No person, however highly placed he or she may be, is permitted to forcefully acquire land and settle on it by force and arms in any state in Nigeria, a leading constitutional and human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) has said.
Falana, a former President of the West Africa Bar Association (WABA), admitted that Section 41 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) “guarantees freedom of movement,” but pointed out that the same instrument “never guarantees any person freedom to settle anywhere.”
He offered this legal opinion in response to THISDAY’s inquiry with respect to a statement by Bauchi State Governor, Senator Bala Mohammed that citizens “do not need the permission of the Ondo State Governor, Mr. Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN) to live in the state’s forest reserve.”
Mohammed had made the statement in defence of Fulani herders, whom Akeredolu had directed to quit the state’s forest reserve for alleged illegal occupation; kidnapping for ransom, killing of land owners and raping of women.
Mohammed, on a live television programme on Friday, had claimed: “Land is in the hands of the state and federal governments in trust. Nigerians do not need the permission of governors or the federal government to settle anywhere.
“You do not need the permission of the governor of Bauchi or the governor of Ondo to be in the forests of Ondo if you choose to live in the forests, because under Section 41 of the constitution, you are free to settle anywhere.”
In response to Mohammed’s claims, Falana counselled the governor that section 41 of the 1999 Constitution only guaranteed freedom of movement and not freedom to settle anywhere.
Under section 43 of the Constitution, however, Falana pointed out that any person “is entitled to own an immovable property in any state in Nigeria.”
The senior lawyer explained: “If your house or land is compulsorily acquired by the government for public purpose, you are entitled to a just and fair compensation by virtue of section 44 of the Constitution.”
The senior lawyer, also, clarified that every person, who intends to settle in any state, would be required to acquire land under the Land Use Act.
Upon the acquisition of the land, Falana noted that the owner “is required to apply for the approval of his/her building plan. No one is permitted to forcefully acquire land and settle on it vi et armis in any state in Nigeria.
“The owner of an illegally occupied land is entitled to sue for the recovery of the land and payment of damages for trespass. If the land belongs to the government, the property on it may be demolished without due process.”
Citing these compelling provisions of the 1999 Constitution, Falana warned Bala Mohammed “to stop misleading herders to acquire land for cattle business without complying with the Land Use Act, Urban and Regional Law, Forestry Law, Anti Grazing Law in the affected states.”
The senior lawyer, therefore, drew the attention of Bala Mohammed to Section 42 (1) (e) and (g) of the Forestry Law Cap 56 Laws of Ondo State, 2006.
The section states thus: “Whoever in any forest reserve, except with the authority in writing of the prescribed officer, digs, cuts, turns or cultivates the soil or makes a farm or plantation; pastures cattle or permits cattle to trespass or trespasses in any part of a forest reserves in which trespass shall be prohibited by an order of the Governor or during any period specified in an order of the Governor shall be liable on summary conviction as the court may impose or to imprisonment for five years or to both.”
In specifics, section 42(2) of the law stipulates: “In addition to the penalty imposed under subsection (1) of this section, any farm or plantation or building or other infrastructure found on the reserve shall be destroyed and no compensation shall be paid in respect thereof.”
With due regard to these provisions, Falana noted that the leaders of the Miyetti Allah Association had entered into an agreement with the South West governors “to regularise the business activities of herders operating in Ondo State and other states in the region.”
On these grounds, Falana asked Bala Mohammed “to stop inciting herders to bear weapons without license and seizing forest reserves without authorisation.”
He, also, advised him “to emulate Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje of Kano State and a few others by embarking on the establishment of ranches for herders for the production of meat in commercial quantities.”
Under the leaders of Bala Mohammed as the of Federal Capital Territory (FCT) from 2010 to 2015, Falana explained how thousands of houses were demolished on the grounds that they were illegally built on landed properties belonging to the federal government.
The senior advocate, specifically, cited the resolve of the ex-minister who wanted to demolish the entire Mpape housing occupied by over a million people.
He noted that Bala Mohammed, then minister in charge of FCT, claimed that the owners of the various properties had trespassed on the land belonging to the Federal Government.
But he said the people, whose properties had been marked for demolition, briefed his law firm to seek legal redress.
On behalf of the community, according to Falana, we approached the federal capital territory high court for urgent intervention. In an epochal judgment delivered by Justice Kutigi, the planned demolition was halted.
He, also, cited how Bala Mohammed “has ordered that a house being used as a den of criminal activities in Bauchi be demolished and ordered that 1,000 rifles found therein be confiscated.”
He lamented that it was ironical that the same governor said last week that herders be allowed to bear AK 47 rifles illegally in spite of overwhelming evidence that the weapons were being used to take over farmlands, kidnap people and rape women.
He said: “If the building warehousing 1000 AK in Bauchi was demolished by Bala Mohammed why is he asking Governor Rotimi Akeredolu to allow herders armed with scores of AK 47 rifles to operate in Ondo State without licences issued by the appropriate authorities?
In 2020, Falana claimed that the federal government paid monetary compensation “to the owners of the large tract of land which had been acquired for the Bauchi airport 38 years earlier.
“The Bauchi State Government made a strong case for payment of the compensation. The governor did not say that the property was a no man’s land.
In the same vein, the Bauchi State Government “has been mounting pressure on the corporate bodies engaged in exploration of crude oil in the Alkaleri Local Government Area, Bauchi State to pay compensation to members of the community in Baranbo area.
“Bala Mohammed is not preaching that the oil companies can seize the land belonging to the people in the exploration area of Bauchi State without paying adequate compensation,” Falana observed.