HOW SUPREME COURT FINALLY SETTLED 50 YRS OLD LAND DISPUTE

By NBF News
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For 50 years, two communities in Dikenafai, Ideato South Local Government area of Imo State namely, Umuchoke and Umuabor locked horns over parcels of land. The tug of war in respect of the ownership of the fixed asset dragged for long until June 4, 2010, when the Supreme Court made a final pronouncement on the matter.

It was the Umuchoke community that ran to court for intervention when in 1961 all entreaties by elders to resolve the dispute allegedly failed.

The community filed an action at the state High Court, Orlu, claiming Customary Right of Occupancy to three parcels of land namely, Ala Isiobi Akusobi, Ala Isiobi Amaechi and Ala Mgbola Onyewuchi. The litigants asked the court to restrain the Umuabor community from further trespass into the said parcels of land.

The Umuabor community filed a statement of defence and a counter affidavit claiming ownership of the lands in dispute. In addition, the respondents asked for an order of forfeiture of the rights of the plaintiff [Umuchoke community] to the disputed parcels of land as well as an order of perpetual injunction restraining the plaintiffs from further trespass into the parcels of land in dispute.

Both parties canvassed arguments during the trial of the case, with the plaintiffs relying heavily on the 1952 judgment wherein the court ruled in their favour to establish their title to the parcels of land in dispute.

To support claim to the disputed parcels of land, the plaintiffs who called other witnesses also subpoenaed the state Surveyor-General who testified as Prosecution Witness 11 [PW11] and tendered a full plan which verified and confirm that the disputed land was indeed part of the larger area of land litigated between 1947 and 1952.

The court in its judgment of August 14, 1996, dismissed the case and entered judgment in favour of the Umuabor community. Not satisfied, the Umuchoke community filed an appeal before the Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt division. The appellate court on July 8, 2003, allowed the appeal and set aside the decision of the trial court. It was the position of the Court of Appeal that the title to the percels of land in dispute had already been decided by the 1952 judgment of the Governor's Court of Appeal, Enugu, in favour of the Umuchoke community.

Dissatisfied with the judgment of the Enugu division of the Court of Appeal, the Umuabor community went to the Supreme Court with a prayer to set aside the judgment. But in its judgment delivered on June 4, 2010, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the appellate court and entered judgment in favour of the Umuchoke community.

In doing this, the apex court in a unanimous decision, dismissed the appeal brought by the Umuabor community as lacking in merit and also awarded a cost of N50, 000 to the respondents.

Justice Olufunlola Oyelola Adekeye who delivered the lead judgment of the Supreme Court said the Port Harcourt division of the Court of Appeal was right to allow the appeal and setting aside the judgment of the Imo State High Court.

Other Justices on the panel include Justices Niki Tobi, Walter Onnoghen, Ikechi Ogbuagu and John Afabiyi. They all agreed that where the evidence of tradition is inconclusive, the case must rest on a question of fact.

The apex court said in the instant case, any loopholes in the evidence of the respondents based on traditional history were given necessary cogency and ownership of connected and adjacent land as established by the Governor's Court judgment.

The Supreme Court agreed with submissions of counsel to the Umuchoke Community, that the Umuabor community had before the trial failed to properly puncture the pleadings of the respondents that their title to the disputed percels of land was established by the judgment in their favour.

According to the court, 'in view of the fact that the appellants only pleaded that the judgment of the 1952 was irrelevant and nothing more, they are not in any position to lead any evidence in rebuttal of their contention. It is trite that facts not pleaded go to no issue.'

It was also the position of the apex court that the appellants had failed to join issues on the facts of substance raised by the respondents regarding the 1952 judgment in their favour, adding that it was satisfied with the evidence of the PWII, the Surveyor General of Imo State that the parcels of land in dispute form part of the larger area of land in dispute in the 1952 case as shown by the composite plans tendered by the Surveyor General.