Boundaries and Titles: The legal angle (1)

‘The Certificate of Occupancy is an officially recognized land document needed to exercise a degree of control over land without interruptions to enjoyment and use. It is a document given by the state or federal government, which leases land to the owners for 99 years. It is one of the most popular property documents or titles in Nigeria’

LAST week, I was privileged as a guest speaker, to address the 1st Surveyor-General’s Stakeholders Summit put together by the Office of the State Surveyor-General, Lagos State. Permit me to share my thoughts with you on the topic.

First and foremost, I return all praises to God Almighty, the giver of breath, time and chance, for the privilege given to me to stand before this great audience. Considering the economic situation and security challenges of our country, it takes the grace of God Almighty to be standing here today. All dignitaries present here today, Ladies and Gentlemen, I greet you all.

1.0 INTRODUCTION

It is indeed a great honour to stand before this great audience to deliver a paper titled “Boundaries and Titles: The Legal Angle.”When I received the invitation a few weeks ago, I realized that my busy schedule would not permit me to present an exhaustive paper on the topic, being one that requires extensive research. Being a Legal Practitioner (and not a Lecturer), I will rely greatly on my practical experience, case laws and the Nigerian situation in doing justice to this Topic.

I need not say, as I verily believe you are well aware that the topic is indeed a broad and extensive one, although short in words. However, it is amenable to brevity and simplicity which I will adopt in this paper. Without much ado, let me delve into the business of today but let me digress a bit, to say that I do not claim monopoly of knowledge in this field moreso that the topic is of public knowledge hence I will appreciate constructive criticisms and discussions by this great audience. Permit me to say that I am also a fan of knowledge and I am open to learning more today.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN THIS LECTURE

In this lecture, I intend to delve into the following issues before I conclude:
1. Legal Definition of the word “Boundaries”
2. Legal Definition of the word “Titles”
3. Ways of Identifying Boundaries.
4. Boundaries and Titles: The Legal Perspectives.
5. Stages of Acquiring and Perfecting Title to Land
6. Conclusion.

LEGAL DEFINITION OF THE WORD “BOUNDARIES”

Generally speaking, boundaries are real or imagined lines that mark the edge or limit of something or given place. In relation to properties, boundaries are imaginary or invisible limits dividing one person’s property from that of another. Furthermore, a boundary is understood as every separation, natural or artificial, which marks the confines or lines of division of two contiguous estates. Boundaries may be natural or artificial separations or divisions between adjoining properties that show their limits of ownership of property and exercise of powers. I will like to pause here for now.

LEGAL DEFINITION OF THE WORD “TITLES”

Titles connote the legal right to own a movable or immovable property. In relation to document and ownership, a title is a document that shows legal ownership to an asset. A title can represent ownership of a real asset such as a car or an intangible property or assets such as a trademark. A title might show ownership of property of an individual or as a business, which is the ownership of resources whether they are tangible (physical in nature) or intangible. In property law, title is a bundle of rights exercised over a piece of property which a party may own either through a legal interest or an equitable interest. It connotes ownership of land, which stands against and above the right of anyone else to claim the land. This is aptly captured by section 43 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended.

WAYS OF IDENTIFYING LAND BOUNDARIES

Boundaries can be identified through natural or artificial features. Survey Plans also constitute a means of identifying the limits and boundaries of one’s land.
· Natural Boundaries: These are land boundaries characterized by natural features rather than artificial features. These natural boundaries include streams, moots, trees, rocks etc.
· Artificial Boundaries: Artificial boundaries include landmarks or signs erected by the hand of man, such as a pole, stake, pile of stones, roads.
· Survey Plans: The most popular way of identifying the limit of one’s ownership of land is through a survey plan. Survey plan is a document that measures the boundaries of a parcel of land to give an accurate measurement and description of that land. A good survey plan must contain the name of the owner of the land surveyed, the location and description of the land, the size of the land surveyed, the Survey Plan Number, the beacon numbers of the land surveyed, the name of the surveyor who drew up the survey plan and the date it was drawn up etc.

