This Day (Lagos)

Nigeria: The Agony of Repossessing Buildings From Squatters

opinion

Thriving communities exist in most partially completed buildings and in some completed structures that have remained in the property market for a long time. Owners are sometimes pushed to the threshold of using violence to remove illegal occupants of their property, writes Bennett Oghifo

Only owners of uncompleted buildings or properties put up for let/lease know how difficult it is to keep squatters at bay. It is the same way it is difficult to remove weaver birds from a tree. Recently, the owner of a storey building at Airways area of Apapa, Lagos had to remove the roof and windows to evict a thriving colony of stragglers occupying the building that was put in the property market by an estate surveyor.

"The squatters had an organised community. We had a difficult time with them and they negotiated with us through their leaders. It is quite frustrating," the estate surveyor said.

In Benin City, a serving Senator had to offer his uncompleted building to the Joint Task Force to use as temporary barracks to keep squatters away.

Also, Abuja has so many completed and uncompleted buildings that are occupied by all manner of squatters including artisans, civil servants or job seekers, who are in dire need of accommodation.

The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) had a dose of this when its estate in Gwarimpa was occupied by squatters. The real challenge came when it was time to complete the duplexes and town houses that were in different stages of construction. FHA had to engage a special task force made up of its personnel and the police to flush out the 700 identified squatters from the estate.

"These people had constituted themselves into a nuisance in the Gwarimpa II estate and something had to be done about it so that our contractors could continue with their work," FHA said after the raid.

The recent killings at an uncompleted building in Apo Village, Abuja is still being investigated but it is beginning to look like another case of eviction of squatters that went awry. Commenting on the rising wave of illegal squatters, President of the Nigerian Institution of Estate Surveyors and Valuers (NIESV), Mr. Emeka Eleh, said so much harm could come from people squatting in either uncompleted or completed buildings.

Eleh, who said he did not have detailed information about the Apo situation, advised members of the institution to always lock up buildings in their care and keep the keys in their offices, even when they put a guard to watch over the building.

He said owners of buildings should always take interest in what is happening in their buildings regardless of where they are, adding that hoodlums sometimes use vacant buildings as hideouts.

"In the South-east, for instance, most of the kidnap cases have been traced to uncompleted or abandoned buildings. Owners should monitor and secure their buildings regularly," he added.

An Abuja-based estate surveyor, Mr. Emmanuel Nwainokpo, said, "There are two different situations regarding squatters. The first is that out of courtesy, you ask them to leave without giving specific number of days since they are tenants at will."

Nwainokpo said there is another set of people occupying property and are known as tenants at sufferance because they occupy the property with the knowledge of the owner, but without his or her express approval,

"In both cases, there is no legal provision on how to make them vacate the property and the landlord can use whatever lawful means to get them to leave the property, but this does not amount to killing people. Owners can chase the squatters out and change the locks of the building."

According to a study by, Valentine Uwakwe, squatters fall in two broad categories: there are those who, desperate for somewhere to live, take the chance of occupying any empty space. The other category comprises persons who are professional squatters. These are persons who go from community to community occupying, mainly government, land - usually prime land - with the hope and expectation that government would legitimize the occupation by providing utilities like water and electricity and infrastructure, including roads.

Many squatter communities, Uwakwe said, are breeding grounds for criminals. "These communities usually need criminals to protect them from members of adjoining communities, who might oppose their presence. They also need criminals to protect them, in some instances, from the owners of the land on which they are trespassing."

According to him, a squatter community is usually a safe haven for criminals. The irregular development is characterised by, initially, tarpaulin, zinc fences, lack of street lights, lack of roads, lack of street names and the absence of addresses. He said owners of buildings who do not have proper names of occupants or proper address for their properties create difficulties for the police, who are required to enforce law and order in these communities.

"The police cannot patrol these communities with motor vehicles or even with motorbikes. They are therefore required to enter on foot and to raid at night. Bearing in mind that there are no street lights, it is like sending police officers on a suicide mission," he said.. He also said squatter communities are potential breeding grounds for misfits, extortionists, prostitution rings and drug peddlers.

"Guns are often stored in these communities and it is from here that gang leaders dispatch their members to neighbouring communities where they carry out extortion, demand protection money, commit robberies, rape and murders. It is impossible to trace and monitor members of these criminal gangs in the squatter communities."

The Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) has warned that property owners and developers would be held responsible for the activities of squatters who use their uncompleted structures as launch pads to cause harm in the society.

But the problem of squatters is universal. In the United Kingdom, according to Lisa Bachelor, the government has consulted on a range of options from improving existing legal frameworks to making squatting illegal.

She said sky-high property prices and soaring rents for those priced out of the housing market have meant that squatting has become a way of life for a growing number of people. "The latest government figures put the estimated number of squatters in the UK at 20,000, but the real figure is probably higher."

The government has closed a consultation on the criminalisation of squatting, in which proposals range from creating an offence of "squatting in buildings", thereby rendering the activity illegal, to improving the enforcement available under the existing legal framework. Squatting is already a criminal offence in Scotland, punishable by a fine or even imprisonment.

Regardless, she said, "Squatting is an emotive subject, with many arguing that squatters are often homeless people legally taking up residence in empty properties that have otherwise been abandoned. But critics argue that no one has a right to simply move into a property that is not theirs, and that often homes are forcibly occupied after being left vacant by their owners for a very short time."

Discussing how squatting works in the United States, Josh Clark said in 'Howstuffworks' that, "Squatting is a pretty simple concept. It's setting up camp on a parcel of land or moving into an abandoned or unused dwelling. However, moving into a house that has a family still living there is considered home invasion, not squatting."

He said there are a number of different situations that can give rise to squatting. "The poverty-stricken commonly build shantytowns on property that doesn't belong to them. The homeless may take refuge in an abandoned home for a few nights - or years. Some people use squatting to make a political statement about the economic gap between the rich and poor. To others, squatting simply represents a way to buck authority. Even a houseguest who won't leave and a tenant who continues to stay past the expiration date of a lease both qualify as squatters."

Squatters who take over land or dwellings have the law to contend with, he said. "Since the establishment of property rights in the US, which were founded around the time the nation formed, disputes over squatting have favored the landowner. But there are plenty of legal loopholes that squatters can take advantage of to help him or her take ownership of a property."

The life of a squatter, he said, is fraught with pitfalls and confrontations at each turn - and so is the life of the landlord who has to deal with the unwanted resident.

He said there are concurrent laws that give rights to squatters as well as provide a process for landowners to get rid of them.

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