Implementing The Lagos Tenancy Law —Tayo Ogunbiyi

Opinion

It is no longer news that the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola, on Thursday, August 25, 2011, signed the Tenancy and Lagos Parks and Gardens Bill into Law. Since its inception, however, the law has been subjected to intensive scrutiny by the public. While many see it as a populist law intended to protect the masses, others see it as hypocritical, not implementable and unnecessary. From the several debates on the law, it is obvious that the major reservation over this law is execution. However, its implementation lies in the resolve of the people to take their destiny into their hands. If our fear is on implementing the law what we are saying is that ours is a country where laws cannot work!

A proper understanding of the law will, nevertheless, reveal that its implementation should not pose a serious challenge. Against the backdrop of insinuations that the law is meant to gag landlords, it is essential to state that the law neither imposes nor stipulates any specific amount of rent to be collected by landlords. One vital aspect of the law that is key to its implementation is the introduction of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) through Citizen Mediation Centres or Multi-Door courts. Instead of both parties spending huge amount of money and valuable time going to court, many cases will be disposed off by ADR. The law makes the decisions of ADR enforceable like court judgments.

The issuance of quit notice has also been made easier as the quit notices does not expire on the anniversary of the tenancy. This will remove a situation where you could not proceed to evict a tenant until after he has been owing one year rent. Now, if your tenant defaults, you can issue him a quit notice immediately. Equally, the necessity for individual service is no longer necessary as the notice can now be conveyed to any grown-up residing in the premises or by a courier where the tenant cannot be found. This has taken care of circumstances where tenants try to dodge service of quit notices.

The law also protects the interest of the landlords by making it impossible for tenants to shirk their own responsibilities. The law, however, exempted property owned by educational institutions for staff and students, residential premises provided for emergency shelter, property made available for rehabilitative or therapeutic treatment, and residential premises in a care or hospital, or mental health facility.

It is true that the demand for houses is on the side of the landlords in Lagos, but this should not stand against the implementation of the law as it does not in any way deprive the landlord of authority to collect rent. It only puts a restriction on the length of period such rent could cover. Before now, landlords collect rents covering the number of years they so desire. This has constituted lots of pressure on tenants who are always at the receiving end. Thus, implementing the law will be a test on the resolve of the people to allow it work since it is primarily meant for them. If despite the provisions of the law, tenants still go ahead to pay for more than one year rent, against the spirit of the law, it means they are contented with the status quo. Stakeholders such as the civil society, organised labour, NGOs, human rights groups among others need to put the law to test. Remember the late Gani Fawehinmi? But for his doggedness, we might not be able to practice the multi party democracy that we enjoy today. It is time we changed our perception and mentality about certain issues in the country. If you say because you cannot get things done in public offices without bribing public officials that is the path you have chosen because there are still Nigerians who can look at public officials straight in the face and tell them what the law says. A law is not a law until it is put to test. That is why some cases are considered as landmark cases because they act as torch bearers. I have seen instances where commuters seriously resisted commuter bus drivers for arbitrarily increasing transport fare for no justifiable reasons. That is people’s power. Unfortunately, this is the power that Nigerians, for long, have neglected. We easily resign to fate! We would rather choose to pray on issues whose answers the almighty has already provided.

The Lagos State Government has demonstrated its absolute confidence in the instrumentality of the rule of law as a catalyst to exert change in the polity. It went the whole length in the case of Uzoma Okere v. Rear Admiral Arogundade and 5 others as it secured a landmark judgment in favour of Okere who was brutalised by overzealous naval ratings assigned to Rear Admiral Arogundade. If going through the hard and challenging legal path is the price tenants will have to pay to ensure that the law works it is worth it. The Lagos State Ministry of Justice has put in place institutionalised organs such as the Office of Public Defender (OPD) that could protect the interest of hapless tenants pro bono (free of charge). Equally, it is important to state that the state’s Ministry of Justice has a Citizen Mediation Centre (CMC) which has successfully been mediating on landlord / tenant related issues for years.

Rather than vilify the state government on the new law, it is vital that all stakeholders work together to ensure its success. The intention of the Lagos State Government with regards to the law is to curtail extremes on the sides of both the landlords and tenants. This is the duty of government. The law seeks change like it is done in all decent societies by asking the privileged to sacrifice a little so that the underprivileged can have a surviving change. As explicitly stated by the governor, a society that cannot protect the underprivileged cannot protect the privileged. The issues at stake in the new laws are serious moral ones that require voluntary compliance rather than strict enforcement from government. The problem of corruption cannot be fought in the country with this kind of situation that requires a tenant to pay two years rent in advance. How many employees get two years’ salaries in advance to make such payments? Does the landlord lose money if he collects his money as at when due?

Currently, Lagos requires a total of 2.17 million housing units to close the existing gap. Home possession funding remains hard to find and too expensive to a greater proportion of Nigerians. It is in view of this that the intervention of government through the new legislation becomes imperative so that the gap between demand and supply in the sector will not be over exploited by the privileged ones. It is, however, important that government at all levels across the country, in partnership with the private sector, step up action in shelter provision as a way of finding a lasting solution to the housing problems in Lagos and other parts of the country. In as much as the people need to demonstrate great determination to enhance the implementation of the law, governments across the country need to display greater resolve towards the provision of shelter for all classes of people. This, indeed, is the crux of the matter.

•Ogunbiyi is of the Features Unit, Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.

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