Daily Law Tips (Tip 657) by Onyekachi Umah, Esq., LL.M, ACIArb(UK)

Tenancy relationship, like any other relationship, can grow sour. Unfortunately, tenancy relationship is often unavoidable, since a person must be a tenant or landlord or even both. However, in countries like Nigeria where people live below a dollar (N376.00) in a day, there are many squatters working hard to become tenants. Not minding the inhumane treatments from landlord/owners, squatters and tenants have human rights in Nigeria. This work is on fundamental human rights of tenants and squatters in Nigeria and how such rights can be enforced against landlords.

A Tenant is person occupying property of a landlord for a given period on certain terms and condition, whether there is payment of rent or not. A tenant is also referred to as a “Lessee” and his landlord as a “Lessor” where the agreed duration of their term/lease is often for long period (may be over 3 years or more). At times, tenant is also referred to as “Licensee” and his landlord as a “Licensor”, with the tenant being a person given license/permission by the landlord to use/take specific limited rights in a property for a period. Squatters are persons who might have trespassed into and occupied property of a person (owner) obviously without consent. Squatters are not tenants and tenants are not squatters.

At no time can a tenant/lessee/licensee become a squatter, even where tenancy/lease/license expires, rent is not paid or tenant/lessee/licensee is occupying property against the wish/directive of the landlord/lessor/licensor. While there is a huge work of difference between the 2 classes (squatters on one side and tenants/lessees/licensees on the other side), they all have human rights that must be respected by all persons. The Constitution of Nigeria creates fundamental human rights for persons in Nigeria. Most Human Rights are for all persons, both Nigerians and foreigners, human beings and corporate beings as well as tenants, lessees, licensees and squatters.

While squatters are often maltreated like animals in Nigeria, both squatters and tenants are most times treated with no regards to their fundamental human rights. Reasons for this is not far-fetched, looking at poverty, literacy level and access to justice. According to the LearnNigerianLaws.com project of Sabi Law Foundation, “World Bank rates Nigeria’s illiteracy level at 62.02%. So, out of the estimated population of over 200 million Nigerians, more than half of us (Nigerians) are illiterates. The National Bureau of Statistics in Nigeria, reports that 40.1% of Nigerians are poor, on the “average 4 out of 10 individuals in Nigeria has real per capita expenditures below 137,430 Naira per year.” Also, relying on a report from “… The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HIIL), there are over 25 million legal problems per year in Nigeria, with only 10% problems reaching lawyers. Legal Aid is invisible, there are little or no lawyers, paralegals or law firms in rural areas and only few wealthy Nigerians can access lawyers. Cost of simple legal inquiry on rights is expensive and about N76,100.00 (above $200). Literacy requirements of courts, statutory documents and language of courts are complex even for literates. “Nigeria ranks 131 out of 190 countries on the World Bank Doing Business Index“, with the 12 indicators assessed in the report being greatly influenced by national laws, rights and awareness.” 

“The rate of landlords seeking to recover backlogs of unpaid rents (debts) from their tenants and former tenants is increasing geometrically across Nigeria”. This growing rate is roughly directly proportional to the growing rate of chances of landlords to violate human rights of their tenants or former tenants. Most landlords are richer than their tenants, so with higher purchasing power, landlords often violate human rights of their tenants (and tenants’ dependents) even under the nose of law enforcement agencies/agents. Most landlords feel that the process of serving valid Notices (like, Notice to Quit and Notice of Landlord’s Intention to Recover Property) and then suing tenant in court, is a waste of time. The distrust of landlords on judicial institutions, in a country without social security numbers, reliable house address system and records, to track fleeing tenants/squatters and to enforce judgment is appreciated. However, the law remains the law, until the law is changed and there is never a good reason for breach of human rights.

