This happened a while back. I think I was in Primary five at the time. My dad told me of how we used to own the property behind our house; demarcated by a fence. I remember wondering how exactly a person can own something and then not own it anymore. I asked if he had sold it to someone else. This was the only logical reason I could come up with. He said he hadn’t but that the property was just taken from us. This got me thinking about how exactly property is owned in Nigeria. Precisely, what do you have to do to fully own property (land as it is popularly known) in Nigeria? In fact, can you fully own property in Nigeria? When there are issues pertaining to ownership of property in Nigeria, how are they resolved? What steps do you take?

Ownership of property in Nigeria may arise by any of the following methods:

  • Purchase of land
  • Gift inter-vivos: Land may be given as a gift from one person to another.
  • Conquest: A particular group of people may conquer or take control of another group thus acquiring their land and territory as well.
  • Inheritance (testate or intestate): a person may own property by virtue of a deceased leaving the property to him in a will or even without a will, property of a deceased can be inherited by his family or relatives.
  • Allotment or partition of family property: Family land may be divided among members of a family who then own different portions of the whole family land.
  • Grant from state authority/customary grant
  • First settlement on virgin area
  • Long adverse possession: A person may become an owner of land where he is in possession of the land for a sufficient period of time after which another cannot lay claim to same land. There are usually existing laws that stipulate what length of time is sufficient to confer a valid title on a person in possession of land.

There are so many laws guiding ownership of property in Nigeria. They are: the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999(as amended); the Land Use Act, 1978; the Conveyancing Act; the Property and Conveyancing Law; Land instrument registration laws of different states and even the customary land law of each locality.

When there is a dispute as to who owns which portion of land, both parties that contest the ownership of the land have to prove their ownership through any of the recognized ways of proving ownership of land in Nigeria. There is no point arguing in vacuum when there is a recognized way of proving that you own property. Any of the following can be put forward by any of the parties as evidence of ownership of the property in dispute:

  • Traditional evidence
  • Production of documents duly authenticated and executed (i.e. signed)
  • Acts of ownership extending over a sufficient length of time numerous and positive enough to warrant the inference of being the owner. This means that you must show, through various transactions you have carried out on the land, that you own it.
  • Acts of long possession and enjoyment
  • Proof of possession of adjacent land. This basically means showing that you own land adjacent to the one in contention may be evidence that you own the land in contention.

These methods have been so recognized in Nigeria that courts have adopted them as the measures/yardsticks of ownership of property in Nigeria.

There are certain documents that constitute good root of title in Nigeria. This basically means where you have been issued any of these documents as a result of some transaction you have carried out on a property, then it is presumed in your favour that you own or have title to the property which is the subject of the document. Examples of documents that constitute a good root of title are: Duly perfected deed of assignment, duly perfected deed of gift, duly perfected deed of legal mortgage, duly perfected deed of assent by personal representatives, court vesting order, registered title and a duly perfected certificate of purchase.  “Duly perfected” features repeatedly in these examples because perfection of documents on property is very important. Perfection basically confers validity on the documents. It gives flight to the document. Although one may argue that the document is already valid upon the signature of the parties to the documents being reflected in the documents. However, the documents are basically inoperative without perfection in terms of receiving the Governor’s consent, stamping and registration of the documents. Perfection entails:

  • Governor’s consent to the land transaction that involves a transfer of legal interest in the land. Without Governor’s consent, the land transaction is void.
  • Stamping of the document of transfer of interest in Land
  • Registration of the document.

Do you know that a Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) is not in itself sufficient to prove that a person owns property? Here’s why:

Some have the belief that once there is a C of O on a particular property then all is fine and dandy. This is not the case because a C of O without more is not a good root of title. Notice how it is not listed among documents that constitute a good root of title. A certificate of occupancy will only constitute a good root of title where there are other documents attached to it that can prove the ownership of the property.

Based on the above what should you do to own property legitimately in Nigeria?

When you want to buy property in Nigeria, proper investigation has to be carried out on the property to know the actual owner and all forms of transactions that have transpired on the same property. Proper investigation entails:

  • Collecting the epitome or abstract of title from the seller
  • Visiting certain places based on the transactions reflected on the property. It is compulsory to visit the land registry. You may also visit court registries where you see any matter pertaining to court cases on the property. This is to ensure that the property actually belongs to the seller and has been so declared by the court. You may visit the probate registry where a will is mentioned in the transactions on the land somewhere. The corporate affairs commission may also be visited where the seller is a company.
  • Also physically visit the property and inspect it for any obvious defects. In some instances there may even be a building already in existence on the property. Some even have tenants on the property. You should know these things before making commitments to purchase the property.
  • Closely study all documents of title that are given to you.
  • Investigate traditional history of the land where necessary. The point is to leave nothing unturned.
  • Raise requisitions. Ask questions on grey areas. Clarify everything.

It is after proper clarifications have been made that you should proceed to prepare the deed of assignment for the transfer of interest in the property from the seller to you.

Issues pertaining to ownership of property in Nigeria are addressed first at the State High Courts depending on where the property is located. So where A and B are in contention as to who owns a property located in Lagos State, the high court of Lagos state in the particular division where the property is located will have jurisdiction to hear such a matter.

** “Land” and “Property” have been repeatedly used interchangeably in this article. Although property may be personal property or real property, real property is being referred to in this article.

**The epitome or abstract of title review any previous owners of the property and any encumbrances (impediments) on the property.

**A deed of assignment is a document of transfer of interest in land from a seller to a purchaser in a sale of land transaction.