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27.05.2021 Justice FOCUS: 88-Year-old Madam Gbolade’s Battle with Land-Grabbers Who’ve Found Refuge in the Court

Published 27th May, 2021

By Socrates Mbamalu

In 1977, Madam Bisi Gbolade bought a land at Opebi. In 1991 land-grabbers targeted the land and have built a house on it; they have even rented it out. Now, at 88 years old and frail, she is still battling for her land despite three court rulings in her favour that have been ignored.

At 88 years old, grey-haired Madam Bisi Gbolade lives in hiding from land-grabbers who have attempted to kill her more than once. The only people who know where she lives are her children and caretaker. She walks with her back straight, and asks if she looks fine. Her face is stoic and her eyes look as if she is staring into a far beyond. She speaks her English with an accent of someone who lived abroad for a while — slow, articulate and with some panache, mostly code-mixed with Yoruba. When she poses for the camera she asks if she should have worn a gele, whether her grey hair isn’t a problem. Then she sits straight. She jokes about the bump on her forehead which she got from the land-grabbers who beat her at her doorstep. Before she fled for her life, she lived among the land-grabbers.

‘THEY WANTED TO KILL ME’

As she was trying to enter the family house, some men pounced on her, beat her, poured sand and water on her, and hit her head on the floor.

“They beat me, they wanted to kill me. They are the ones who did this to me,” she says, pointing to the lump on her forehead. “They hit my head on the ground and entered my house. They took all the documents in my house. There is nothing I didn’t see that day.”

It was after that attack that she was taken into hiding by her children. She’s been in hiding for close to a year.

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Mrs Bisi Gbolade continues to wait for justice as land-grabbers occupy her land despite three court judgements and court orders.

In December 1977 she had bought a land at Opebi, and completed the documentation in March 1978. Alongside her receipts (which she still has) showing purchase for the land, a copy of the land survey done in 1975 was given to her. She had bought it from the original land owners — the Kuyesi Awuse family — and fenced it. The deed of the land was signed by Raji Adebiyi Asabiyi, the then Baale of Onigbongbo; Jinadu Badiaran; Alhaji Amusa Bamishebi Akerele, the head of the Kuyesi Awuse family, and Muse Sadiku, who were all known to Madam Gbolade.

Then in 1991, the first land-grabbers, members of the Kuyesi Awuse family — a different generation from their fathers — tried to lay claim to the land. It was  a case that could not hold. Madam Gbolade went to Adetokunbo Ademola (SAN) to present her complaint. He in turn gave her a letter that was addressed to Sir Rotimi Williams. This was the beginning of an ordeal that would threaten her life for the next 30 years.

The Copy of Conveyance is dated 1978 and was signed by the heads of the Kuyesi Awuse family and the Baale of Onigbongbo.

After the judgement came in 1992, she got a Certificate of Occupancy popularly called C Of O, which is given by the state government to a landowner or property buyer as a legitimate proof of ownership of land. This should have been the end of the matter, considering that the court had ruled in favour of Madam Gbolade.

In 2004 the same Kuyesi Awuse family reached out to Madam Gbolade saying they would compensate her with another land somewhere in Ikeja. She declined the offer. The Kuyesi family did not relent; they got the Baale of Onigbongbo to approach Madam Gbolade with the same request. The goal was to put pressure on her from all sides. Again she declined the offer. She told her lawyer she would never let go of her land.

Since the fight for her land began, four Baales have died, and all four have tried to convince her to reach an agreement with the land-grabbers.

“It’s my labour; I can never let my labour go in vain,” she told FIJ. “I’m taking the land back; I don’t need money from them. And it’s two plots. They started building on it. I am the one who owns the land, they don’t have a single paper.”

READ ALSO: How Ooni Ogunwusi’s Companies Executed the Biggest Fraud in Nigeria’s Real Estate History — and Got Away With it

Madam Gbolade was attacked at her family house and has since been in hiding for the past one year.

AN ATTACK ON ‘THE CHURCH

By this time, Madam Gbolade had gotten some of her church members to use the land. She didn’t take a dime from them and they used the land for four years before officers from Area F Police Command burst into the compound, shooting into the air and arresting them all. They kept the men in detention for three days. The madness for the fight of Madam Gbolade’s land had just begun.

“On that day, they brought guns, they were shooting up. The police arrested them, four of them: painter, welder, mechanic, and carpenter,” Madam Gbolade told FIJ. “They were there working for more than three to four years. I went to my lawyer, Rotimi Williams, but I was told he was holidaying in London.”

