Recent demolition by the Ogun State Government of a five-storey building, popularly known as Datkem Plaza, situated in Ijebu Ode, Ogun State, is cause for concern. Not only is it another example of what has become a regular government feature, but the manner in which the exercise was carried out at night and in disregard of pending litigation portrays the government as being above the law and contemptuous of the authority of the court. This is unfortunate. Sadly, such an attitude has become a character of government, not just in Ogun State but in other states too, as recently experienced in Lagos and Kano states, as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
The Ijebu Ode Plaza is owned by Mrs. Yeye Olufunke Daniel, wife of the former Governor of Ogun State, Senator Gbenga Daniel. In rationalizing the demolition, the Ogun State Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development argues that the Plaza was an illegal structure without an approved building plan in accordance with Ogun State building laws.
However, the former governor refuted the allegation, insisting that the demolition was an act of executive recklessness, lawlessness, and executive irresponsibility. He stated that the matter started on August 1, 2023, when the government first sealed off the Plaza without a prior quit notice. When the Plaza applied for the unsealing of the property, it was asked to pay a mandatory fee of N500,000 to the Ogun State Government, which the Plaza paid on August 2, 2023. However, the former governor stated that the Ogun State government ignored the ongoing legal process and the payment and still proceeded to demolish the Plaza of the wife of the former governor.
Notably, demolition of “illegal” structures by the government has become a recurring decimal in different parts of our country, with the governments contending that the exercises were meant to rid the cities and urban areas of “illegal” structures. As cogent as this reason may sound, the overzealousness to curb illegality has led to the enthronement of illegality of the highest order. The unguarded overzealousness of this nature, in the apt description of Justice Kayode Eso JSC (of blessed memory), is “executive lawlessness.”
If the Plaza had paid the mandatory surcharge fee of N500,000 imposed by the Ogun State government, as claimed, and if there is an ongoing legal process between the Plaza and the Ogun State government concerning the Plaza, as again established, it is wrong for the Ogun State government to have proceeded with the demolition. The law is well-established, both under Common Law and in Nigeria, that when a legal process is pending for a matter and the parties have been duly notified of its pendency, none of the parties can proceed to alter the status quo ante litem before the matter is finally resolved. This principle has been applied in several decided cases in Nigeria. According to Justice Obaseki JSC (of blessed memory), in the case of Military Governor of Lagos State & 2 Ors. V Chief Emeka O. Ojukwu (1986), “once a dispute has arisen between a person and the government or authority and the dispute has been brought before the court, thereby invoking the judicial powers of the state, it is the duty of the government to allow the law to take its course or allow the legal or judicial process to run its course.”
It is incomprehensible that the Plaza was built under the watch of the Ogun State government, and the government didn’t classify the structure as “illegal” at that time. Similarly, the Plaza had been in existence and operating for over 20 years with the knowledge of the same government, and at no point did the government assert that the Plaza was an “illegal” structure. It was only recently that the government suddenly realised that the Plaza was an “illegal” structure. Why did the Ogun State government overlook its alleged right for so long? Delay defeats equity, and equity supports the vigilant, not the indolent. The government’s delay, or ‘laches’ in law, is sufficient to stop it from demolishing the Plaza. As illustrated in the case of Ramson v. Dyson, if a stranger begins to build on a piece of land, assuming it to be his, and if the land owner, realizing the anomaly, refrains from correcting him, allowing him to continue in his error and spending money on the belief that the land belongs to him, equity will not be on the owner’s side if he later claims that the land is his.
The government is not above the law. Even if it is conceded that the plaza was “illegal,” the Ogun State government should not have taken the law into its own hands and carried out the demolition. Two wrongs cannot make a right. Resorting to self-help or force in the settlement of disputes is a recipe for mayhem and anarchy. Rather than resorting to self-help and force in the illegal demolition of the Plaza, the Ogun State government should have waited for the process between the two parties to run its course or proceeded to court to seek a fresh remedy, as stipulated in the 1999 Constitution.
Contrary to the dictates of the law, prior to the demolition of the Plaza by the Ogun State government, neither the owner nor the occupants of the Plaza were given a fair hearing, nor were they notified about the impending demolition, nor were they put on any sort of notice requiring them to vacate the building before the demolition or stay away from the building.
Why resort to the capricious and arbitrary exercise of power instead of adhering to the rule of law? No matter the weight of the allegations against Mrs. Yeye Olufunke Daniel or her husband, the Ogun State government should not have resorted to jungle justice in the resolution of the matter. Executive lawlessness is a recipe for anarchy.
The courts in any society will always have the function of protecting the jura personarum (private rights) against the danger of constant invasion by the jura publica (public rights). Any society that lacks the rule of law and replaces it with the rule of force is heading for anarchy. Under the rule of law, the judiciary occupies a unique position to safeguard the rights and liberty of the citizenry. Such rights and respect for the rule of law are the bedrock upon which society bases its claim to civilization. It is important for the Ogun State Government, in deference to democracy and as a leading light in civilization, to champion this cause and submit itself accordingly. Other governments should equally observe the rule of law and act more proactively before demolishing citizens’ property.