BOUNDARIES AND TITLES: THE LEGAL PERSPECTIVES.
Boundaries in relation to title and ownership of property connote the limits and extent of a person’s exercise of right in respect of a property. It is the degree and measure of one’s exercise of power and authority over a land vis a visanother’s land. There are five ways of proving ownership of title to land, which were first enumerated by the Supreme Court in the locus classicus case of Idundun V. Okumagba (1976) 6 – 10 SC 48. A person can prove ownership of title to land via any of the following ways:
1. Proof of title via traditional history or evidence;
2. Proof of title via production of title documents;
3. Proof of title via acts of ownership;
4. Proof of title by acts of possession long enough to warrant the person in possession as the owner and
5. Proof of title by acts of possession of an adjoining or adjacent land in such a way as would make it probable that the owner of the adjoining or adjacent land is also the owner of the land in dispute.
The above ways of proving title to land have been reiterated in a litany of cases which include the case of Gabdo v. Usman (2015) LPELR-25678(CA), where My Lord, Hon. Justice Abraham Georgewill, J.C.A opined thus:

“These five ways, which have crystallized over the years in a long line of decided cases as are replete in our law reports are each if proved by credible and cogent evidence sufficient to ground title in the party who so claims. These five methods are namely: (a) Evidence of traditional history of title (b) By production of title documents (c) By acts of ownership (d) By acts of possession long enough to warrant the person in possession as the owner. (e) By acts of possession of an adjoining or adjacent land in such a way as would make it probable that the owner of the adjoining or adjacent land is also the owner of the land in dispute.”

Since I have less than 15 minutes, I will dwell more on the 1st and 2nd ways of proving titles to land i.e. proof of title via traditional history and proof of title via production of title documents.

PROOF OF TITLE VIA TRADITIONAL HISTORY

In States like Ondo, Osun, Kogi, Ekiti, etc, proof of title via traditional history is very common unlike in Lagos State, which is mostly through production of documents. In law, it is believed that land is vested in the family (the extended family) as a group hence, the head of the family holds the land in trust for the entire family members. The individual members of the community or family only have rights to use land. In the celebrated case of Amodu Tijani v Secretary of Southern Nigeria (1921) AC 399 at 404, the Court was of the humble view that “land is conceived as belonging to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living and countless members yet unborn” hence, a person must prove his blood affiliation with his progenitor who founded the land that he is claiming.
For a person to successfully prove his title to land via traditional history, he must purge himself of the following:
1. Who founded the land i.e. he must show that his forefather founded the land he is laying claims to.
2. When the land was founded. The person needs not show the exact day and time the land was founded. Merely stating that the land was founded over 300 or 400 years ago will suffice.
3. How the land was founded i.e. whether through migration from a known place and deforestation of a virgin land or through conquest or through customary gift, etc.
4. Particulars of intervening users of the land i.e. his predecessors in title before the land devolved to him via inheritance.
A person who successfully proves the above requirements has no doubt proved his title to the land through traditional history.

PROOF OF TITLE VIA PRODUCTION OF TITLE DOCUMENTS

Another way of proving one’s title to land is through proof of title via production of title documents. In respect to acquisition of land, there are several land documents evidencing title to land. The nature of ownership of the property will determine the appropriate and suitable document for such a property transaction. These documents will make the claim of land ownership legitimate. The various types of land documents in respect to land shall be enumerated below:

Certificate of Occupancy

Before 1978, there were a series of complaints in respect to customary tenure which resulted in a series of avoidable litigations, killings, sale of land to multiple innocent buyers, etc. The government therefore wanted a more agreeable tenure system by enacting a uniform law to administer all land in Nigeria. This initiative birthed the Land Use Act, 1978. The objectives of the Act are as follows;
· To remove bitter controversies and endless litigations over land which sometimes resulted in loss of lives and property;
· To simplify the ownership and management of land;
· To encourage access by all citizens to affordable land;
· To provide the Government with better access to land for public purposes and also facilitate town planning etc.

Consequently, the Land Use Act was introduced to usher in a transformation from customary land tenure regime to a statutory tenure in land by achieving a major strategy which is to expropriate and/or seize land originally owned by Families and Communities and vesting same in the State as trustees of communal and family land. The Land Use Act also introduced an administrative system of allocation and control of land, instead of the market-driven system. These major and unique features of the Land Use Act birthed the Certificate of Occupancy. The Certificate of Occupancy is an officially recognized land document needed to exercise a degree of control over land without interruptions to enjoyment and use. It is a document given by the state or federal government, which leases land to the owners for 99 years. It is one of the most popular property documents or titles in Nigeria.

*Adegboruwa is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN

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