What seemed like a moment of respite and joy for over 706 traders whose shops were gutted by fire at the New Market, Central Area, Abuja, in 2001 by the Federal Capital Development Authority has taken another twist.
Recall that the inferno destroyed goods and shops worth billions of naira. It informed the FCDA to set up a Technical Committee on Relocation of Traders to recommend palliative measures for the casualties. It was said at that time that Government will make the traders happy again. The Committee recommended the traders’ relocation to Wuye Market, otherwise called Wuye Ultra-Modern Market. The affected traders were asked to pay fees ranging from N2, 000, N5, 000 to N8, 000 upon which they were given letters of allocation for shops/spaces in the market. The letters of allocations did not mention any further amount that the traders would pay apart from the amount stated in the letters of allocation. The traders had been following the work in the market since then with the high hope of relocating there after completion.
Their hopes seemed dashed on 3 October 2012 when some of them went, as usual, to monitor the extent of work. They were welcomed by a signpost erected by All Purpose Shelters Limited. On enquiry, they gathered that the shops/spaces would soon be re-allocated to any interested people. The only solution, they were told, was to pay fresh money ranging from N3.5m to N4.5m to All Purpose Shelters Limited, otherwise they would have no stake in the market.
Consequently, the traders had gone to an FCT High seeking judicial interpretations of the market. In the suit no. CV/440/12, the traders dragged the minister of the FCT, and the FCDA to court as first and second defendants respectively. They were joined as third and fourth defendants respectively by All Purpose Shelters Limited, and Abuja Investments and Property Development Co Ltd.
The fourth defendant, it was gathered, claimed to have understanding with the FCT minister and the FCDA to develop some markets and that, in consequence thereof, an alleged agreement to build, operate and transfer was executed between All Purpose Shelters Limited and Abuja Investments and Property Development Co. Ltd.
In the suit dated 10 December 2014, filed through their lawyer Sepiribo Cromwell Peters Esq. of God’s People Legal Consult, Abuja, the plaintiffs want the court to grant them interlocutory injunctions restraining the 3rd defendant from re-allocating the shops earlier allocated to them as compensation.
They also want the court to declare that they are entitled to occupy, use and enjoy their shops and/or open spaces allocated to them by the minister of the FCT, and the FCDA, and that the 3rd defendant is not entitled to demand any amount from them again in respect of the use and/or occupation of the said shops because it is outside the terms of the letters of provisional offer of allocation that were issued to them by the 1st and 2nd defendants.
It was gathered that the plaintiffs, upon their allocation of the shops as compensation, paid administrative charges. The process involved their being issued provisional letters of allocation by the FCT minister and the FCDA after which they wrote letters of acceptance, which was followed by the authorities given them the allocation papers signed by the FCDA and dated 23/10/2002.
One of the contentious issues is on technical grounds. The 3rd defendant alleged the plaintiffs filed their suit on 19th October 2012 in respect of a cause of action which arose in 2002 against the 1st and 2nddefendants and others. She contended that the 1st and 2nd defendants are public officers in the eye of the law, thus the suit is statute barred against them. She contended that in law, the case against them must be instituted within three months that the cause of action arose, and averred that the 1st and 2nd defendants were protected under the Public Officers’ Protection Act. She said since the suit against the 1st and 2nd defendants cannot stand, the suits against the 3rd and 4th defendants cannot also hold water.
The plaintiffs’ counsel countered this by stating that it was only on 3rd October 2012 that the plaintiffs became aware of the 1st and 2nd defendants’ conduct in respect of the alleged threat to re-allocate their shops and spaces to others when their shops were about ready for occupation. He argued that the cause of action accrued on the 3rd of October 2012 when the plaintiffs went to Wuye Market and discovered the 3rddefendant’s signpost and were told of the plan to reallocate their shops and open spaces to others. He quoted the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of A.G Rivers State v. A.G Bayelsa state inter alia: ‘The protection afforded public officers under the Act does not apply in cases of recovery of land’ which he likens to his clients’ efforts to recover their shops.
Another issue is whether the FCT minister and the FCDA, in view of the alleged Build, Operate and Transfer agreement, are liable to pay for the construction of Wuye Ultra-Modern Market. The counsel to All Purpose Shelters Ltd, Joseph Oluwarotimi Ojo, Esq., argued that the alleged BOT agreement the 3rddefendant signed with the 4th defendant is for the 3rd defendant to build, operate and recoup her expenses, then transfer to the 4th defendant.
But the plaintiffs’ counsel, relying on a submission by witness Mrs Mary John, argued that his clients were not aware of such agreement between the 1st and 2nd defendants, and the 3rd defendant. The witness had testified that Wuye Market, otherwise Wuye Ultra-Modern Market, was under construction when the plaintiffs got the allocation, and that ‘there was no prior agreement with the defendants that our (plaintiffs’) relocation from the aforementioned New Market, Abuja, to Wuye Market as a result of the fire incident will attract any further payment, apart from the sums specified in the allocation letters issued to us by the 1st and 2nd defendants’. She submitted that ‘it is for the 3rd defendant to hold the 1st and 2nd defendants liable for the arbitrary imposed costs of the shops originally allocate to them’. She added that the renumbering of the shops by the 3rd defendant is a ploy to deny them the ownership of the shops and spaces.
