Alhaji Mustapher Kachalla V. Alhaji Tijjani Banki & Ors (2006)
LAWGLOBAL HUB Lead Judgment Report
This is an appeal against the judgment of the Court of Appeal Jos Division, delivered on the 13th of March, 2001 whereby the decision of the High Court of Borno State dismissing the appellant’s claim was affirmed. Before the trial court, the appellant as the plaintiff in the amended statement of claim as per paragraph 9 thereof claimed thus:
(a) A declaration that he is the bona fide owner of the property, the subject matter of this suit.
(b) A declaration that the sale of his property is null and void and of no effect, and it be set aside and the property restored to him.
(c) A declaration that the judgment debtor before the above trial court has no interest or right in plaintiff’s property.
(d) A perpetual injunction restraining all the defendants from interfering with the plaintiff’s property including their agents, servants and privies.
(e) An award of N5,000.00 as damages against the defendants for trespass.
(f) Costs of this suit.
Pleadings were ordered, filed and exchanged. At the hearing, the parties testified and called other witnesses. Documentary evidence was also tendered. After the address of counsel and in his judgment delivered on the 18/11/1996, the learned trial Judge dismissed the claims of the plaintiff having found them devoid of substance. The plaintiff felt unhappy and appealed to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal in its judgment delivered on the 13th day of March, 2001, dismissed the plaintiff’s appeal. This is a futher appeal to this court by the plaintiff, hereinafter referred to as the appellant. The defendants shall be referred to as the respondents. In the amended notice of appeal filed with leave of court; the appellant filed 4 grounds of appeal. Distilled from the grounds of appeal, the appellant has identified, formulated and submitted the following issues for the determination of the appeal:
- Whether the learned Justices of the Court of Appeal were right in holding that the title and interest in the property did not pass to the appellant after sale of the house in question by Alhaji Bukar Kumshe to the appellant.
- Whether the 2nd respondent acquires legal title over the property through his purchase of the property by an auction sale conducted by the Upper Area Court.
- Whether the decision of the Court of Appeal is correct having regard to the nature of oral/documentary evidence adduced before the lower court.
- Whether the Court of Appeal was right to have affirmed the decision of the trial Judge to dismiss plaintiff’s claim as it failed in its entirety when an order of non-suit is appropriate and accordingly ought to have been made in the circumstance.
The first respondent on the other hand has formulated two issues arising for the determination of the appeal:
- Whether the appellant proved his title to the land in dispute to entitle him to the reliefs claimed in his amended statement of claim.
- Whether the lower court was right in affirming the judgment of the trial court which dismissed the appellant’s case.
The second respondent has submitted the following two issues arising for determination of the appeal:
- Whether from the evidence available to couts below, the equities of the appellant and second respondent are equal.
- Whether the erroneous findings or slip or irregularities (if any) of the lower courts have occasioned miscarriage of justice.
Before discussing the relevant issues properly arising for the determination of the appeal, it is appropriate at this stage to set out the facts. The facts put shortly are not disputed or complicated.
