It can be truly frustrating to be driven away from the doorstep of the court, but it is more embarrassing not to be aware of the established limitations statutorily placed on the right of access to court. They constitute part of the compulsory checklist of any aspiring litigant, before approaching the court for any judicial remedy. In the first piece of these series, we examined the limitation of causes of action as it relates to contract and tort. We shall proceed to examine other subject matters.
Land is one of the most durable assets that one can ever aspire to possess, given that it is permanent in nature and it is an enduring investment. Though the value may vary from time to time, but it is not subject to permanent waste and it can thus be passed on from one generation to another. That is why it is often termed ‘Real Property’, which cannot be destroyed. The most notable danger to this precious asset however is trespass, most oftentimes by the same vendor that assigned the land in the first place. Many people struggle to save money to be able to acquire just one plot of land and upon acquisition, they start the next process of savings to be able to build it, so we have the ugly scenario whereby many plots of land remain vacant and unoccupied, leaving room for criminal trespass by land speculators, squatters and thugs alike. In law, there is a possibility that you may lose your land due to your own negligence or carelessness.
Under and by virtue of section 16 of the Limitation Law of Lagos State:
“16 – Subject to the provisions of subsection (2) and (3) of this section, no action will be brought by a State authority to recover any land after the expiration of twenty (20) years from the date on which the right of action accrued to the State authority, or if it first accrued to some person through whom the State authority claims, to that person,
(2) – The following provisions will apply to an action by a person to recover land – (a) subject to paragraph (b) of this subsection, no such action will be brought after the expiration of twelve (12) years from the date on which the right of action accrued to the person brining it or, if it first accrued to some person through whom there are claims, to that person,
(b) If the right of action first accrued to a State authority, the action may be brought at any time before the expiration of the period during which the action could have been brought by the State authority, or of twelve (12) years from the date on which the right of action accrued to some person other than the State authority, whichever period first expires,
(3) For the purposes of this Law, a right of action to recover any land which accrued to the Republic or to the Lagos State before the commencement of this Law will be deemed to have been exercisable by an appropriate State authority on the date on which it first accrued to the Republic or to Lagos State, as the case may be.”
From the above provisions, anyone who desires to claim any interest in land can only do so through the court within twelve years of the accrual of the cause of action. Ordinarily, the period of limitation begins to run from the date the cause of action arose, so long as the claimant is under no legal disability which may postpone the application of the statutory limitation. The best mode of calculating the actual period of the accrual of the cause of action is to probe into when the wrong was committed, as for instance when the trespasser entered upon the land, when the land was sold or when construction started on the land. This of course does not affect claims for a declaration of title to land which is based purely on customary law, which in most cases is predicated on traditional history spanning many decades, often referred to as ‘time immemorial’.
What this simply means is that you cannot acquire land and go to sleep. Where it is impossible for one reason or the other to develop the land immediately, you have to work out convenient strategies of monitoring the land, the most common of which is to engage local security men to occupy a make-shift structure on the land. In such a case, be sure to issue out an official receipt of the temporary occupancy, even if the occupier is not actually paying. In addition to this, you may also consider developing friendly relations with a trusted member of the family that sold the land, or partner with a security man in the neighbourhood, constantly loading his phone with credit so he is encouraged to call you very often, to give situation reports constantly. Alternatively, you may engage a local farmer, if the land is located in some undeveloped area, or give it out to religious organizations for their programmes, provided you are careful to document the transaction.
In the eyes of the law, twelve years is long enough for anyone to challenge any trespass to or interference with land, after which it is reasonable to conclude that the original owner is no longer interested in or has waived his rights over the land. The problem in most cases is that some people acquire land without disclosing even to their spouses, such that in the case of any eventuality like untimely death, the family may not be aware of the existence of the land at all, or by the time they get to know of it, the right has become extinguished by statute.
Cross-River State House of Assembly Moves to Outlaw Land Use Act:
It was reported in the news last week, that the Cross-River State House of Assembly has commenced the process of passing a Bill that will confer rights of ownership of land directly on the indigenes. Their infallible reasoning is that:
“The use of overriding state interest in land allocation exercised by the governors means that they own land in trust for the people. But examples show that communal laws safeguarding communal land rights are relegated and the Land Use Act becomes the instrument of appropriation and dispossession of communities’ lands. It must be noted that once the purpose of land acquisition by government ceases to apply, land ought to revert to the communities.”
You can never fault this, so I support the move by the Cross Riverians. I had stated in a previous piece on this page that Nigerians should rise up to challenge the Land Use Act and strike it down, being a defective piece of military legislation designed to snatch land from our people. In that piece, I had opined that:
“In a country like Nigeria where so much dependence is on mines and minerals, including gold, oil and gas, there has been a lot of disputes and court cases on ownership of land. This is the spirit behind the theory of compulsory acquisition of land, where government has perfected the style of divesting traditional ownership of land from the people and then turn around to re-allocate same to others, under the guise of overriding public purpose, which has now been extended to commercial development of estates. This is what the courts must tackle and resolve on the side of the people, as any purpose that does not bear general utility value, such as land acquired for building schools, roads, hospitals or such other public infrastructure, should not in any way count as ‘overriding public purpose’. How do you take over land, acquire it compulsorily and then turn around to allocate the same land to a private company, who then develops a layout plan and begins to sell the same land to members of the public, who are not part of the land-owning family? The original land owners and their coming generations are then thrown into the streets and at times rendered completely homeless. It is injustice of the highest order, which must stop. How do you rob Peter to pay Paul?”
This is the mischief that Cross-Rivers State is seeking to cure with its proposed legislation and all people of good conscience should support it. Ownership of land in most cases is by traditional history and such an item should not be elevated to national prominence as to insert the Land Use Act in the Constitution so that it cannot be amended or repealed. Government cannot seek to dispossess the people of their customary inheritance with one hand and then transfer it to total strangers with the other. In some cases, these strangers apply for land under the guise of agricultural or even educational purposes only to turn around later to commercialise same and turn it into commercial or residential estates.
Some years back, the Lagos State Government took the bold initiative to challenge the federal government in respect of its control of inland waterways, by promulgating its own municipal law to regulate its inland waters, wherein it repealed the National Inland Waterways Authority Act. This was upheld by the Court of Appeal in a recent decision, leading to some memorandum of understanding between the two tiers of government. I urge other States to follow the courageous initiative of Cross-Rivers State and return land to the people, the rightful owners. When the federal government moved the seat of power to the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, virtually the whole of Ikoyi land became vacant. In a very smart and bold move, the Onikoyi Royal family, ably (and rightly) supported by the Lagos State Government, moved to the court to claim back all land vacated by the federal government. That is how it should be; namely that the policy of compulsory acquisition of land should be abolished outrightly, but if at all, the land should revert to the original owners, once the purpose of acquisition becomes defeated, abandoned or outlived. If section 2 (2) of the Constitution, wherein it is stated that “Nigeria shall be a Federation consisting of States and a Federal Capital Territory” is true and correct, then we should not maintain any regime that allows the government to oppress the people over their land.