The Respondents instituted an action against the Appellants at the Customary Court in Oba, Anambra State, claiming declaration of title to the land in dispute, and an order of perpetual injunction, restraining the Appellants from further acts of trespass on the land. The Respondents asserted before the trial customary court, that the land in dispute, which is in Umuogbu Umuogali Village, Oba, originally belonged to their grandfather, Mgbeafulukwe, which land was inherited by their father, and subsequently, devolved on them as the children. They posited that their grandfathers – Anaso Mgbeafulukwe and Okafor Mgbeafulukwe gave the land, part of which is now in dispute, to a certain Ezeukwu, the father of Sampson Ezeukwu of Umuogbu Umuogali village, Oba, for farming purposes only. The said Ezeukwu gave portions of the land to his brothers and to the father of the 1st Appellant for cultivation. Upon the death of the father of the 1st Appellant, the 1st Appellant continued to cultivate the land until sometime in 1994, when the Appellant erected survey pillars on the land, claiming that the 2nd Appellant had sold the land to him. The foregoing resulted in a dispute, and despite customary arbitration and other efforts to get the 1st Appellant out of the land, he persisted in his claim of title to the land. The Respondents therefore, instituted the action leading to the present appeal.
The 1st Appellant on his part claimed that, the land was given to their father by Onuora Nwangwu and Icheke Nwangwu, to cultivate on payment of tribute. He was subsequently, informed by his older brother that, the land was for sale and he bought the land from the 2nd and 3rd Appellants. An agreement (“Exhibit M”) was prepared in this regard; and he also applied for and was issued a Customary Certificate of Occupancy – (“Exhibit L”). At the end of the trial, the Customary Court found for the Respondents, and granted the reliefs sought. The decision informed the appeal to the High Court by the Appellants. The High Court affirmed the judgement of the trial court, leading to the further appeal to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal also adjudged the appeal unmeritorious, and dismissed same; hence, the further appeal to the Supreme Court.
ISSUES FOR DETERMINATION
1. Whether on the facts of this case, the Court of Appeal was right when it upheld the decision of the High Court, that the Respondents proved title to the land in dispute by proof of possession of connected or adjacent land in circumstances rendering it probable that the owner of such land connected or adjacent land, would in addition, be the owner of the land in dispute.
2. Whether the age-long rule in KODILINYE v ODU (1935) 2 WACA 336 requiring that the Plaintiff must succeed on the strength of his own case, is applicable to this case.
It was the contention of the Appellants under the first issue, that the rule that ownership of land can be proved “by proof of possession of connected or adjacent land in circumstances rendering it probable that the owner of such connected or adjacent land would, in addition, be the owner of the land in dispute”, applies to all courts under the doctrine of Stare Decisis. Counsel submitted that, the area of dispute in this instance is whether on the facts of this case, the principle ought to apply. Counsel argued that, in the instant case, where the survey plans tendered at the trial showed that the 2nd and 3rd Respondents on one part, and the Appellants have land adjoining the land in dispute, the principle of claim of ownership by proof of adjoining land, cannot be applied to resolve the issue of ownership of the land in dispute. Countering the above submission, Counsel for the Respondents argued that, the courts below were right to have applied the principle in the instant case, based on the decision in ONWUGBUFOR v OKOYE (1996) 1 SCNJ 1 at 4. Counsel contended that, by the Customary Certificate of Occupancy tendered by the Appellants and by which the 2nd and 3rd Appellants transferred title in the land to the 1st Appellant, the land was described as situate in UMUAGU UMUAGALI VILLAGE, OBA. He reasoned that the Appellants did not give an explanation as to how the 2nd and 3rd Appellants, who are from the ABOJI VILLAGE, OBA, came to own land in another village known as UMUAGALI OBA, either by conquest, inheritance, purchase, gift or otherwise.
