Lagos State government has, commendably, enacted a law to check the activities of unscrupulous land acquirers and extortionists, but it must courageously implement the law to make the desired impact. Vincent Obia writes

Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode on Monday signed a new law outlawing land grabbing in and extortion of money from land developers in the state. The properties protection law was enacted as the appropriate response to the menace of locals, popularly called Omo-Oniles, who are mainly the original or earliest inhabitants of the different areas of the state. The Omo-Oniles have for long posed a huge threat to land owners and property developers in the state.

On paper, this new response couched in the “law to prohibit forceful entry and illegal occupation of landed properties, violent and fraudulent conducts in relation to landed properties in Lagos State and for connected purposes,” is a deviation from the traditional norm of treating the miscreants, who are generally seen as the nemesis of land developers, with kid gloves. Also judged from its contents, the new law is a big blow to the power of the Omo-Oniles.

In practice, however, the new legislation is largely a reframing of various extant statutes that outlaw the wilful obstruction of legitimate property and land transactions. The Criminal Law of Lagos State contains several provisions that prohibit attempts to dispossess people of their legitimate property or disrupt their lawful use of land.

The Lagos State government set up a taskforce in June to check the menace of land-grabbing in the state. During the inauguration of the taskforce, the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Adeniji Kazeem, said the Ambode administration was determined to apply the full weight of the law to permanently address the Omo-Onile issue, saying the havoc and unrest they have caused residents is no longer acceptable.

Kazeem said henceforth, anybody who used threat or intimidation to dispossess people of their legitimate property will be punished in accordance with Sections 52, 53 and 281 of the Criminal Law of the state. It is doubtful if the taskforce has been effective – and even more doubtful if many people in the state are aware of its existence.

Definitely, what will make the difference is the courageous enforcement of the new property protection law.
Miscreants among the aboriginal communities in the state have almost immemorially constituted an ever-present nightmare for land buyers and property developers. They have appeared at virtually every stage of land and property development to make illegal, frustrating, and, sometimes, impossible demands. They have also formed themselves into bands of land-grabbers who go about dispossessing legitimate owners of land of their property.

The Omo-Oniles have maintained a rather complicated relationship with the politicians and security agencies, a situation that more often than not, makes their victims mostly helpless.

The killing in October last year of the managing director of the Lekki Free Zone Limited, Mr. Tajudeen Disu, marked a painful culmination of a long reign of terror by criminals among the earliest inhabitants of the state. Disu was among persons killed as Ibeju-Lekki villagers and riot police clashed at Okunraiye community, near Ibeju-Lekki, on the morning of October 12 last year.

The villagers said they were on a peaceful demonstration against the forceful takeover of their land by the Lagos State government when policemen called in by the government attacked the protesters, killing two of them. They said the killing resulted in commotion. Disu, reportedly, died in the melee, as the police officers guarding him and protesting villagers clashed. A policeman and two villagers were said to have also died in the crisis.
The land in question was for the Lekki Free Zone Limited and construction of a petrochemical refinery by Africa’s richest businessman, Aliko Dangote.

But the police said Disu was lynched by angry villagers who had mobilised to violently prevent any construction on the site, as “They claimed that they did not sell their land to Dangote refinery.”

The Lagos State government and the security agencies are still trying to piece together that tragic culmination in the Lekki Free Trade Zone initiative. But the Omo-Oniles were not deterred. They have carried on with gusto, becoming even bolder and fiercer in their campaign of violent obstructionism and extortion targeted at land buyers and developers.
Many Lagos residents, especially land owners, welcome the land-grabbing prohibition law. But they remain sceptical due to the obvious practical constraints in the enforcement of the law.

There are fears that the new law may not be really effective because of the ostensibly blurred line between the Omo-Oniles, who the law is supposed to restrain, and locals frequently employed by politicians as foot soldiers in the hunt for votes during elections. It is a generally appreciated fact that the Omo-Oniles form a veritable electoral base for many politicians in the state. The concern is that state officials and politicians may find it difficult to stand by and let their offending foot soldiers face the full weight of the law.
It is hard to determine how able and willing the political class in the state would be to buck pressure from the Omo-Oniles when the chips are down.

Generally, however, there is no doubt that the Lagos State land-grabbing prohibition law represents a crucial and commendable step in the efforts to deter what has become the state’s biggest threat to land development. But the government would need to do more to reassure the public that it is not on a mission to merely whitewash the crude power of the land-grabbers and extortionists.