The life and times of Omo-onile

Richard Odilu

Buy the land, Shine your eye

DON’T BITE off more than you can chew. It’s not worth it! Unless your father is a general in the army, if you want to build a house, at least in Lagos, you need to know who the Omo-Onile are.

And no, they are not agberos. The English language is indeed sorely appropriate for Nigerian use: ‘urchins’ is not quite as general a word as it sounds – it isn’t enough to cover the many phenomena; ‘area boys’, ‘agbero’, and ‘omo onile’ (will this damn computer stop changing that word to ‘online’!) for instance.

Agbero for instance are the guys that make public transportation so darn hard in the city, ‘area boys’ are really just anybody that has no job to do and is loitering around the ‘area’ – or rather, working in the Devil’s workshop. But the Omo-onile? Ah, now that one’s honourable. Theirs is even the sense of a moral duty, forget the fact that they may do you damage.

Omo Onile’ literally translates into ‘children who own the land’, and only a few landlords in Lagos have been lucky to build houses without going through the men (it’s the exclusive preserve of male descendants in such families) who claim to have original ownership of the land via their ancestors. Their ancestors are said to have founded the land and, forget all about the Land Use Act and that Certificate of Occupancy, theirs is the final title for legitimacy.

Even if you’re just setting up shop to do business in particular areas – for instance printers in Shomolu or other such centres – you need to go get their permission. In certain areas of Lagos, if you set up a new office and you are renovating, they might come knocking at your door. These latter ones might be the adulterated version of the original Omo-onile, true, but they’re just as lethal.

If you don’t engage them, they become your number one enemies. They will harass your builders, carpenters, workers. They will go in the night and, with self-righteous fervour, pull the walls tumbling down. Blocks of cement will disappear, taps will stop flowing, one year projects will stretch for years.

What you should do? Go to them and become their friends. Unless you prefer the friendship of the Nigeria Police. If you’d rather cut the crap, then walk up to them, make your case, give them gifts, and your stuff’ll be safe. Even your lawyer will give you the same advice. Thankfully, its perfect legal. Even moral. Look at it as Community Relations.

We had one of our reporters go after three of these men who are everywhere around us, and after weeks of persuasion and pleas, we got three of them to speak. We had a clear mission to speak to the ‘young’ Omo-onile, but we found that, all across Lagos, the young ones are wont to clam up. We asked and prodded and cajoled without luck.

Then, Eureka! In Igando, some men – who looked like our dads! – insisted that they are within our age bracket and, desperate by now, what could we say? If a man says he is in his 30s, you don’t just disbelief him based on how he looks!

These are their stories

Adebayo Aminu – Says he is 20!

Tell us about yourself

I am Adebayo Aminu from the family of Ija one of the three prominent land owning families (also known as Omonile) in Egan, Igando.   Egan was founded by Odufua, and it is relatively known as a place for peaceful habitation, hence a Yoruba adage that says ‘Egan a gba jiji ma gba omo-onile’ (Egan that harbors non-indigenes, but doesn’t harbor its indigenes) we see people coming in here to buy lands. However, we don’t tolerate people going beyond their territorial dimension; either in land possession or trying to snatch our wives. My family has a portion that we sell to prospective landlords, and after passing through all the necessary requirements a potential customer gets to own a property here.

How old are you?

Looking at me you can tell.

I certainly can’t …

I am a small child.

(Raised eyebrows) For real?

Yes, I am a young boy of twenty

(Laughter) Then I should be ten years old.

(Laughter) I have told you my age.

Your educational background?

I am of a lower cadre in education level; a primary school certificate holder.

And you speak the English language this fluent more than some graduates I have come across?

No? (Smile) … I hardly give journalists my data, even you are so lucky.

Are you scared that it might be used against you should you go into politics someday?

Maybe, I wouldn’t say much about it, but mind you if you are in Rome, you act like the Romans.

But we are in Nigeria; okay tell me your marital status then.

I am married with three children.

What position do you occupy in the Ija Family?

I am the secretary.

By election?

No, I was duly appointed by some members of the family in my absence. There was someone in this position before me but he was removed due to the way he handled the office and also that I am more educated and, unknowingly I was being monitored, perhaps that was how I got recommended for the job.

What does your portfolio entail?

I act as an errand boy for the head of the family, I am the one who has to meet and brief the family lawyer when there is a court dispute that has to be settled in the court. I also, on behalf of the family head, set up meetings. It is usually after such meetings that I am assigned some errands to run. I am a like a middleman between the head of the family and the family lawyer. I sometimes suggest ways to deal with certain issues.

Can I become a member of your family so that I can become an Omo Onile?

(Eyes widen) Noooo! It’s acquired by birth; you have to be a descendant of the ancestor of this family.

Not even marriage to one of the fine ladies in your family?

(Laughter) That will not guarantee you membership; it’s only your children who get to enjoy the benefits. My work as a secretary is a daily job, although I have my own personal business which I am engaged in. I report here (the family office) every day.

Your challenges as an Omo Onile?

Some are memorable and others come daily. The memorable one had to do with a time when some members of the families collided with some government officials in order to encroach (on) this place, but due to God and some big guns we were able to resolve the issue. But as the secretary of the family I am faced with day to day challenges that includes when I have my own personal job to do I will be given some family assignments to do which I must respond to, whether I like it or not.

At other times, I have to be present in some emergency meetings, whether it is convenient for me or not, prepared or not. A land might have been sold and it has been encroached (on) by someone else and the person who bought the land first might involve the police; at this point I’ll be contacted irrespective of my personal schedule so that I can advice on how to solve the problem. Also, that I am a better communicator in the English also poses a challenge as I am mandated to be around should any issue arise, whether in the case of a land dispute or like this interview you are conducting; I act as an interpreter and to fulfill this, I have to suspend whatever it is I am engaged in.

However my greatest challenge has been in trying to get the government’s attention to come help us build this road, which has deprived us of other developmental issues. At (the) rainy season, this road is almost impassable. This road called Isuti Road is a major link to Ogun State. If this road is built, it will improve the social life of this town, hence employment will increase here. That is all.

(Full story in Y! September 2010)

One comment

  1. Thank you so much for sharing all of the awesome info! I am looking forward to reading more blogs!

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