It is an indisputable fact that Nigeria is suffering from economic recession and the best business one could invest his money in Nigeria now is farming; and the most important aspect of farming is acquisition of farmland. However, many prospective farmers/investors are swindled by land scammers everyday because they fail or neglect to carry out proper search and investigation before paying for farmland. After our article (the reasons prospective land buyers fall prey to land scam) which x-rays how and where to conduct search to prevent being swindled by ‘Omo-onile’ (land owners), we were inundated with inquiries from people who are interested in investing in agricultural business/farming on where and how to conduct search and investigation into farmland; which most of the time is devoid of any document, so as not to lose their hard earned money. Hence, this article is to explain in simple terms how to conduct search into title of the customary land owners to ascertain with precision the tittle of the vendor.
Erroneous belief about the status of Certificate of Occupancy (C of O)
Before we continue with the topic of discourse, we will like to correct the erroneous belief of people that are not legal minds that Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) is the highest and safest form of legal title over landed properties in Nigeria. People erroneously come to the conclusion that Land Use Act of 1978 (the main legislation on real estate in Nigeria) has transferred the ownership of all lands to the government and it is the government that can pass such title in respect of land to individuals and corporate entities through the Certificate of Occupancy. This position is not correct and it has been established in many decided cases that the rights of the customary owners were never extinguished by Land Use Act. In fact, it is the position of the law that Certificate of Occupancy cannot cure the defect in title of the vendor. The law actually recognises five types of legal land ownership in Nigeria and the certificate of occupancy is just one of them. There are many instances where the courts have nullified Certificates of Occupancy where the root of title is not found in one of the types of legal ownership recognised by the law. Therefore, to conduct search/investigation into title of the customary land owner, the beam-light of the search should be on the following:
1. Traditional evidence The Nigerian law first and foremost gives recognition to traditional or customary land ownership notwithstanding the Land Use Act. This means in effect that people whose ancestors have “founded” and “settled” on land over the years are deemed to be the owners of such land. Consequently, the title of traditional land owners is legal, proper and genuine. They need not have any document to prove their land ownership. Ownership is a vital issue to be determined before any purchase of a land. Hence, purchaser should seek information concerning land from the traditional ruler/village head of the location of the land. Such persons occupy positions that can equip them with material facts regarding the land. A visit to the land, discussion and inquiry from the family members of the owner of proposed land for sale will save the prospective farmland investors/farmers from losing their money to land scammers.
2. Acts of ownership extending over a long/sufficient period of time The Nigerian law also gives legal ownership over land to people who cannot by positive traditional evidence show how they “founded” or “settled” on the said land if they can show that they and their ancestors have lived on the land for years without being challenged. This is one the issues the prospective buyer of customary land should investigate while conducting search
3. Long possession and enjoyment of the land. Where the land owner cannot prove their land ownership by positive traditional evidence or show that their enjoyment of the land is not challenged or controverted, but if they can show that their adversaries in respect of the land have failed to take positive legal steps to “wrestle” the ownership of land in dispute from them over a long period of time, they will then be deemed to have legal ownership of the said land
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4. Proof of possession of connected or adjacent land. This would probably occur where there is no dispute that a particular vast expanse belongs to a particular persons or persons. Such persons would also be deemed to be owners of smaller surrounding parcels of land if there is no other evidence to the contrary. This is a rebuttable presumption of law which the prospective farmland investors must understand so as to help him in his search.
5. Ownership/possession of the adjacent land by different person Where the ownership of the adjoining land is owned by different persons, the owners of the adjoining land should be found so as to investigate and inquire from them whether the vendor the buyer is buying from is truly the owner of that particular land.
6. Court judgement A visit to the property may reveal that the inscription “THIS LAND IS NOT FOR SALE” OR ‘THIS LAND IS SUBJECT OF LITIGATION’ is placed on the property; this notice is often used in Nigeria to warn that the property is subject matter of litigation or dispute. This kind of information should put the purchaser on inquiry. Any property that is subject of litigation cannot be conveyed because of the principle of ‘lis pendis’.
7. Taking of coordinate/charting In order to be sure that the land, the subject matter of transaction, is not under government acquisition, the prospective buyer should cause the coordinate of the land to be taken and charting of the land to be done at the land Registry of estate where the land is situated. Read more:Farmland for Sale: N200,000 per acre at Odeda, Ogun State