In his submission on the second issue, Counsel for the Appellants summarised the evidence of the Respondents before the trial court, analysed same and concluded that, it will amount to injustice for the Supreme Court to rely on the principle of concurrent findings of facts, to shirk its duty of looking into the contradictory claims over the land, and find that the Respondents must succeed on the strength of their own case. Likewise, Counsel for the Respondents also reviewed the evidence before the trial court and submitted that, the principle in KODILINYE v ODU (Supra) requiring that the Plaintiff must succeed on the strength of his own case applies in this case, and that the weaknesses and inconsistencies in the Appellants’ case (as the Defendants), naturally strengthened the Respondents’ case.
On the first issues, the Supreme Court reiterated the established methods of proving title to land thus: (i) Proof by traditional history or evidence; (ii) Proof by grant or the production of document of title; (iii) Proof by acts of ownership extending over a sufficient length of time, numerous and positive enough to warrant the inference that the persons exercising such acts are true owners of the land; (iv) Proof by acts of long possession; and (v) proof by possession of connected or adjacent land, in circumstances rendering it probable that the owner of such land would, in addition, be the owner of the land in dispute – IDUNDUN v OKUMAGBA (1976) 10 SC 277.
A Plaintiff seeking declaration of title to land, only needs to prove one of the enumerated ways of establishing title to land; if he pleads or relies on more than one, that is merely ex abundante cautela, as proof of one simple root of title is sufficient to sustain a Plaintiff’s claim for declaration of title to land – ONWUGBUFOR v OKOYE (Supra). A common finding by the Customary Court, the High Court, and affirmed by the Court of Appeal, was the fact that the Appellants failed to lead convincing evidence as to how the land of Aboji people which is situate at Umuagu UMUOGALI Village, Oba and how they came about ownership of the said land, whether by conquest, purchase, gift, or in exchange. The Apex Court found that, the Appellant’s great grandfathers were given the land in dispute for cultivation only, and the land devolved on the 1st Appellant. Curiously, strangers from another village (2nd and 3rd Appellants) were said to have transferred their title in the land to the 1st Appellant, and the 1st Appellant did not deem it necessary to question the root of title of the 2nd and 3rd Appellants. This failure is fatal, to his claim of ownership. It has been well established that, proof of title to land where the root of title is traced to ancestors, are entirely questions of facts to be established by evidence. Where there are specific findings of fact by the trial court on such issues, the appellate courts will be most reluctant to interfere therewith.
Further, the 2nd and 3rd Appellants failed woefully to prove to the courts, how they came about the disputed land, when they are from another village. The courts below, having found that the Respondents own other lands adjacent to the land in dispute, which finding was not challenged, it is the law that such unchallenged evidence, if believed, ought to be acted upon – OKIKE v LEGAL PRACTITIONERS DISCIPLINARY COMMITTEE (2005) 15 NWLR (Pt. 949) 471. The 2nd and 3rd Appellants having failed to prove how they came about the land in the Respondent’s village, it follows that the lower courts were right to have applied the principle of ownership of adjacent or connected land, to establish the title of the Respondents.
With regard to the second issue posed for determination, the Apex Court stated the trite position of law that, in claims for declaration of title to land, the onus is on the Plaintiff to satisfy the court that he is entitled to a declaration by the court, based on the evidence adduced by him. The law is clear that, a Plaintiff must succeed on the strength of his own case, and not on the weakness of the case of the Defendant. Where a Plaintiff fails to discharge the onus to prove his case, the weakness of the Defendant’s case will not aid his case. However, where the evidence of the Defendant tends to establish the title of the Plaintiff and supports his case, the Plaintiff is entitled to take advantage of such evidence to establish his title – PIARO v TENALO (1976) 12 SC 31. In this case, the Respondents did not only prove their case by credible evidence, they also took advantage of the Appellant’s case, which supports their title to the land in dispute. From the totality of evidence before the court, it is obvious that though the Respondents as Plaintiffs could succeed on the strength of their own case alone, the weakness in the Appellant’s case also strengthened the Respondent’s case. Appeal Dismissed.
J.R. Nduka, Esq. with R.E. Nduka for the Appellants.
Emeka Anyaenetu, Esq. for the Respondents.