Alhaji A. Bulama, or as he is sometimes known, Alhaji Bukar Kumshe was the holder of the Statutory Right of Occupancy No. BO/12220 in respect of a plot of land containing a 24 bedroom storey building of burnt bricks located at Kumshe ward, Maiduguri. Sometimes in March 1994, Alhaji Bukar Kumshe approached an estate agent, Alhaji Lawal Baaji (PW1 herein) and informed him of his desire to sell the property. Alhaji Lawai Baaji introduced him to the appellant, Alhaji Mustapha Kachalla who purchased the property in the sum of N1,200,000.00. The sale was evidenced by a written agreement (exhibit M.K 2) dated the 16th day of March, 1994. The appellant had earlier satisfied himself on the ownership of the property by the vendor, by conducting a search at the Lands Registry Maiduguri. After the payment, the appellant was handed over the Certificate of Occupancy and was given possession of the property, and the tenants therein were told of the change of ownership. In the meanwhile, Alhaji Tijani Banki, the first respondent herein in suit No. BUAC/CVF/107/94 claimed against the said Alhaji Bukar Kumshe payment for a debt in the sum of N1 ,680,000.00. Judgment was given in favour of the claimant against the defendant in the terms of the claim and costs on the 22/8/1994. It is also noteworthy that the appellant was unable to register the assignment to him of the Right of Occupancy because of a letter written to the Land Registry by the registrar of the Upper Area Court directing the Land Registry to stay any further transaction or change of ownership in respect of the Right of Occupancy. In the meanwhile, attempts were made to execute the judgment against the movable assets of Alhaji Bukar Kumshe, when no moveable assets were found to satisfy the judgment debt, Alhaji Tijani Banki, through his lawyers, applied to execute the judgment on the immovable assets of the judgment debtor, Alhaji Bukar Kumshe. On the 18/4/1995 at a public auction conducted by the Registrar of the Upper Area Court 1, after due advertisement, Alhaji Umary Ngelzarma, the second respondent herein as the highest bidder, purchased the property at the rate of N520,000.00. In his judgment the learned trial Judge held:
At all material times, the Certificate of Occupancy was vested in Alhaji Bukar Kumshe (otherwise called Alhaji Bukar A. Bulama) to whom the same was issued as No. BO/12220 (exhibit M.K.) dated 17th July, 1985. From the plaintiff’s view point, he bought the land from Alhaji Bukar Kumshe on the 16th March, 1994 for N1.2 Million xxx. Having set out the provisions of the agreement, one appreciate that it does not convey any legal right or interests to the plaintiff, Alhaji Mustapha Kachalla. At best it is only a receipt as pleaded, evidencing the sale for the purchase price therein. And at best, it could possibly vest equitable right or interest in the purchaser.
The learned Justice later in the judgment added:
xxx I take it that Alhaji Bukar Kumshe rightly and lawfully sold the house without collusion nor as an after thought. Among other things, the plaintiff produced and tendered exhibit MK1 as good evidence of his equitable right to the house. However, at the time of the alleged sale and thereafter, it was Alhaji Bukar Kumshe who has the legal right to the Certificate of Occupancy. Again up to the time and after the public auction sale of the house to the 2nd defendant, the Certificate of Occupancy was in favour of Alhaji Bukar Kumshe. But the 2nd defendant by due legal process, as it was the trial court that ordered the public auction sale of the house, became the lawful purchaser. Thus, the 2nd defendant has a legal estate, right and interest with greater and better force and effect than those of the plaintiff whose are equitable xxx.
At the end of the day, the learned trial Judge dismissed the appellant’s claims, because he had only an equitable interest while the 2nd appellant had a legal estate because he purchased the property at a public auction conducted on the orders of a court of law. The Court of Appeal found no fault with the reasoning of the trial court and confirmed the finding that the appellant merely acquired equitable interest as against the legal estate, the 2nd respondent acquired through the auction sale conducted by a court in execution of a valid judgment.
I shall in this judgment deal with the issues as contained in the appellant’s brief.
Issue No.1 and 2
These can conveniently be dealt with together. It is submitted that the Court of Appeal was in error after confirming that the appellant had lawfully acquired an earlier equitable interest when he purchased the property, yet to proceed to hold that the later interest acquired by the 2nd respondent through the public auction conducted by the Upper Area Court prevailed over the interests of the appellant.
It is submitted, equitable interests rate and rank in order of their creation, he who is earlier in time is stronger in law. Qui prior est tempore potior est jure. See Barclays Bank Ltd. v. Bird (1954) Ch. 274. See also Ugbo v. Aburime (1994) 8 NWLR (Pt. 360) 1. It is again argued that since the 2nd respondent also did not obtain the Governor’s consent, whatever interest he acquired cannot amount to a legal estate. At best he also acquired equitable interest over the property. It is submitted that where there are two competing equitable interests, the general rule of equity is that, the one whose equity attached to the property first will be entitled priority over the other. Where the equities are equal, the first in time prevails. See Labode v. Dr. Otubu (2001) 7NWLR (Pt.7 12)256, (2001) FWLR (Pt. 43) 207 at 235; (2001) 7 NWLR (Pt. 712) 256; Okoye v. Dumez (Nig.) Ltd. (1985) I NWLR (Pt. 4) 783 at 790. See also Ogunbambi v. Abowab (1951) 13 WACA 222:, Orasanmi v. Idowu (1959) 4 FSC40, (1959) SCNLR 91. Where it was held that where a person paid for land and was issued with a receipt and was given possession of the land, an equitable interest was created for him which defeated the title of a subsequent legal estate purchaser with the knowledge of the equitable interest. It is argued that on the facts of this case, particularly the evidence of DW2 and DW3 at pages 24 and 28 of the printed record, the respondents had prior knowledge of the equitable interest created in favour of the appellant. It is further submitted that as at 16/3/1994, when Alhaji Kumshe Bukar sold the property to the appellant, there was no longer any existing interest in the property in question in favour of Alhaji Bukar Kumshe to be sold on the 18/4/1995 to satisfy the judgment debt. See Talabi v. Adeseye (1972) 8-9 SC 20; (1972) NSCC (Vol.7) 498; Chidiak v. Coker (1954) 14WACA 506; Adekeye v. Akin-Olugbade (1987) 3 NWLR (Pt. 60) 214.
