Certificate of Occupancy – A Proof of title to Land?

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The promulgation of the Land Use Act (LUA) 1978 has had a lasting effect on the way and manner in which land can be acquired in Nigeria. This Act vests all land in the Governor of the State where the particular land is situate and as such a person intending to purchase or acquire a land has to purchase it from the Government. Since the coming into force of this Act, Certificate of Occupancy (popularly called C of O) has become the main title document that land owners hold or seek to hold (see Sec. 10 of LUA). The C of O confers on its holders, leasehold of a certain period (see Sec. 8 of LUA) which has been interpreted by the court to be a period of 99 years. C of O has therefore become the most popular evidence of title especially because the LUA provides for it.

Generally speaking, a C of O could be argued to be a proof of title to land. What this means is that when a person purchases land from the government, he has the option to apply for a C of O which he can present to anyone as proof that he owns the land. A customary land owner (i.e. owner of land prior to 1978) also has the option to apply for a C of O. There have however been issues with people who owned land before the LUA was promulgated as would be discussed below.

 The Government has made series of mistakes by selling customarily owned properties to individuals without revoking them and therefore issuing them a C of O. This action of Government has led to situations where two individual claim ownership of the same land. One would be claiming ownership by virtue of a C of O issued by Government and the other claiming as a customary owner. Although the customary owner might not have a C of O, this does not defeat his ownership of the land. If such a matter gets to court and the customary owner is able to prove with sufficient evidence that he owns the land, the C of O would more or less be a worthless piece of paper incapable of conferring any title to the land.

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In Grace Madu v Dr. Bertram Madu (2008), the Supreme Court held that “the certificate also raises the presumption that at the time it was issued, there was not in existence, a customary owner whose title has not been revoked”. This in essence means that a C of O is only a proof of ownership where there is no proof of customary ownership of the land and where there is proof of revocation of the customary ownership.

In revoking a land, certain conditions must be met but that is beyond the sphere of this article. This presumption is therefore rebuttable because if a customary owner of land proves by evidence that he has a better title to land, the C of O would be revoked by the court.

Furthermore, the Court toeing the line of Ogunleye v Oni, held  in Sunmomu Olohunde &Anor. v. Prof S.K. Adeyoju that a Certificate of Occupancy is not conclusive evidence of title in favour of its holders. These cases illustrate the fact that a C of O is not enough to establish that a person owns a land exclusively. Although the C of O is supposed to prove this exclusive ownership of Land, the existence of customary ownership of Land makes it a rebuttable one.

In conclusion, the fact that a person has a C of O does not mean that he is the true owner of the land. It is mere evidence that he has a right of occupancy. And as such the C of O can be revoked when someone with a better title (i.e. a customary owner or a previous statutory owner) proves to the court with sufficient evidence that he owns the land.

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Abigail Somoye: abigailsomoye@gmail.com

Abigail is a graduate of law from the University of Sheffield UK. 

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