Lagos State, the former capital of Nigeria, otherwise known as the 'Centre of Excellence' prides itself on being a megacity. In order to maintain this lofty position, it generates a major part of its own income and as a result, seeks to raise funds in whichever way possible, sometimes to the chagrin of its citizens and just recently, the Federal Government.
The megacity has a land regularization policy which amongst other things, mandates a second registration of the title to land held by purchasers of federal lands at the Lagos Lands Registry not minding that the said title had originally been registered by the Federal Ministry of Lands.
It was not surprising that the Federal Government instituted a suit against the Lagos State Government in respect of the regularization policy on grounds of what it termed as “Insubordination”. Okay, I made that up. Not the suit part though. The Federal Government indeed instituted the suit at the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the policy vis-à-vis federal lands.
The Supreme Court in its ruling held that from the evidence available before it, the Federal Government had divested itself of the titles to properties which were subject of the suit and therefore had no locus to bring the action. In simple parlance, the Supreme Court meant that the federal lands in question had already been sold to third parties by the Federal Government, as such, the lands no longer belonged to the Federal Government. Therefore, it had no business suing in respect of them. Ouch!
As much as we commend the industry of the Justices of the Supreme Court, we do not agree with its conclusion. It is elementary that freehold interests no longer exist in Nigeria by virtue of Section 1 of the Land Use Act (LUA) which vests ownership of all lands (except land vested in the Federal government or its agencies by virtue of section 49 (1) of the LUA) in a State in the State Governor. Hence, the State Government merely gives a lease of the lands to persons for a maximum period of 99 years after which the property will revert back to the Government unless of course, the lease is further extended in favour of the lessee or title holder. Section 49 Subrule 1 of the LUA provides as follows:
“nothing in this Act shall affect any title to land whether developed or undeveloped held by the Federal Government or any agency of the Federal Government at the commencement of this Act and, accordingly, any such land shall continue to vest in the Federal Government or the agency concerned.”
Furthermore Section 51(2) of the LUA provides as follows:
The powers of a Governor under this Act shall, in respect of land comprised in the Federal Capital Territory or any land held or vested in the Federal Government in any State, be exercisable by the Head of the Federal Military Government or any Federal Commissioner designated by him in that behalf and references in this Act to Governor shall be construed accordingly.
In light of the foregoing, it is apparent that ownership and control of federal lands are vested, conferred, lodged or bestowed upon the Federal Government. As such, all a title holder possesses is a ‘right of occupancy’ in the technical sense and not ‘ownership’. Therefore, we cannot fathom nor comprehend the Supreme Court’s reasoning that the Federal Government in its capacity as an Overlord or Headlessor had no locus standi to institute an action in respect of its lands.
It is our considered opinion that the decision of the Supreme Court on the locus or lack thereof of the Federal Government to institute the suit was made per incuriam andwould have been different had the Court averted its mind to the foregoing provisions of the Land Use Act. Unfortunately, this decision remains binding until same is set aside by the Supreme Court itself. It would appear that the ball now lies in the court of holders of title to federal lands to contest the regularization policy of Lagos State before the High Courts of Lagos State.
Adebanke Ajayi is a Legal Practitioner writing from Lagos State.
Olawoyin & Olawoyin Legal Practitioners & Consultants
Ed’s Note – This article was first published here
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