ROOTED IN HISTORY AND SHAPED BY COMMERCE: OMO ONILE SYNDROME IN LAGOS.
Department of History & Strategic Studies,
University of Lagos, Akoka,
The fear of Omo Onile is the beginning of wisdom for land developers in Lagos. Even with the best of education and your eyes wide open, you might discover that you have bought your land from ‘charlatans and impostors.’ The doctrine that governs the land market in Lagos is ‘buyers beware’. The multiple sale of land by branches of the same family is not generally considered a heinous crime but a minor side effect of African polygamy. In a house you built fifty years ago, you may one day find a fellow at your doorstep brandishing a paper called ‘court judgment’ that makes him the new owner of the land on which your property is built. The solution is ‘settlement’ that requires skillful bargaining. The possession of Certificate of Ownership is no defence in such matters.
This is the dynamics of the land market in Lagos. Less I forget, you must fast and pray so that the Omo Onile would only base their demand on the current value of land and not factor in the net worth of your property, especially if it is substantial. The prayer of every land developer is never to be caught in the turf war or land disputes between rival Omo Oniles, particularly the White Cap Idejo Chiefs. Like every good family, the children of Aromire, the Awori founder of Lagos, shared the land of Lagos among themselves. The partition occurred over 500 years ago when there was no cadastral map or digital tools to ensure the boundaries were precisely defined and clearly demarcated. Then, the boundary was a frontier of ‘no mans land’ that had since disappeared because of pressure on land and human greed. Land in Lagos is now more precious than gold.
The capacity of the Awori to produce something out of nothing is proverbial: Ile o ki tan lowo Awori ko ma ri nkan ta’, meaning an Awori can never exhaust his land to the point that he has nothing left to sell. You can now understand the reason for the war of attrition in Ajah and Lekki between Chief Olumegbon and the rival claimants. As experts in war know, every war has its own logic and produces its own hero. In Lagos, the prominent land grabbers are called, Ajagungbale- the one who fights to acquire the land. The foot soldiers are the Omo Onile. Ordinarily, they are supposed to be the children of the original owners of the land. Since the use of mercenary is well recognized in warfare, it is therefore not strange to find Hausa and Igbo youths in the rank of the Omo Onile. It is just a response to the natural impulse for ‘our daily bread’.
The number of Omo Onile involved in a particular assignment is determined by the size of the land and its value; it could range from five to two hundred. The common strategy is usually to destroy everything on the disputed land so that this will not sway the decision of the court if it becomes a matter for litigation. The prominent land grabbers in Lagos include Prince Taoreed Farounbi, (aka Alado) in Isolo area. He is the toast of local Fuji musicians and even has some lawyers working under him. Adeola Marouf evokes fear and terror in Isheri Osun area. Lamina Oluwo is dreaded in Ikorodu. This same Lamina was in June 2017 charged before a magistrate court for forcefully acquiring over 200 plots of land belonging to Planet Properties Ltd and illegally selling another
No Omo Onile dare go into battle without fortifying himself. The protective charms include Okigbe, Ayeta and Aferi or Egbe, to blunt the sharp edge of the cutlass, render bullet impenetrable and miraculously transport one from the valley of death at the critical moment. Intoxicants such as Ogogoro, the local gin, and cannabis are never in short supply to boost the courage of the Omo Onile in the battle of might is right. The right that the Omo Onile exercises over the rich and poor in Lagos is rooted in history but driven by the commercialization of land in Lagos. When the British annexed Lagos in 1861, they claimed hypocritically it was to stop the slave trade. It was to grab the land because of its commercial value as the gateway to the wealth of this part of Africa. The White Cap Chiefs were wise enough to extort a guarantee from Governor F.H Freeman that the Treaty of Cession they were about to sign will not infringe on their control of the land of Lagos. Even Oba Dosumu dispelled the rumour that he ceded Lagos to the British in a newspaper.
In 1862, the House of Commons therefore recognized the rights of the Idejo over the land of Lagos. In 1919, Chief Oluwa took his case to the Privy Council to get compensation for the land acquired by government for the Apapa Port. And once the government began to alienate the land as Crown grants, the Idejo chiefs also began to sell the land to Brazilian and Sierra Leonean returnees. The scrambling had started. The development created panic in official circle. First, the sale of land could produce a class of landed gentry that could challenge the British overlordship. Alternatively, it could create a pool of landless rabbles, the French equivalent of the sans-culotte, tools of destruction in any uprising in the colony. This was why the British promulgated the Native Land Acquisition Ordinance of 1917 that made outright sale of land an offence. Instead, the British introduced Leasehold of up to 99 years.
By 1939, most of the areas occupied by Europeans, the Brazilians and Sierra Leoneans in central Lagos had been sold. This is the genesis of the duality of land tenure systems, customary and private ownership- in Lagos. But more importantly, the agreement of 99 years signed in 1917 had expired by 2016. This is the basis of the aggressive collection of annual rents by Omo Onile, and the drafting of new agreements in different parts of Lagos. The children of Omo Oniles have also moved with times. The rent is now systematically collected with the aid of land register and digital devices. The big Omo Oniles have branch offices where tenants can pay at their convenience within a stipulated period. Failure to show receipt of payment could lead to the cancellation of the agreement with the associated problems. The death of the Oloriebi, the family head, creates an opportunity for the new leader to revalidate the agreement or start a new negotiation. In this way, the income of the coming generation is assured.
The price of land is the major factor shaping the dynamics of the Omo Onile syndrome in Lagos. The price of land has increased 500 fold in the urban fringes of Lagos. A three bedroom flat in Lekki is now between 3 and 3.5 million Naira per annum. The equivalent in Banana Island is between 8 and 18 million. The fully furnished could attract up to 36 million. The price of one plot of land in Dideolu Estate in Victoria Island was recently advertised at almost 2 billion. This explains the blood lettings in land conflicts in Lagos. The menace of the Omo Onile compelled the government to promulgate the Lagos State Property Protection and Neighbourhood Safety Agency Law of 2018 that stipulates 21 years jail term for convicts. The capacity of the government to rigorously enforce this is in doubt since the same Omo Onile provides the pool from which the political class recruits their thugs. For now, the story of the Omo Onile in Lagos is the saga of the White Cap Chiefs, the Land grabbers and the Victims.