By Kazeem Ugbodaga
The Lagos State Government has asked the Court of Appeal to set aside the judgment of a Lagos High Court at Igbosere which faulted the demolition of illegal structures in Otodo Gbame Community and ordered the resettlement of displaced persons in the area.
The State Government, in a Notice of Appeal dated June 22, 2017, filed before the Lagos division of Appeal Court, said apart from violating Constitutional provisions, the judgment of the lower court delivered by Justice Adeniyi Onigbanjo on June 21, was capable of encouraging illegality.
In the appeal which was hinged on two grounds, the State Government argued that the lower court erred in law and misdirected itself when it made far reaching decisions that conflicted with the facts of the matter as placed before the court.
According to the first ground, the government, through its lawyer, Mr Saheed Quadri, Director of Civil Litigation, Lagos State Ministry of Justice, said Justice Onigbanjo erred in law when he held that the demolition was illegal when in fact there was no demolition carried out in Otodo Gbame prior to the institution of the suit.
Going into details, the government said there was a fire outbreak in Otodo Gbame caused by violent clash between two rival cult groups, and that the fire engulfed and destroyed the entire community with no residents and property remaining, as the destroyed shanties were built with corrugated iron sheets, woods and bamboos.
Pursuant to the government’s constitutional duties ,particularly sections 13 and 20, Quadri said the State Fire Service responded timeously to put out the fire and excavated the debris, while the State Governor, Mr Akinwunmi Ambode consequently visited the community to commiserate with the people.
The Governor also gave directive barring re-construction of illegal shanties, and further directed that all squatters living along the riverine/swampy areas or strips in the State should vacate immediately as they pose security threat with the increase in vices and crimes that include bunkering, kidnapping, armed robbery, among others, especially when the criminal elements used the riverine areas as escape route to the hinter land.
The directive of the Governor, according to government, was pursuant to Chapter 2, Section 14 (2) (b) of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
After the directive for all squatters inhabiting illegally in the riverine and swampy areas in the State to vacate, residents of the riverine areas in the State instituted the suit in which Otodo Gbame Community was also represented, while Justice Onigbanjo on January 26, 2017 referred the matter for mediation but ordered parties to maintain status quo pending the final resolution of the matter.
While parties were still at Lagos MultiDoor Courthouse for mediation, the government said the residents of Otodo Gbame used the period to rebuild the illegal structures contrary to court order, adding that it was the action that prompted it to carry out the demolition in line with orders for maintenance of status quo.
The government thus argued that: “The declaration of the lower court that the demolition of March 17, 2017 is illegal and unconstitutional is misplaced and one-sided without considering the violation of the same order of court by the respondents. The demolition was to return both parties to status qou.”
Besides, the government said the failure to effect service of the statutory notices on the squatters of swampy areas within the State was because after the Governor issued the directive, the suit at the lower court was instituted, and doing such was no longer feasible until the determination of the suit, otherwise it would offend the doctrine of lis pendens (case pending in court).
In ground two, the government argued that the lower court erred when it held that the State Government should hold consultations with the communities before any further evictions, and also provide compensation for the destruction of their properties, contending that in as much as Chapter 4 of the Constitution provides for fundamental rights, some rights contained provisos that made such rights not sacrosanct and absolute.
It said: “There are abundance of uncontroverted evidence before the lower court that the structures built along riverine/swampy areas of the State are without building permit as required under the Urban and Regional Development Planning Law.
“The respondents have constructed illegal shanties and structures without the requisite building permit/approval and the rights under the Constitution does not permit breach of a law or exempt anybody whosoever from building without first obtaining requisite approval. The respondents are squatters and deliberately failed to put the issue of title in contention.”
The government, therefore, argued that the order as to consultation, resettlement and compensation was without justification based on the evidence before the lower court, adding that Justice Onigbanjo’s judgment was a violation of Chapter 4 of the Constitution as it sought to encourage illegality.