The blessing called urbanisation, as we have experienced, is always accompanied by some of her ugly friends like corruption, pollution, immorality and the like. But one that has really plagued most Nigerian cities like Port Harcourt is fraudulent real property practices. Unfortunately, not all victims of this ugly experience live to recount their tales of woe.
As more areas are urbanised, the courts and traditional arbitrators are inundated with suits bordering on fraudulent land transactions. The myriad of land cases lingering in courts is a testimony of the havoc wrecked by dubious land agents and land owners who spring up daily and prey on unguarded land speculators and purchasers.
It is traite that a lot of these litigations would have been averted, had purchasers and speculators known potential danger areas in land transactions and the safe guards to adopt.
In a land matter between Idundun V Okumagba (2006)2 LC100 Atanda Fatai Williams, JSC, while delivering his lead judgment stated five ways by which ownership may be proved.
Firstly, he said ownership of land may be proved by traditional evidence. Secondly, ownership of land may be proved by production of documents of title which must, of course be duly authenticated. This means that their due execution must be proved unless they are produced from proper custody given rise to the presumption in favour of due execution in the case of documents that are twenty years old or more at the date of the contract (see Section 12g of the Evidence Act).
So also, acts of the person (or persons) claiming the land such as selling, leasing or renting out all or part of the land, or farming on it or on a portion of it, are also evidence of ownership, provided the acts extend over a sufficient length of time and are numerous and positive enough as to warrant the inference that the person is the true owner.
Fourthly, acts of long possession and enjoyment of the land may also be prima facie evidence of ownership of the particular piece or quantity of the land with reference to which such acts are done (section 45 of the Evidence Act). Such acts of long possession, in a claim of declaration of title (as distinct from a claim for trespass) are really a weapon more of defence than of offence. Moreover under section 145 of the Evidence Act, while possession may raise a presumption of ownership, it does not do more and cannot stand when another proves a good title.
Finally, proof of possession of connected or adjacent land in circumstances rendering it probable that the owner of such connected or adjacent land would, be in addition, be the owner of the land in dispute, may also rank as a means of proving ownership of the land in dispute (see section 45 of the Evidence Act).
It should be noted that for the provisions of Section 45 of the Evidence Act to apply, there must be an admission by the respondents, or a finding by the judge, that the kind in dispute was surrounded by other lands belonging to the appellants.
In the light of the above, it behoves land purchasers and speculators to be properly guided because to be forewarned, is to be forearmed as ignorance of the law will not avail you. As one might be propelled by the wonderful and tempting location, fantastic price and desire to own property, there is the need to take all necessary steps and precautions, by investigating the vendor’s title, go for physical inspection of the property and make enquiries in the area the property is situated and from family members if the vendor claims that the land was given to him by his family.
It is also necessary to engage the services of a legal practitioner from the onset to avoid being duped. Unfortunately, most victims of fraudulent land agents and owners only engage the services of a legal practitioner after the deed had been done.
To avoid the attendant embarrassment and loss of hard-earned money, it is therefore necessary to consider the five ways of proving ownership enumerated by the learned Justice of the Supreme Court. It is dangerous to hurriedly seal any land deal no matter the urgency. Worse still, it is dangerous to start building on a land you are not sure of title because it is traite law that “quic quid plantatur solo solo cedit”, meaning that he who owns the land owns what is attached to the land.