In violating human rights, landlords often do not act alone. Most landlords unlawfully employ the services of their agents, louts, estate security officers and even law enforcement agencies/agents in violating human rights of tenants and squatters. While trespass is a criminal offence, aside being a civil issue too, a squatter like any other suspect must be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Corrupt law enforcement agents bounce on squatters with violence after accepting bribes from landlords. To respect human rights of a squatter or tenant is to allow courts handle all cases (both criminal or civil) without harassment, intimidation or any violation of human rights.

The fundamental human rights in Nigeria are rights that every person, institution or agency must respect. Among the human rights in Nigeria that are often violated by landlords, are; Right to dignity of human person, Right to Personal Liberty, Right to private and family life, Right to Freedom of thought, Conscience and Religion, Right to peaceful assembly and association, and Right to Freedom of Movement. Owing rent/debt, refusing to leave property, attempting to move out without paying rent, having a case in court or an investigation at any law enforcement agency is not an excuse/justification for any violation of human right. Violation of any human right comes with huge consequences as will be shown below.

Below are the fundamental human rights of tenants, lessees, licensees, squatters and their dependents that are often violated in Nigeria and how the violations are perfected:

1. Where a tenant is stooped from moving in, around or out of a property or forced to conduct himself in any manner against his wish, for any reason whatsoever other than in obedience of court order or federal law, it is a violation human right. Where tenant is forced to conduct himself against his own wish/any law, there is always unimaginable force, verbal abuse, harassment and intimidation. These are signs of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment. While a land owner has rights to eject a squatter, the land owner must do such without torturing the squatter. Doing otherwise is a violation of “Right to Dignity of Human Person”.
2. Where a tenant is stopped from moving in, around or out of a property or forced to conduct himself in any manner against his wish, for any reason whatsoever other than in obedience of court order or federal law, the personal liberty of the tenant/squatter is violated. Since the tenant is not allowed to move as he pleases, his liberty is violated illegally without any court order or reasonable suspicion of a crime. Moving out of property is not a proof of attempting to run away with debt and by the way, being indebted is not is not a crime in Nigeria. Since a squatter is a trespasser, the right thing is to let the trespasser leave the property and if there is any damage, the trespasser should be taken to police station for prosecution and compensation. It is wrong to arrest and detain a squatter/ his dependent without taking them to police station, such is kidnapping. This violation is against “Right to Personal Liberty”.
3. Where a tenant’s home, correspondence and communication are supervised or restricted it is a violation of human rights. A squatter can be ejected by a land owner but the privacy of such squatter should not be jeopardized including unauthorized access to letters, phones and searching/ransacking of personal belongings. This is a violation of tenant’s “Right to Private and Family life”.
4. Where a tenant is not permitted to effectively use or leave a property this may affect the tenant’s access to his religious group/building. This will affect tenant’s desire to manifestly propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance. In ejecting a squatter, a squatter should be treated in a manner that his right to freedom of religion is not violated, like destroying movable religious items and belongings of a squatter. Clearly this translates to violation of “Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion”.
5. Where a tenant is prohibited or restricted from hosting visitors and groups or a particular group/person, it is a violation. A landlord may want by all means, to embarrass and muscle a tenant, this may include chasing away guests of the tenant or not allowing the tenant to leave and attend meetings and events. Stopping a tenant from freely assembling and associating with any person is a violation of human rights. In the case of a squatter, the land owner should treat the squatter in such a way to ensure the squatter is not forced to associate with some persons. Specifically, it is a violation of “Right to peaceful assembly and association”.
6. Where a tenant is restricted or prohibited from moving in, around or moving out of property for any reason whatsoever, this is an obvious restriction of movement. Every citizen of Nigeria is entitled to move freely throughout Nigeria and to also reside in any part of Nigeria but this does not permit trespass. Where a tenant/squatter is stopped from moving out, such person’s movement is unlawfully limited and he is also being forced to reside in a part of Nigeria against his wish. In the case of a squatter, the land owner has every right to recover his property but this does not include restricting the movement of a squatter. If for any reason a squatter is arrested by a law enforcement agent or private person, the squatter must be brought to the nearest police station/office of law enforcement agency. Anything contrary to this is an unlawful violation of “Right to Freedom of Movement”.

