The case highlights the intricate and sometimes, corrupt, nature of Abuja’s land systems.
In 2006, after several years in the United States, Imonkhuede Ohikhuare needed a befitting home in an upscale part of Abuja as he prepared to return to Nigeria.
He settled for a decent plot in uptown Asokoro-a property owned by the former Minister of State for Transport, Mohammed Aliyu- and after required legal search and confirmation with federal capital authorities, paid N50 million to acquire the land.
That search, a necessary step for Abuja’s notorious property culture, gave no indication the land had either been previously allotted but revoked, or was tied to any existing right of occupancy to a third party.
So after obtaining a development approval from the Federal Capital Development Authority, Mr. Ohikhuare commenced work on Plot 809, Cadastral Zone AO4, Asokoro, and over the next three years, sank over N1 billion on a posh building made up of two identical wings. While he moved into one of the wings with his family, he put the other up for lease.
Soon, the classy property began to draw attention from the nation’s deep pockets so much that vice president, Namadi Sambo, was on hand to personally inspect the wing up for rent on behalf of a daughter of late President Musa Yar’Adua, who eventually became the tenant.
But that transaction only set off a complex legal wrangling that would last years, highlighting Abuja’s unpredictable property habits- well known for intrigues and double dealing–often aided by corrupt officials and a feeble justice system.
Mr. Ohikhuare had barely settled into the house when, one 2010 morning, he woke up to find a court summons in respect of an ownership tussle over the plot he spent more than N1billion to develop. Though he was not included in the summon that read: “Ambassador Alhaji Shehu Othman Malami OFR V. The Hon Minister Federal Capital Territory, Federal Capital Development Authority and Mohammed Habib Aliyu”, he applied to join the suit as an interested party and was accepted as the fourth defendant.
During and after the trial at the FCT High Court, the judge, A. S. Umar allegedly superintended over controversial decisions on the case, approving a purported illegal order that forcibly evicted Mr. Ohikhuare, a yet-to-be reversed decision, which has triggered an effort by Lagos-based lawyer, Femi Falana, to have the judge fired.
Details of the alleged miscarriage of justice are contained in a petition sent to the Nigerian Judicial Council, NJC, by Mr. Falana.
In the petition, Mr. Falana urged the council to investigate Justice Umar for “misconduct” and “corruption,” offences that if proven, are punishable by dismissal.
According to the petition, the man disputing the contentious plot, Shehu Othman Malami, former ambassador to South Africa and the traditional chief (Sarkin Sudan) of Wurno in Sokoto, told the court during the trial, that the land developed by Mr. Ohikhuare was originally allotted to him in 1984. He said his right to the plot was unlawfully revoked without notice by former minister of the FCT, Nasir El Rufai on 5 October 2005 and the land was subsequently assigned in favour of Mr. Aliyu.
Mr. Malami prayed the court to set aside the revocation of by the former FCT minister and declare that he is entitled to a new Certificate of Occupation in respect of the land.
However, the FCT authority argued in court that the term of the original allocation of the plot in 1984 included a condition that the said plot must be developed within two years or the allocation would be revoked. The FCDA told the court that Mr. Malami’s right to the plot was revoked 21 years after and a notice of revocation was served Kabiru Ladan, Mr. Malami’s agent.
Mr. Falana told the NJC that Mr. Malami had, on 21 November 2007, filed a suit challenging the decision of the FCDA to revoke his right of occupancy of the land but subsequently withdrew same only to file another suit on the same matter on 9 March 2010.
Mr. Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, argued that by filing the first suit challenging the revocation four years after he received notice of the withdrawal of the plot, Mr. Malami violated the provision of section 2(a) of the Public Officer Protection Act, which mandates such action to be filed within three months of its occurrence of the action being complained about.
Interestingly, Mr. Malami admitted in court he was aware that Mr. Ohikhuare was developing property on land between 2006 and 2009. Mr. Falana questioned why the ex-ambassador did not consider it necessary to alert Mr. Ohikhuare on his claim of ownership of the plot neither did he include him as a necessary party to the first suit filed in 2007 and the second suit filed in 2010. He also did not file for interlocutory injunction restraining the Mr. Ohikhuare from further work on the plot.
Despite those concerns, on 17 May 2012, Justice Umar ruled on the matter granting all the requests of the former ambassador, except one.
The judgment, and the haphazard manner it was prepared and delivered, immediately prompted questions about Justice Umar’s impartiality on the case.
