On April 6, 2018, proud homeowners in Itoga a suburb in Badagry Lagos State woke up proud homeowners but became homeless at the end of that day as their buildingS were bulldozed by agents of government. They were accused of “illegally erecting their structures on a government acquired land without necessary approvals”. Although they debunk the claim of illegal encroachment as the land on which they had built their homes was sold to them by agents of former Nigerian Minister of External Affairs, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi in whose name a Certificate of Occupancy on the land existed, there was nothing they could do as their homes went down one after the other. “The land is covered by a Certificate of Occupancy in the name of Prof. Akinyemi, how it suddenly became a government land is what we don’t understand”, one of the extremely disillusioned “homeowner” told me. As they seek answers, hope and justice, I am compelled to report their story by the grief and emotions I saw on their faces. It is a sad story.
THE SAD STORIES
These were ordinary people who had struggled to get unto the property ladder. The setback had plunged them into debt, sadness and confusion. A case of dementia has already been recorded amongst one of the victims. Known simply as Mr. Ajasa (surname withheld) who has been a Lagos State civil servant for 31 years and set to retire in the next few years. He invested heavily in his new home, having abandoned his previous house to his wife of old with whom he had been at odd for some years now. His plan was to have a new wife in the new home. But on that fateful day, his dreams was brought down to earth. People around him now whisper about his strange behaviours. Some tell you, “he now has a mental problem.” In truth, he has been exhibiting strange behaviours that is causing alarm among his peerage, for he is a local chief. Others are not any better. When I visited the community, what was once fast rising community with a lot of promise, had become a site of anguish. Homes were bulldozed to rubble. Unlike the usual demolition, there was not a single brick standing on another. Everything was razed to ground level. Victims were seen busy amidst the rubble, prying away irons and all else that could be salvaged. A group of worshippers, garbed in white garment, just concluded their Sabbath service under a tree. Their church was one of the two destroyed.
The demolition squad had arrived without notice at 9 am on April 6, at a time the residents were out and about their daily work. Even if they were home, their presence wouldn’t have counted for much, because the demolition team came armed to the teeth with bulldozers and a contingent of armed police officers who brought along a Black Maria. The men purportedly from the Ministry of Agriculture had set about demolishing homes over a 10 acres range that included two churches. By the time they left the site four hours later, the community had been reduced to broken bricks and dust and had a semblance of a disaster zone. However, those charged with the destruction of the buildings were as humane as to be sympathetic to their victims with an initially reluctance to start the work.
One of the wreckers reportedly addressed the community thus: “We do not know these are the types of buildings we are coming here to pull down.” He appealed to the few residents around: “If you can just make calls to our bosses. Just an order from the office and we will halt this operation.” The residents tried. But neither the Lagos State Commissioner for Agriculture, Toyin Suarau, nor the General Manager of Lagos State Agric Holdings, Adeyinka Omirin, picked their calls.
THE TALES OF ANGUISH
Idowu Jimoh, a 36-year-old okada rider was half-crazed with misery. The half-plot he bought in 2015 had been built to three coaches, supported with planks, an effort that guzzled close to half a million naira. The N200, 000 he paid for the land and the resources used in construction work were earned the hard way––from sweat and toil of riding commercial motorcycle from 5 am till 11 pm daily. He was one of the few at home when the bulldozers rolled in. “There was nothing we could do, but wait for them to complete their job. We came back to pick our belongings from the rubbles,” said the father of three. “Presently, me, my wife and children now squat with my friend at Akatapo in Zamu.”
For Evangelist Okuta Sunday, 43, the demolition was a double tragedy. He owned a house. He was also the owner of the Celestial Church of Christ Owo Oluwa Parish standing beside it. He bought two plots at the first instance and later an additional one plot and a half. He paid N1.3m for both in 2016. After paying the first instalment of N400, 000, the agents removed a plot from his land. He had spent half a million to raise the structure for his home and his congregation had worked to erect the church where they held their inaugural service on July 7, 2016. He was home the day the wreckers showed up. Home and church were demolished in his presence.
“We were taken unaware,” he said. “We were hurriedly packing our things and in the process, we lost a cash sum of N20, 000, which belonged to the church.”
The pastor, his wife and their four kids now lives with Good Samaritans. The church now worship under a tree till, as the pastor said, “God gives us a Rehoboth.”
What happened to Christian Umunadike Okezue was the height of frustration. The 39-year-old Abia indigene who worked in Apapa Port bought his plot of land in 2016 for N800, 000 and paid in two instalments. His house, built to roofing stage, had two shops attached. Together with 2,700 pieces of block and a heap of granite in the compound, the structures were reduced to smithereens. “For a very long time, I had been saving money, because I wanted to be free of landlord wahala,” he wailed. “I had to sell my BMW 208 car when the agent was threatening to take away the land for failure to balance him. The last N50, 000 I committed to the construction was a LAPO credit which I must refund at the next due payment.”