Human Rights are unshakable and untouchable to landlords and all persons. Hence, any violation by a landlord or any person will ignite serious legal consequences. Fundamental human rights are constitutional rights and only a court of law (or any person acting under an order of court or under a federal law), can lawfully limit or restrict them. Click this see what human rights can be legally restricted in Nigeria. Hence, no person, company, institution, landlords, tenants, law enforcement agencies/agents, community, association or group can attempt to or violate the fundamental human rights of a tenant/squatter for any reason whatsoever.

Where a tenant’s/squatter’s fundamental human right is violated, the tenant/squatter or his well-wishers (family, supporters or any person whatsoever) can sue the landlord and his agents (including any person involved; like law enforcement agency/agent or estate security) in court for enforcement of human rights. Courts in Nigeria attend to cases of fundamental human rights very fast, and such cases can be ended in less than 3 months. Among other things, courts can award huge damages (monetary fines amounting to millions of Naira) against a landlord and his agents to be paid to a tenant/squatter. Also, other types of remedies, including case for recovery of losses or damaged items belonging to the tenant/squatter can be brought before a court against the landlord and his agent, aside the case for enforcement of human rights.

It must be pointed out that, I am not unaware of the judgements of Supreme Court of Nigeria, that seem to allow landlords/owners to employ self-help against squatters. This law is often touted as the basis for landlords and their agents to courageously violate human rights of squatter. There is a wrong interpretation and application of the judgement of the apex court, the judgment while reiterating that self-help can be applied does not authorize breach of human rights. The apex court cannot be an author of confusion. At this juncture, I am forced to quote the court verbatim as seen in the case of PERSONS, NAMES UNKNOWN v. SAHRIS INTL LTD (2019) LPELR-49006(SC); “The owner is not obliged to go to the Courts to obtain possession. He is entitled, if he so desires to take the remedy into his own hands. He can go in himself and turn them out without the aid of the Courts of law. This is not a course to be recommended because of the disturbance which might follow. But the legality of it is beyond question….”

Obviously dealing with squatters without an order of court, “disturbances which might follow”, like cases for enforcement of human rights, can beget a breach of human right. Since two wrongs cannot make a right, landlords are encouraged to always seek proper legal advice to avoid violation human rights.
 
My authorities are:

1. Sections 34, 35, 37, 38, 40, 41, 45 and 46 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
2. Sections 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 19 and 20 of the Recovery of Premises Act 1945, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (ABUJA) and other similar tenancy laws across the states in Nigeria.
3. Sabi Law Foundation, “About Us: Why We Do, What We Do” (2020, LearnNigerianLaws.com) accessed 26 August 2020.
4. Onyekachi Umah, “Should Landlord Stop Rent-Owing Tenants from Moving Out?” (26 August 2020, Daily Law Tips [Tip 640]) accessed 27 August 2020.
5. The Judgment of the Court of Appeal (on that a licensee can never become a squatter) in the case of UDEZE v. ORAZULIKE TRADING CO. LTD (1999) LPELR-10015(CA)
6. The Judgment of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (on that a licensee can never become a squatter) in the case of Ogualaji v. Attorney-General of Rivers State (1997) 5 SCNJ 240, 251 (1997) 6 NWLR (Pt. 508)
7. The Judgment of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (on menacing of squatter and on how to eject squatters) in the case of PERSONS, NAMES UNKNOWN v. SAHRIS INTL LTD (2019) LPELR-49006(SC)
8. The judgement of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (on the Lease and License) in the case of MOBIL OIL (NIG) LTD v. JOHNSON (1961) LPELR-25069(SC)
9. The judgement of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (on the Lease) in the case of OKECHUKWU v. ONUORAH (2000) LPELR-2431(SC)
10. The judgement of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (on tenant at sufferance [tenant holding back property after expiration of tenancy against the wish of his landlord]) in the case of BRIGGS v. C.L.O.R.S.N. & ORS (2005) LPELR-805(SC)

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