SC Peters Esq. averred that with the failure of the defendants to disagree with the evidence that the shops and spaces allocated to his clients were in numbers, having downstairs and upstairs, the claim of the 3rd defendant that the 1st and 2nd defendants did not build any market in Wuye Market is faulted. He quoted His Lordship Galadima J.S.C. in the case between Gov. of Zamfara state and Cyalange (2013) stating that, ‘The settled law is that evidence that is neither attacked nor successfully challenged is deemed to have been admitted and the court can safely rely on the evidence in the just determination of a case’. On the position of the 4th defendant, the plaintiffs’ counsel argued that it is an investment arm of the 1st and 2nd defendants. He also based his argument on the submission of the 4th defendant’s witness that it was the 1st defendant that gave mandate to the 4th defendant to develop Wuye Market.
The third argument is whether the plaintiffs met the requirements set out by the Technical Committee on Relocation of Traders. The 3rd defendant’s counsel had argued that ‘from the letter of offer given by the 1stand 2nd defendants to the plaintiffs, it is patent that certain conditions were not carried out to fully entitle the plaintiffs to an allocation of shops/open spaces’.
SC Peters Esq. argued that the argument held no water because the relocation of the plaintiffs was a result of the fire incident at New Market, and that it was a compensation for their lost shops. He pointed out that with the relocation, they also forfeited their shops and spaces in the burnt market. He argued that since the evidence of the plaintiffs on the issue of writing and submission of letters of acceptance has not been contradicted by the defendants, especially the 1st and 2nd defendants, the court is bound to accept it and act on it as was held in the case of Nwakonobi v. Udeorah. He also averred that a plaintiffs’ witness, Mary John, in her additional written statement on oath submitted that the original letter of acceptance was issued to them after the payment and satisfaction of other requirements of the allocation. Peters Esq. faulted the counsel to the 4th defendant that there ‘is nothing on the face of Exhibits CC that they were submitted to anybody or institution on account of lack of an acknowledgement or endorsement on the fact of it’. He based his argument on the fact that the defendants did not call any witness who is aware of the deal to deny the service. He also argued that even if the writing of the letters of acceptance was the condition, then the plaintiffs did.
The 3rd and 4th defendants also posited that they were mandated to build Wuye Ultra-Modern Market, and not Wuye market. The plaintiffs’ counsel here maintained that the name with which a party described a given portion of land or property is not necessary; all that is required is to make the description in evidence which will make a disputed land ascertainable. He cited the case of Peter Odili J.S.C. in Aiyeola v. Pedro(2014) where it was stated that “There is no law or practice which establishes that a plan is a sine qua non in a claim for declaration of title to land’. He also relied on the evidence of the plaintiffs’ witness that the property is located behind the Family Worship Centre and that it is fenced round and situated in Wuye District, FCT; which was also in tandem with the submission of the 3rd defendant’s witnesses.
The alleged BOT agreement between the 3rd defendant and the 4th defendant was also faulted by the plaintiffs. Their counsel SC Peters Esq. identified that while a defendant’s witness mentioned Certificate of Occupancy no: FCT/ABU/MISC/22338, which was pleaded, what was tendered was Certificate of Occupancy no: 180w-4295z-6593s-806 eu-20. He then prayed the court not to admit it because the given evidence does not relate to Exhibit F but an untendered C of O with the number FCT/ABU/MISC/22338. He posited that even if Exhibit F replaced FCT/ABU/MISC/22338, the defendants ought to have produced the C of O no: FCT/ABU/MISC/22338 for the court to examine. He added that ‘the irrelevant Exhibit F remains worthless because the certificate of occupancy never referred to or relate to Wuye market otherwise called Wuye Ultra-Modern Market’.
Other issues which the plaintiffs identified were that there was no building approval from the 1st and 2nddefendants tendered to show that there was any development made either by the 3rd defendant or 4thdefendant or both on any land on the strength of Exhibit F. S. C Peters Esq. submitted that the non-production of the document has ‘set this court on a voyage of speculation in an uncharted ocean to find whether any market, including Wuye market, otherwise called Wuye Ultra-Modern Market, was ever built on the strength of Exhibit F’. He cited the Supreme Court judgment in a case between Mulima v. Usman (2014) to buttress his argument.
The plaintiffs’ counsel also contended that there was no memorandum of understanding mentioned on the alleged BOT agreement the 3rd defendant entered into with the 4th defendant. He also argued that the alleged BOT was not signed and registered. He also submitted that the power of attorney which was tendered was inadmissible because it was not registered by the virtue of Section 15 of the Land Registration Act, Cap. 515 Laws of the Federation, Abuja 1990.
The 4th defendant in her submission had asked the identities of the plaintiffs. According to her, the plaintiffs failed to prove that they had any agreement with the 1st and 2nd defendants. However the plaintiffs’ counsel referred the counsel to the defendants to the fact nobody is disputing the letters of allocation with the plaintiffs which were before the court. Other unproven matters are absence of evidence of bank loans obtained by the 3rd defendant in the process of building the shops; and no purchase receipts tendered.
Judgment in the case has been fixed for 23rd March, 2015.