The tale of land-grabbers in Lagos and Nigeria can sometimes be bloody. Many times, the court systems are used to drag on a case for decades. Other times, prayers, charms and spiritual attacks are involved. And if all these don’t work, physical harm is done: death, death threats or using the police or thugs to intimidate landowners.

In all these, there is a pattern to land-grabbing; land is bought from a family that owns the land, the same family sells the same land to another person and comes back to the initial person they sold the land to, promising they would give the person land elsewhere. If the initial buyer refuses, the omo oniles use force and thugs. Since the second buyers are unable to get their money back from the family, realising they’ve been scammed, they take the case to court, team up with the omo oniles and build on the land as the case drags in court. Sometimes, possession of documents is no assurance that landowners get their property back.

Madam Gbolade went back to her lawyers at Chief Rotimi Williams’ Chamber who went to the police station and bailed the artisans out. But a new set of land-grabbers came with thugs to claim the land, shooting in the air and brandishing machetes. These thugs were led by Mrs Mayomi Afekhuai, who claimed to have bought the land. Again, the mechanics were chased and their belongings thrown away. And Madam Gbolade had to write to the police for a second time informing them of what was taking place. Nothing changed.

A new case was instituted in 2005, all these while her lawyers kept writing to the trespassers to keep off their client’s property. The more they wrote, the more brazen the land-grabbers became. The case was brought before Hon. Justice Babajide Candide-Johnson, who took it upon himself to visit the land that had caused this dispute. While there, he ordered that the property be sealed until the case was concluded.

This action seemed to have aroused an indignation in the land-grabbers, as they broke the seal and laid a foundation on the land. The court order meant nothing to them and was treated like a suggestion to be ignored. This, according to a lawyer, was contempt of court. But in Nigeria, the enforcement of court rulings or the punishment for contempt of court is non-existent, further highlighting the problems of the legal system in the country. With a history of leaders, including the current president Muhammadu Buhari ignoring up to 40 court orders, the country’s judiciary has been weakened and rule of law nearly non-existent.

THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF COURT DOCUMENTS

When Madam Gbolade informed her lawyers of the development she saw on her land, they wrote to the land-grabbers. Their letter was equally ignored. The building continued at a faster pace than the court proceedings, which had been going on and had been exhausted on adjournments.

It was during the proceedings, hoping to make use of the judgement that was given in 1992 to support their case, that it was discovered that the judgement had disappeared from the records of the court. If there was hope that a copy of the court judgement would be found at Chief Rotimi Williams’ Chamber, it was quenched. The lawyers could also not find their own file on the judgement. This was going to be a new legal battle that would drag on until the foundation that was being built had become a house that the land-grabbers now rented out.

By 2010, the case had dragged on for five years. In January when a litigation officer to Madam Gbolade’s lawyers went to the court registry for progress report, the registrars could not find  the case file. This was going to be a repeat of what had happened to the court judgement of 1992.

A letter seen by FIJ, written by Chief Rotimi Williams’ chambers in 2010 to Hon. Justice Babajide Candide-Johnson, stated: “The registrars at your Lordship’s court could not provide the record of transfer of the said case file neither were they able to locate the said case file”.

Justice Candide-Johnson had closed the Pre-Trial Conference (PTC) Proceedings in 2009 and had written a report that stated that the case was to be “transferred to the Administrative Judge for onward transmission to a Trial Judge”. This was the second time that court files were missing.

Justice Candide-Johnson demanded that the case file be produced. The reappearance of the file was proof that the case was being deliberately sabotaged. Finally on November 10, 2014, after nearly a decade, Justice O.A. Taiwo gave a judgement in favour of Madam Gbolade. The judge gave an order of perpetual injunction restraining the defendants, their servants, agents or any other person(s) from further trespass on the claimant’s (Madamm Gbolade) land or unlawfully making use of the same except with the consent of the claimant. Also, a sum of N10 million was awarded for all acts of trespass committed on the claimant’s land and for the loss of her property and building materials on the land.

ANOTHER LOSS FOR THE LAND-GRABBERS AT APPEAL COURT

The land-grabbers went to the Court of Appeal, which had Justice Yargata Byenchit Nimpar, Justice Tijjani Abubakar and Justice Ugochukwu Anthony Ogakwu. They upheld Justice Taiwo’s ruling on June 13, 2017. They ruled that the “appeal lacks merit and is hereby dismissed”.

