant on the plot of land during his two-week holiday before returning to the US. He had been briefed about the activities of the Omo Oniles and the need to ‘factor’ them into the scheme of things and he agreed to do just that. But a few days after reaching out to those he was directed to, another set of miscreants came, this time led by a woman who claimed the land had been sold by her mother to the lawyer who sold it to Tope.
“When I told her that I didn’t have any business with her but the lawyer, she said that any transaction on the land must involve her, since she was the genuine daughter of the owner of the land. I was further shocked when the lawyer who sold the land to me agreed with her position and asked me to listen to her. I had to cough up additional N250,000 as agreement fee on a land I had previously paid a similar amount of money. At a stage, I almost abandoned the project because they kept coming back. When I erected the gate, they came. The same thing happened when I was doing the lintel of the building. They collected money at every stage,” he said.
The failure of previous administrations in the state to check the activities of the Omo Oniles has been criticised by many Lagosians who also attributed the enormous power these people wielded to the support they enjoyed from traditional rulers. Apart from the alleged involvement of traditional rulers in land grabbing, government officials and law enforcement agents like policemen have been accused of aiding the Omo Oniles.
Recently, a family in Ikorodu petitioned the state House of Assembly over cases of land grabbing in that community. In the petition, which was debated on the floor of the assembly, top government officials were accused of land racketeering in the Imota area of the community. The petitioners — Chief Museli Poye Ogunyemi and Engineer Ola Olusesi — claimed that the government officials in question were being led by an executive secretary in the Land Bureau of the state.
Similarly, a Lagos-based businessman, Alhaji Saidi Abiola, also recently called on the Commissioner of Police, Mr Fatai Owoseni, to intervene in the crisis that led to the stalling of some infrastructural projects meant for the benefit of the residents of Gborigi Iragon area of Badagry.
The lawlessness of the Omo Oniles knows no bounds as they have sent many breadwinners to their early graves for nursing the ambition of becoming landlords.
‘Not all Omo Oniles are bad’
However, Seye (not real name), a popular Omo Onile in Bammeke, has come to the defence of the group, saying not all of them are bad.
Although he agreed that many of his fellow land grabbers carry their activities too far, he accused their agents of desperation to achieve personal goals using the name of Omo Oniles. Seye also claimed that the activities of the Omo Oniles had been made seamless with the support of police personnel who work with the agents.
According to him, Omo Oniles do not have a fixed amount they collect from land owners, as somebody who owns a N10 million worth of land, for instance, can be asked to pay about N1 million or slightly more, depending on the area. He, however, said that until the state government enforced a relevant law, the overbearing attitude of Omo Oniles would continue.
Many people now keep their money in their pockets or go to remote areas to achieve their dream of becoming house owners for fear of being extorted or attacked by the Omo Oniles. Some have even stopped dreaming the dream on the grounds that they don’t want to lose their lives or hard earned money to a group of jobless people.
Perhaps the cries of many victims about the lawlessness of the land grabbers have finally reached the ears of the state government. The government has approved 21-year jail term for anyone found guilty of land grabbing.
The state House of Assembly has passed a bill to prohibit forceful entry and illegal occupation of landed properties in the state. The bill, after three readings, was passed into law through a motion moved by the Majority Leader of the House, Honourable Sanai Agunbiade, whose constituency, Ikorodu 1, is a hotbed of the activities of the Omo Oniles.
The law prohibits the incessant forceful entry and illegal occupation of landed properties, violent and fraudulent conducts in relation to landed properties in Lagos State.
The majority of those who spoke to Saturday Tribune on the development called on the state government to enforce the law, saying only through this could those who have given up the hope of owning houses in Lagos could fulfil their dreams.
However, land agents have condemned what they call the plan to ban the activities of land speculators, describing the proposed ban as a “fraud” and a ploy to take over lands from the original owners.
Prince Adedipe Ewenla told Saturday Tribune that people tend to mistake land agents, estate agents and “land security” for Omo Onile. He explained that Omo Oniles are the ones whose fathers or great grandfathers owned the land, while “land security” people are those who help them secure the land from invasion and estate agents help them to sell.
Ewenla blamed the government for most of the land crises in the state: “The government is responsible for most of these things. First of all, land cases last for more than 30 years and in that time, some people might have occupied the land in question. What usually happens is that in a situation where there is a dispute on a land and the court decides in favour of a party, court bailiffs and policemen are used to take possession of the land but these people will leave as soon as the possession is done. But there is the need to protect the land from invaders after the police and the court bailiffs have left. That is where the land security people come in. These people are registered with the government. They pay tax and returns and are registered with the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps.”
The land security expert adds: “Trying to ban Omo Onile is like trying to forcibly take over land from the original owners. Those who own expanses of land will always want to sell it and there is no way they will not contact land agents and land security. As long as people own land, there will always be Omo Onile. It is only when the government takes over all the land in the state that there won’t be Omo Onile.
“They know that it is the land agents who help people to reclaim their land, even from the government. Go to Ajah and other places and see how the government forcibly took over hundreds of hectares of land from the original owners only to release such land to serving and former government functionaries.
“Another area where the issue of Omo Onile comes in is when land buyers refuse to pay the necessary money. Normally, they pay for foundation, security, decking and other things, but these people prefer to use their influence in government or the police to prevent paying the money.
“The major problem is the delayed court cases. On many occasions, a land in dispute would have been completely developed and it is not easy for people to just vacate their buildings and investment. Look at the case of Abule Egba where some people got a judgement after more than 20 years.”
Ewenla said that the law banning activities of Omo Onile was not properly formulated. He wondered why the state House of Assembly did not make efforts to invite land agents and land security experts for discussion before enacting the new law.
No common front
Meanwhile, land and estate agents may not have a common front to tackle the proposed ban on their activities by the Lagos State government as a result of the sharp division and fractionalisation among thousands of the members.
Investigation by Saturday Tribune revealed that there are three different factions with meetings holding in Abeokuta, Sango Ota and Ikorodu by the different factions.
“Members of these groups rally round any of their members who has any serious problem with the police or any other law enforcement agency but the division among us is a major challenge in battling the ban on the activities of Omo Onile. Some people even prefer not to be associated with any of these groups as a result of the division,” an estate agent who pleaded for anonymity said.
“We have always discussed it but we cannot fight for the entire land and estate agents in Lagos and Ogun states. The Ogun State government is also planning to ban Omo Onile but if we can come together, we can forge a common ground to fight the two states,” he added.