The opening page of the judgement shows that the plaintiff sought five reliefs from the court, but interestingly, on the last page, the judge granted him seven and refused one. Also, the three last reliefs were not listed in any part of the judgment.
Mr. Falana said Justice Umar failed to make a distinction between the original Writ of Summons and Statement of Claim and the Amended Statement of Claim in his judgement.
“In his judgement, His Lordship listed or reproduced, as reliefs claimed in the suit, the reliefs that were sought in the original Writ of Summons and Statement of Claim, instead of reflecting those sought as per the Amended Statement of Claim that was filed on 13 July 2010,” Mr. Falana wrote in his complaint to the NJC.
“So eager, it seems, was the judge to give judgment to the plaintiff that the judge prepared his judgment in a most inelegant and incongruous manner.”
Interestingly, Mr Malami did not seek in his claim an order for possession of the property and the court did not grant such an order. However, inexplicably, Justice Umar signed a warrant for possession six days after delivering judgment, forcibly evicting Mr. Ohikhuare from his property.
Mr. Falana argued that even if the court had granted the plaintiff an order of possession during his judgment, the law requires a warrant effecting such order to be signed no sooner than 14 days.
The absurdity of the warrant of possession was even made more apparent, Mr. Falana argued, by the fact that Mr. Ohikhuare had filed an application of a stay of execution on 28 May 2012 to the judge.
On 17 July 2012, Justice Umar refused the application and another application was filed at the Court of Appeal and served to the counsels of the parties involved as well as the Sheriff and Bailiff Section of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory.
Brushing aside applications, on 12 September 2012, Mr Malami’s lawyer, Jeph Njikonye, officers of the Sheriff Section of the High Court of the FCT, “a multitude of thugs”, a heavy duty crane and policemen arrived at the building to forcibly removing Mr. Ohikhuare’s personal items from his house.
After the intervention of Mr. Ohikhuare’s lawyers, who produced another copy of motion for Stay of Execution filed at the Court of Appeal and a prove of service to the officers of the Sheriff Section of the High Court of the FCT, the officers stopped the execution and left Mr Ohikhuare’s building.
But the respite was only momentary. The next day, the same officers from the Sheriff section of the High Court of the FCT returned with armed policemen and a retinue of thugs and threw Mr. Ohikhuare out of the property, and locked it up.
Curiously, the court officer only evicted Mr Ohikhuare and his household and turned a blind eye to his tenant, daughter of President Yar’adua, occupying the second wing of the building on the same plot of land.
Shocked by the conduct of the judge, counsels to Mr. Ohikhuare petitioned the NJC complaining about his actions. But in a terse response on behalf of the CJN, the NJC dismissed their complaints on the ground that “the explanation given by Hon Justice A. S Umar was considered by His Lordship as satisfactory, as he has exonerated himself from the allegations contained in your petition, please.”
Enters Emeka Offor
On 10 January 2012, in a bizarre twist to the whole affair, billionaire businessman and a major financier of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Emeka Offor, surprisingly filed a motion seeking to join the appeal claiming to be an interested party to the suit in the Court of Appeal. Mr. Offor explained that Mr Malami had granted a power of attorney to him prior to the institution of the suit in the High Court. The power of attorney automatically transferred the ownership of Plot 1809 to the Mr. Offor.
In a letter to the President of the Court of Appeal on 11 January 2012, Mr. Malami backed that claim and requested that his name be removed as a party in the appeal. According to him,: “I consented to the action at the High Court being instituted in my name because I did not know that Sir Emeka Offor had registered the power of attorney I gave him.”
Worse, about the same time, the directorate of Lands, Abuja Geographic Information Services (AGIS), under the same FCT office that defended the revocation of the plot initially from Mr. Malami, revoked Mr. Ohikhuare’s right of occupancy in respect of the property and re-grated same to Mr. Malami even while an appeal of the judgement of the High Court had been initiated.
Mr. Falana said the accounts of Mr. Offor and the AGIS is proof that Mr Ohikhuare “is a victim of well coordinated conspiracy.”
He insisted in his petition that the judge’s decision “facilitating the execution of his judgement and the illegal and unconstitutional extra-judicial takeover” of his client’s property by Mr. Offor, “constitute a breach of the oath of judicial office of Honourable Justice A.S Umar and amounts to a gross act of judicial misconduct.”
Mr. Falana is asking the NJC to dismiss Justice Umar from the Bench. He said it would amount to “double standard or connivance at an act of corruption on the Bench” if the NJC refuses to take appropriate action on the allegedly misbehaving judge.
It is not clear whether the council will reverse its earlier position on the case.