Part of the crisis threatening peace in Africa is the struggle over land and natural resources. This crisis is rooted in a series of structural, historical, and socioeconomic factors. It is also driven by increasing urbanization, land-grabbing, demographic pressure, inadequate property rights, and conflicting land tenure systems. This essay is based on a land-related crisis in Lagos, Nigeria, one of Africa’s megacities, with an estimated population of over twenty million inhabitants. It examines the ongoing efforts by the Lagos state government to curb the activities of a set of conflict actors locally referred to as Omo Onile (sons of the original landowners), who assert ownership of land based on their autochthony to Lagos.
Omo Onile claims to being the indigenous residents of communities in Lagos are not an entirely recent phenomenon. However, they have become more pronounced with the rapid expansion of the Lagos metropolis. Some Omo Onile claim the right to sell and collect payment, compensation, rents, and taxes from those they consider tenants, non-indigenes, or settlers. These Omo Onile operate like land grabbers, using force, deception, and intimidation to gain access and control over increasingly scarce land in one of Africa’s fastest growing cities. In this way, they are key actors in exacerbating tensions, including conflicts between landowners, buyers, and private investors.
Common practices of the Omo Onile include selling the same parcel of land to multiple buyers and encroaching on land acquired legitimately by others. In other cases, they make it difficult for land buyers to take possession of their property after purchase by demanding illegal payments and threatening or attacking construction workers at building sites. These illegal activities increasingly pose a problem to urban development, peace and security, and sometimes lead to heavy losses by local and foreign private investors.
In many cases, land conflicts have led to the destruction of lives and property and the displacement of people, particularly in rural parts of Lagos state where respondents from my fieldwork claimed that Ajagungbale (armed land grabbers) are known to be active. In some rural communities in Ikorodu division of Lagos state, respondents informed me of the activities of Ajagungbale gangs, which have terrorized people and forcefully dispossessed them of their ancestral lands.
Given the challenges caused by the disruptive activities of violent Omo Onile-related gangs, the Lagos State Government enacted the Lagos State Property Protection Law on August 15, 2016, which prohibited the forceful entry and illegal occupation of landed property, and violent and fraudulent conduct in relation to landed properties in the state. The law prescribes severe penalties with various prison terms for different offenses. In order to facilitate the implementation of the law, a Special Task Force Unit was created on June 26, 2016. Known as the Lagos State Special Task Force on Land Grabbers, its mandate includes curbing the activities of land grabbers, coordinating the efforts of various government agencies charged with enforcing the property protection law, and cooperating with security agencies in enforcing the law. All services provided by the task force are free although petitioners do pay lawyers to write petitions on their behalf.
The task force’s process for addressing land conflicts in Lagos has four stages. The first is the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) which involves meeting the two parties to the land conflict and attempting to resolve the conflict based on the cases/evidence presented by both parties. However, if the initial ADR is not acceptable to either party, the process goes into a second phase involving on-site inspection to gather additional evidence. This is usually done in the company of law enforcement officers, especially the police. On the basis of the new evidence gathered through the inspection, the board of the task force reaches a decision. However, if the new decision is not acceptable to either of the parties, a third stage is explored by the board. The third stage involves taking the case to a court of law. Any judgment delivered is used to settle the land dispute, pending appeal. The fourth and final stage involves the enforcement of the court’s ruling by the relevant government agencies.
Evidence collected through interviews conducted during fieldwork in Oko-Ito, Ijede, and Isawo communities in Ikorodu division of Lagos, strongly suggests that the task force has been effective in reducing the activities of Omo Onile-related gangs in Lagos. Many of them have been arrested and charged in court. Among the most notable arrests was that of Kamoru Lamina, alias Sir K. Oluwo, a notorious land grabber operating around Ikorodu—along with some members of his gang on June 16, 2017. He was charged on five counts, including forcefully and illegally acquiring land in different communities in Ikorodu and fraudulently claiming to be a descendant of Ifegbuwa family to seize their land in Ikorodu area. His legal battle is still ongoing, and he has remained in detention having been unable to meet his bail conditions. Most of the respondents I interviewed—including traditional rulers, land agents, government officials, and land buyers—were happy about the activities of the task force.
However, in spite of achieving a measure of success, the task force still faces a formidable challenge. For example, at the time of this study in August 2018, it had received over 2,600 petitions from different parts of Lagos, out of which only 250 had been resolved. This figure may appear low, but it should be noted that while some of the cases are ongoing, others have been resolved using alternative means. While the figures for cases resolved outside of the ambit of the task force are not readily available, it can be argued that the task force, considering the limitations of its size and resources relative to the area over which it has jurisdiction, is having a positive impact on reducing the activities of Omo Onile in different parts of Lagos state.
Land-related conflict in African cities is a growing phenomenon and addressing it will increasingly become important to peacebuilding on the continent—given the current rates of rural-urban migration and urban development. In this regard, additional studies need to explore the emerging challenges to peace and security in African cities, particularly as they relate to struggles over increasingly scarce land. While existing studies point to issues linked to weak property rights, legal approaches and access to justice, land appropriation by states for large-scale development projects, internal displacement, and the existence of parallel or conflicting land tenure systems, more research is needed on how demographic and urbanization pressures drive land crises and conflict. Of note is how such pressures drive certain actors to forcefully and illegally occupy private and public land as the economic value of urban land continues to increase. While the case of the Omo Onile in Lagos points to how a state government is addressing the problem of land grabbing in local communities, it also speaks to one of the less obvious recurring challenges facing peacebuilding in some African cities.