They further ruled that “the Judgement of the trial Court in Suit No. ID/666/2005 delivered on November 10, 2014 by Hon. Justice A.O. Taiwo is hereby affirmed and the slip in 3rd Order on the judgement is corrected accordingly”.

Part of the evidence Madam Gbolade gave, which enjoyed “presumption of regularity in due execution and attestation”, was her deed of conveyance dated March 30, 1978 and duly registered. The purchase receipt grounding the deed of conveyance is dated December 20, 1977. A purchase receipt alone can give equitable title. Both are more than 30 years old.

Unrelenting, the land-grabbers appealed the case and presented it before the Lordships: Justice Joseph Shagbaor Ikyegh, Justice Biobele Abraham Georgewill and Justice Gabriel Omoniyi Kolawole of the Court of Appeal; they filed a motion for a stay execution on September 12, 2017 — barely four months after the first Court of Appeal judgement. Almost a year later, a ruling was given on September 17, 2018. The court’s judgement read: “The motion for a stay and injunction pending appeal at the Supreme Court is hereby struck out for want of diligent prosecution. Parties to bear their costs.”

The two defendants who laid claim to the land were Mr Mayomi Afekhuai and Chris Tegha, and their tactic was to use the court to drag out the case for as long as possible. These court rulings however did not stop the land-grabbers from leaving the land. They were already enjoying benefit from the land and had gone ahead to put a padlock on the second part of the land.

The court judgment that was pasted on the gate was torn and another land-grabber laid claim to the land.
The court orders that were pasted by Justice Candide-Johnson were found on the ground and a new owner claimed the land.
Torn court papers that were pasted by Hon. Justice Babajide Candide-Johnson were disregarded and torn

When FIJ got to the gate, court rulings that were pasted on it had been torn and painted over. On it was the inscription: THIS LAND BELONGS TO MR ADEYEMO SOA. On closer observation, beneath the black painting was a another inscription: BUYERS BEWARE!!! THIS LAND IS NOT FOR SALE. The painting hid two phone numbers which FIJ placed a call to. One of the numbers belonged to Tony Omaghomi while the other belonged Chris Ebare, both of them lawyers. On the gate, chained, Mr Adeyemo further laid claim to a land that was not his with the same inscription that the land belongs to him.

Beneath the painting are the phone numbers FIJ reached out to.

But on further observation court documents obtained by FIJ, the name of Mr Adeyemo SOA did not appear. The two appellants who laid claim to the land were Mr Mayomi Afekhuai and Chris Tegha. The appellants were represented by Anthony Omaghomi, whose number was on the property. Could Mr Adeyemo be someone else who had also come to lay claim to land he doesn’t own? Or was the land sold to him by the two defendants who saw that they have nothing to lose? The laws around land in Nigeria and the way the legal system operates still very much allow for anyone to lay claim to land and have the cases drag in court.

FIJ reached out to Anthony Omaghomi but he insisted on knowing the office location of FIJ before he could speak, insisting that he preferred a physical meeting. When pressed for an alternative way of answering questions via email, he suggested meeting at a police station. He said some people had come to the land disguised as court officials and had posted certain documents, and repeatedly said this reporter was among those involved.

At the Court of Appeal, where Justice Nimpar had delivered the leading judgement in favour of Madam Gbolade, Omaghomi had argued that Madam Gbolade’s papers were irrelevant, as they failed to show identification of the land and failed to ascertain the boundaries of the land. However, in the judgement by Justice Nimpar, “there was no identity crisis bordering on the land in dispute and the issue cannot be raised on appeal when it should have been contested in the pleadings during trial. The stage for pleadings is gone.”

Asides that, a visit to the land by Justice Candide-Johnson had put an end to the issue raised by Omaghomi. Madam Gbolade’s land is “covered by a deed of assignment which has a plan attached to it”.

WAITING FOR HER TO DIE?

For the past 30 years, Madam Gboalde has been fighting for her land which was taken by land grabbers.

The land case which has now been at the Supreme Court since 2018 will likely not be heard anytime soon. An appeal to the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Tanko Muhammed, in 2019 by the Chief Rotimi Williams has not yielded any positive result. FIJ learnt that the appellants  filed an application for stay of execution at the Supreme Court, which has not been addressed for the past four years and is likely not to be addressed for the next five years. The calculation of the land grabbers is that Madam Gbolade won’t live long, and the case at the Supreme Court could as well drag for as long as possible. The Supreme Court is where cases come to be buried for years.

Speaking to Madam Gbolade, she said, “They cheated me, they said I have nobody, but I have God.”

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Published 27th May, 2021

By Socrates Mbamalu

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