Bolaji Adeleke is now proud to be a landlord but not until he worked his fingers to the bone. A three-bedroom apartment sheltering his family at Selewu – a sleepy community in Igbogbo, Ikorodu, Lagos – is a testimony of several obstacles overcome by the 45-year-old artisan.
His journey out of the cycle of tenancy began in 2012 when he bought a half plot of land on the Lagos’ outskirts with his savings of five years. While on another round of strenuous savings amid increasing demands of domestic responsibilities, the families from whom he bought the land resold it.
Adeleke had to part with an extra N100,000 before the families allocated a new portion of land to him. Despite the additional cost, the father of three counted himself lucky in Africa’s largest city where thousands of intending landlords had been defrauded by land-owning families popularly known in local parlance as omo onile.
He thought he had seen it all after obtaining the title document on the land but he was wrong. Events that played out in 2017 when he was developing the property nearly broke him.
“The omo onile believe that whoever wants to build a house is their ATM,” Adeleke told Saturday PUNCH, alluding to land-owning families’ pesky demands for money. “They started disturbing me for levies right from the foundations.”
Adeleke explained that foot soldiers working for the families that sold the land to him came to the site and demanded N100,000 from him as foundation levy.
He said, “They collected N50,000 because I knew someone who appealed to them on my behalf. They also collected N50,000 for roofing. Those that collected the levies were children of the families that sold the land to me. Each of the families has representatives among ‘the boys’ who came to the site.”
The miscreants also collected N5,000-N10,000 from bricklayers, carpenters and tillers who worked at the site and would beat up any workers who refused to pay, Adeleke disclosed.
“One day, some bricklayers working on a building close to my site had mixed cement and sand but because the owner of the property was not there to settle the boys, they did not allow the bricklayers to work. The materials wasted,” he recounted.
Omo onile and arbitrary customary fees
Adeleke’s experience is the lot of many intending homeowners and developers in Lagos. Unlike determined Adeleke, extortion by miscreants who move around building sites demanding levies for foundations, casting of suspended floor (otherwise called ‘decking’), roofing, fencing, among others, has frustrated many low and middle-income earners embarking on housing projects in the state.
The levies are traditionally called ‘customary fees’ and have thrived for decades.
Oftentimes, the levies are collected by omo onile through violent youths who are native of the community, findings by our correspondent revealed. They report to the land-owning families, including traditional ruler and chiefs in the domain, and get a share of the proceeds. Most times, the term omo onile is used to depict both the land-owning families and natives collecting levies on the former’s behalf.
The gang operates like a syndicate; from informants who scout for ongoing constructions to armed thugs that storm the site on motorcycles. In the event that a property owner or developer fails to pay certain fees they demand, they would disrupt work and unleash terror on labourers. Heads of labourers as well as drivers taking materials to the site also have the options of paying various levies to the miscreants or get brutalised.
The World Bank ranked Nigeria 131 among 190 economies in the ease of doing business in 2020. Although the country’s ranking, which draws on indices from Lagos and Kano, was an improvement from 146th position, experts have identified bottlenecks surrounding land acquisition and development, including construction permit, as factors limiting environment conducive to business in Nigeria.
An estate developer, Mr Sesan Obe, is no stranger to such extortionate levies; but real estate being his only means of livelihood, he had learnt to follow the dictates of the louts he referred to as ‘statutory’ omo onile.
“The levies depend on the areas,” he said. “The statutory omo onile are not fighting you over the ownership of the land but they will ask you to pay foundation, decking and roofing levies.”
Obe explained that some of them would ask that all the levies should be paid at once while others would agree to payment at each stage of the building project. “It is better to pay in stages because if you pay everything, another group will come and tell you the first group was fake,” the developer advised.
He added, “Sometime in 2017 when I did a project at Surulere, they collected N500,000 each for foundations, decking, and roofing in addition to other different small charges. They would tell you the levies go to the traditional ruler and chiefs in the community.
“If you report them to the police, they (the police) will ask you to settle with them. If they are asking for N1m, the police would help you negotiate to pay N500,000. That is the problem we have and it is a deterrent to property development. If the government can strengthen the law and enforce it properly, everybody will be better for it.”
Alongside the arbitrary customary fees, Obe is also faced with the daunting crisis of land ownership arising from shoddy deals of land grabbers well known as ajagungbale.
“Land grabbing is a major issue in Lagos State,” he said worryingly. “It seems they (land grabbers) are above the law. Their activities are hindering development and making property to be expensive.”
Corroborating Adeleke and Obe’s accounts, the General Secretary, Association of Real Estate Developers of Lagos State, Mr Mutairu Olumegban, said customary fees were part of the major hindrances to the real estate sector and had festered together with the growing menace of land grabbing in the state.
He said, “Omo onile go to construction sites to collect all kinds of levies. They will collect a levy for the demolition of old structures, foundations, roofing, offloading of building materials, and so on. The levies depend on locations. In some areas, they may demand N1m for the whole project. If you negotiate, they may eventually reduce it to N700,000 or N500,000. In other locations, they can collect N2m or more.
“Drivers who take materials to the site usually feel discouraged. So on some occasions, developers pay on their behalf. They charge between N1,000 and N10,000 per trip depending on the size of the vehicle. All these levies amount to extra expenses. Automatically, it will have an effect on the cost of the house when we want to sell or let it out.”
Olumegban told our correspondent that the association had written to the Lagos State House of Assembly, demanding “political will to curb the illegal activities.”