He continued his lamentation: “I was in my office in Apapa when they called that morning, by the time I got here, my house had been demolished. Ever since then, we have been living from hand to mouth, because I do not have any savings. Every money that touched my hand, including my salaries went into the house. A few months ago, I even paid N85, 000 to the town planning authority when they brought a letter to me.”
If you are infuriated by the raw deal meted out to this men, save your anger till you hear the story of Rahman Popoola. After he graduated from LASU, where he studied economics education, the young man at the cusp of 30 had striven to become self-made. In the last 10 years, he has been a fish farmer, breeding catfish in his father’s backyard. People witnessed his transformation from a jobless young man to someone with bright prospect. In the last five years, he had expanded his fish business, supplying fingerlings to the northern market, and had become relatively well-to-do. However, his money was invested in acquiring four plots of land on the Itoga site at a sum of N1.8m where he built his house, a six bedroom duplex and the rest of the land converted to fish ponds that cost him an estimated N15m. In one day, he lost everything he had slaved for and is now tottering on the brink of bankruptcy.
If there is one lucky person among the victims, that would be Ajobiyan John Padonu. The bricklayer, 36, bought two and a half plots in February 2016, but was yet to commence any construction activity––the N1.6m he paid for the parcel of land is, so to speak, gone with the winds, anyway.
THOSE WHO STARTED THE CRISIS
As the affected individuals are licking their wounds, they are engulfed with a smoldering anger directed at three men who got them into the mess––Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, the owner of the land and his two agents, Prince Benjamin Akovoyon and Abel Sonayon Hunwi. The trio are joined by the Lagos State Agricultural Land Holdings as the fourth actor in the complex development that has brought heartache to the community. The 67 hectares of land located in Itoga Badagry originally belonged to Prof Bolaji Akinyemi, who acquired it under his Akin Development Company and was issued a Certificate of Occupancy for Agricultural Land in July, 1999. He delegated powers to the duo of Akovoyon and Hunwi to sell 50 acres of the land on his behalf and remit accounts to him. He even issued them documents with his number on it so prospective buyers could confirm the validity of their status as his agents.
“Yes, meet them for everything,” was his usual response to pre-purchase enquiries of buyers, claimed some of the victims.
It was under this arrangement that the victims acquired the land, with the agents issuing them temporary receipts and documents. Few years later, the story changed.
When letters started coming from the Enforcement Department of the Lagos State Building Control Agency, it raised a red flag. The Prof had accused his agents of financial impropriety, declaring that they remitted payments for only two buyers. In anger, he returned the land to The Lagos State Agricultural Land Holdings.
The tussle which heightened in 2016 came to a tragic climax on April 6, and ended with the victims’ homes in ruins. Now they blamed the revered academic. They felt they were misled by his assurances. Others blamed him for failing to put a caveat on the land to counter the document he issued earlier which the dubious agents were still using to hoodwink unwary buyers. Padonu, for instance insisted: “Before I bought the land, Hunwi showed me the authorization from Prof and when he gave me a receipt in his name and a deed using their company, I saw nothing wrong in that.” Okuta too, avowed: “He showed me the agreement they had with Prof Akinyemi.”
Popoola provided a copy of the document signed by Prof Akinyemi, authorising the men to act on his behalf. “In the early days, whenever I called him, he told me, “Stop disturbing him, go and deal with those men”. They also blamed the Lagos Agric Land Holding for backhand dealings, as evidenced by the improper handling of the demolition. For instance, a contravention notice was issued to Popoola on November 29, 2017. It was followed by a demolition notice and a seal up notice a week later on December 6.
EFFORTS IN VAIN
When the crisis first reared its head, the community had rallied as a group and presented their cases with clarity: that they built their houses on the 50 acres reserved for residential scheme in the land designated for rice project. Subsequent vetting in January 2016 validated their claims. A process was set in motion involving the Surveyor General of Lagos State. In fact, on the day of demolition, surveyors from the office of the State Surveyor General were already there before the arrival of the demolition squad.
During a phone conversation, Omirin, GM, Lagos State Agric Holding insisted the land was duly re-acquired by his department and that “three caveats were subsequently published in the newspaper.” He called off a meeting with some of the affected persons on Thursday, May 3, a few hours before the scheduled time. The other irregularity identified by the victims was the claim by the Commissioner of Agriculture, Toyin Suarau, that he had no idea of an issue of such nature, a position he maintained till the morning of the demolition. Since after the demolition, the two land agents had been on the run. “Each time we went there, we met only their wives”, the victims asserted.
A few are considering heading to court. But Evangelist Sunday said: “I have no money to pursue case.” Resignedly, the man of God said: “They demolished a house of worship. God will take it up with them.”