It is further argued that the second respondent did not as at 18/4/1995 acquire better title than the appellant. It is stressed that for the 2nd respondent to have a better title than the appellant, there must not only be the governor’s consent, but also the due registration of his interest. Learned counsel referred to Best (Nigeria) Ltd. v. Blackwood Hodge (Nig.) Ltd. (2001) 10 NWLR (Pt.720) 35; Savannah Bank v. Ajilo (1989) NWLR (Pt. 97) 305; Awojugbagbe Light Industries Ltd. v. Chinllkwe (1995) 4 NWLR (Pt. 390) 379 at 438; Okllsanya v. Ogunfowora (1997) 9 NWLR (Pt. 520) 347; F.M.B. of Nigeria v. Babatunde (1999) 12NWLR (Pt. 632) 683. It is argued that the lower courts were in error to have held that the 2nd respondent had acquired legal estate, when there was no evidence of the governor’s consent and also no evidence of registration. It is argued that at best the 2nd respondent acquired only equitable interest and not legal estate. It is submitted, that the appellant has priority of interest vide Awoyegbe v. Ogbeide (1988) 1NWLR (Pt. 73) 695; Tewogbade v. Obadina (1994)4 SCNJ 16;(1994) 4NWLR (Pt. 338) 326; Owie v. Ighiwi (2005) 5NWLR (Pt.917) 184; (2005) FWLR (Pt. 248) 1762 at 1780. See also Owoniboys Technical Services Ltd. v. Union Bank of Nig. Ltd. (2003) FWLR (Pt. 180) 1529 at 1549; (2003) 15NWLR (Pt. 844) 545.
It is further argued that the finding of the two lower courts, that the 2nd respondent acquired a legal estate though concurrent is yet perverse and should be set aside. See Mojekwu v. Iwuchukwu (2004) 11 NWLR (Pt. 883) 196 at 219; Enang v. Adu (1981) 11-12 SC 25.
For the 1st respondent, it is argued that the appellant as claimant for declaration of title to land failed to adduce credible and sufficient evidence to entitle him to the declaration sought. Learned counsel referred to the case of Kokoro-Owo v. Ogwlbambi (1993) 8 NWLR (Pt. 313) 627. It is argued that the interest of the appellant was equitable while the interest of the 2nd respondent was legal estate. It is submitted further that the 2nd respondent being a bona fide purchaser for value without notice of the prior equitable interest of the appellant had acquired legal estate or interest in the property. It is submitted that the 2nd respondent acquired legal estate and that S.
22 of the Land Use Act and the Owoniboys case (supra) do not apply. It is further submitted that since the 2nd respondent had applied for the requisite governor’s consent for the alienation of the property in dispute to himself, the 2nd respondent did all that was necessary under the law to acquire the legal estate. The finding that the 2nd respondent had acquired legal estate is a concurrent finding of fact which should not ordinarily be disturbed by an appellate court such as this court. Learned counsel referred to the case of Motunwase v. Sorwzgbe (1998) 5 NWLR (Pt. 92) 90; Ngene v. Igbo (2000)4 NWLR (Pt. 651) 131.
It is further submitted that the appellant had woefully failed to lead credible evidence which will entitle him to his claims of declaration of title.
The learned counsel for the 2nd respondent on the other hand had formulated two issues for the determination of the appeal which I have earlier reproduced. In my view, the second issue formulated by the 2d respondent is not relevant and does not arise from the ground of appeal, I therefore strike it out. An issue for determination must arise and derive from the grounds of appeal. There is no ground of appeal attacking the erroneous findings or slip or irregularity.
I shall accordingly ignore all the argument canvassed under issue No.2 of the 2nd respondent. See Kano Testile Printers Ltd. v. Gloede and Hoff (Nig.) Ltd. (2005) 13 NWLR (Pt.943) 680, (2005) 5 SCNJ 256; Okpala v. Ibone (1989) 2 NWLR (Pt. 102) 208. I shall only deal with the issue No.1 of the 2nd respondent.
It is argued that this issue arose from the argument of counsel for the appellant that his equity, created by virtue of his purported purchase receipt is first in time and so gains priority in law over that of the 2nd respondent. It is submitted that the equities of the appellant and that of the 2nd respondent cannot be equal. It is argued that the appellant was not vigilant in his purported purchase of the property. It was evident that as early as 2/3/1994, the Upper Area Court, had ordered that the property shall not be sold and a caveat was entered at the Bureau of Land and Survey, Maiduguri, the village Head was also alerted by a letter dated 8/3/1994. It is submitted for the equities to be equal, the purchase by the appellant must be valid, it cannot apply when the appellant’s purchase was not valid. Learned counsel referred to Gankon v. Ugochukwu Chemical Industries Ltd. (1993) 6 NWLR (Pt. 297) 55 where one of the interests created was declared invalid and the court held that the priority of interest doctrine shall not apply.
It is again argued that the appellant is guilty of laches and acquiescence when he failed to inform the court of his interest on time before the sale. See section 16 of the Sherriffs and Civil Process Act and Rule 22 of the Judgment Enforcement Rules. Learned counsel also referred to Ekpe v. Oke (2001) 10 NWLR (Pt. 721) 341.
Now, it shall be necessary to recap on how the lower courts treated the sale of the property to the appellant. Both the trial court and the lower court below found as a fact, that the appellant had lawfully purchased the property from Alhaji Bukar Kumshe and that there was no collusion between them and that the sale to the appellant was not done to commit fraud on the respondents or anybody at all. Indeed the sale to the appellant by Alhaji Bukar Kumshe, the undoubted holder of the right of occupancy, was concluded months before the Upper Area Court entered judgment against Alhaji Bukar Kumshe, that is to say, the right to execute the judgment against the immovable property of the judgment debtor, Alhaji Bukar Kumshe did not cystallise until many months later. In her lead judgment, Muhktar JCA (as she then was) which was concurred by the Obadina and Nzeako JJ.CA agreed with the learned trial Judge when she opined in her judgment thus:
Having set out the provisions of the agreement, one appreciates that it does not pass or convey a legal right or interest to the plaintiff. At best, it is only a receipt as pleaded, evidencing the sale for the purchase price therein. And at best it could possibly vest equitable right or interest in the purchaser.
The learned Justice, like the trial court proceeded to hold that because the appellant did not succeed in registering the deed of assignment executed in his favour by Alhaji Bukar Kumshe, he was bound to fail in his action because, the Certificate of Occupancy was still in the name of the said Alhaji Bukar Kumshe, the judgment debtor of the 1st respondent. At the end of the day, the learned Justice held that the appellant had merely an equitable interest while the 2nd respondent had superior legal estate in the disputed land therefore the equities were not equal.
Now, there is no doubt that a distinction exists between a legal estate or fee simple as opposed to an equitable interest in land, but that distinction cannot apply in a situation such as this and where the disputed land is governed by the provisions of the Land Use Act, in which, the maximum interest any person can hold is a right of occupation, the legal estate or legal interest is vested in the Governor of the State. See Nkwocha v. Governor of Anambra State (1984) 6 SC 362; (1984) 1 SCNLR 634. The tenor of the Land Use Act was to “nationalise” all lands in the country by vesting its ownership in the State. The maximum interest preserved in private individual hands is a right of occupancy. See Savannah Bank v. Ajilo (1989) 1 NWLR (Pt. 97) 305. The nature of interest any person can acquire is a right of occupation and no more. So the distinction between a legal estate in land and an equitable interest in land under the circumstances of this case cannot arise. In my view, the interest the appellant had acquired cannot be inferior to the interest acquired by the 2nd respondent. It is common ground and that there was no dispute about it, that the appellant purchased the land in dispute from the holder of the Statutory Right of Occupancy, Alhaji Bukar Kumshe, who issued him with a purchase receipt, put him in possession of the property and executed in his favour a deed of assignment. The appellant proceeded to register the deed of assignment, but was frustrated by the letter written to the land office by the Upper Area Court. It should be noted that the suit before the Upper Area Court was about a debt and had nothing to do with the land and the buildings on it. It should also be noted that the interest of the 1st respondent who filed the suit did not crystallise until over a year later. In otherwords, there was no judgment debt to execute when the letter was written.
In my view, there was no difference except as to priority between the appellant and the 2nd respondent, who also purported to buy the same property at a public auction conducted by a court and who also did not obtain the governor’s consent nor had his interest registered. In other words, both of them bought the property lawfully and none of them was the registered holder of the right of occupancy in question. It was evident that the appellant was put in possession of the property, since the 10/3/1994, while the 2nd respondent purported to purchase the right of occupancy at a public auction in April 1995, In my view, even if the 2nd respondent had acquired legal estate or the property was properly conveyed to him, he had to take the property subject to the existing rights and interest of the appellant. In the case of Ogumbambi v. Abowab (supra), the Olota family in Lagos sold a portion of its family property to X who paid the purchase price and was given a receipt. There was implied agreement to execute a conveyance on demand, X went into possession and remained in possession, but no conveyance was executed in his favour. Subsequently, the Oloto family sold and conveyed the same land to the defendant after the defendant had unsuccessfully sought to purchase the same land from X, It was held that even though the defendant had a conveyance, he was bound by the equitable interest vested in X, See also Olowu v, Oshinubi (1958) LLR 21. From the evidence in the instant case, it is common ground that the respondents were aware of the sale of the right of occupancy. That was why the letter to the Land Department, Maiduguri with a direction not to complete the transaction, was issued, In any event, both the trial court and the Court of Appeal had found as a fact that the appellant had an equitable interest in the property, In my view, equitable interest under the circumstances must be treated as having the same incidents as the corresponding legal estate. Equity follows the law.
In property law, many different question of priority may arise, these may concern rival conveyances of property or as in this case competing interests in the holding of the right of occupancy. The fundamental rule is that competing interests will generally rank according to the order of their creation. See Barclays Bank Ltd. v. Bird (1954) Ch. 274; Ugbo v. Aburime (supra); Labode v. Otubu (supra) and Okoye v. Dumez (supra). In Owosho v. Dada (1984) 7 SC 149. This court per Aniagolu JSC said at 173:
The law has been well and long settled, that where a person pays for land and obtains receipt for the payment followed by his going into possession and remaining in possession, equitable interest is created for him in the land such as would defeat the title of a subsequent legal estate purchaser with knowledge of the equitable estate in the land, that was affirmed to be the state of the law in Orasanmi v. Idowu (1959) 4 FSC 40; (1959) SCNLR 97 xxx.”
The mere fact that there were tenants in the property coupled with the fact that the Upper Area Court and the 1st respondent were aware of the desire of Alhaji Bukar Kumshe to sell the right of occupancy, was sufficient to alert the respondents of the interest of the appellant. On this question of prior notice see the evidence of DW2 and DW3.
At the end of the day, I resolve issues 1 and 2 in favour of the appellant. In the result no useful purpose will be achieved in considering issues 3 and 4. I accordingly allow the appeal of the appellant. I set aside the decisions of the lower courts and I enter judgment in favour of the plaintiff as follows:
(a) I declare that the plaintiff is the bona fide owner of the property, the subject matter of this suit.
(b) I declare that the sale of the property conducted by the Upper Area Court at a public auction is null, void and was of no effect. I set it aside and I restore the property to the plaintiff/appellant.
(c) I declare that the judgment debtor had no interest in the property which was sold to the plaintiff/appellant since 16/3/1993.
(d) A perpetual injunction is hereby granted restraining all the defendants/respondents from interfering with the rights of the plaintiff/appellant on the property.
(e) N5,000.00 damages for trespass.
The plaintiff/appellant is entitled to costs in both the two lower courts and in this court which I assess at N5,000.00, N7,000.00 and N 10,000.00 respectively jointly and severally against the respondents.