J.M. Shishi. Since 2009 he has attended 60 court sessions on behalf of the community. He has practiced law for 20 years and is a senior lecturer at Nassarawa State University in Keffi.
In 2007 a retired police commissioner claimed to have purchased 127 ha of land in Gunduma, Karshi Development Area, Nassarawa State. When locals refused to vacate the land they had farmed for their whole lives, policemen armed with guns arrested the farmers.
Beyond expectation, the farmers found help from a lawyer who sees himself as a fighter for justice instead of expecting money for his enduring effort. Turning the tables, he now leads his clients to court against the person who once impeached them.
Pct.1: The former police commissioner claims to have purchased an area larger than from the point of view to the mountain on the horizon.
Gunduma, Karshi Development Area, Nassarawa State – Some day in June 2007 Samuel Isa was told that a tractor had just harrowed part of his farmland. Since the rice planting season had just begun, his fields were not cultivated yet. The small-scale farmer sensed nothing good and quickly invited “the whole village” to come and finish the cultivation of his farm.
Before this incident, a neighbouring farmer had died, handing down his land to his son Alh. Iyal Dantsoho. The latter sold the customary land to Gayata Farms Limited whose chairman is the retired Police Commissioner Adinayan C. P. Baushe Gaya. From then on, the ex-police commissioner claims 127 ha of land as his own, despite the fact that about three quarters of the area is cultivated by other families who were neither involved nor consulted about the land deal. According to them, only an area of about 34 ha, that has been occupied and cultivated by Gayata Farms already, is supposed to belong to the company. The farmers including Samuel Isa argue that their parents and grand-parents have been cultivating the land for over 50 years. They amount to about 40 landholders from 10 communities (“extended families”). When Samuel and his brothers refused to vacate the land that they claim their customary land, they got arrested for “entering into foreign land”:
“Policemen came with guns and took us to the police station,” Samuel Isa remembers, “After one week they have been suffering us [we had to go there up and down], they took us to the Magistrate Court. When they [Gaya’s site] discovered that they would not win the case, they withdrew.”
The purchase agreement Gaya was holding couldn’t serve as proof for ownership as long as there is no evidence for customary land ownership of the seller, which was probably the reason for Gaya’s withdrawal. But according to Samuel and his brothers, the former police commissioner rippled his muscles and used policemen to intimidate his opponents even after he had withdrawn from the case.
“After that, he [Gaya] used policemen and civil defence to tell us farmers to leave our fields because it is the police commissioner’s farm. “
Against all odds, the affected farmers refused to leave their lands and went on the offensive. Encouraged by their lawyer J. M. Shishi, they have turned the tables and have gone to court against their former plaintiff.
Pct.2: Samuel Isa invited the whole village to quickly cultivate his fields when he discovered that a tractor had already entered his land to harrow it.
Lawyer commits himself for Justice
In 2009, six family representatives including Samuel Isa went to the Upper Area Court Keffi, claiming the recognition of their customary land ownership as well as compensation payment of N2,000,000 as damages for trespass of their land. They have impeached Gayata Farms, its Chairman Gaya, as well as Dantsoho who claimed to have sold the land to Gayata Farms. The case has been going for four years now; over 60 court hearings have been conducted. Normally, such a trial would mean quite a financial burden for the plaintiffs, but the farmers are lucky – their lawyer doesn’t charge them anything!
“I have seen that injustice is about to be committed and as a minister in the temple of justice I have extended my services to ensure that they get justice,” J.M. Shishi explains his motivation to support the affected farmers. He even pays out of his own pocket:
”As a lawyer, I also have to do research. I have recently acquired a book from England about the history of this area. It has cost me about N36,000. I bought many books like that, but we haven’t reached a state when we will present this.”
However, historical books remain rather exceptional. Means of evidence for customary land rights are largely oral, including witnesses of heritage, houses, trees or even graves. That prolongs the trial. 3 months ago, the plaintiffs had just finished their testimony when a new judge was appointed, meaning that the case would have to start all over again. For Shishi the replacement of the judge is owing to “institutional challenges” or the “nature of the system”.
Chief of Gunduma “not aware of it”
Gunduma is a cosmopolitan village. The original inhabitants of the land – the Gwandara people – have become a minority among other groups such as the Hausa/Fulani, the Eggon or the Jaba. The affected farmers that have gone to court consist of four Eggon men, one Jaba man, and one Gwandara. Rooted in the Islamic War in 18th century, the village is part of the Keffi Emirate with its village head Abdulai, Chief of Gunduma. According to Samuel Isa, the chief claims to be “not aware of it”. As the custodian of the land, the affected farmers haven’t even selected him as a witness to give his testimonial. It remains to be seen, who is going to testify for the ex-police commissioner.
“What will happen when we don’t have land to farm? Youths become thieves, armed robbers…,” Samuel says, “Where should we get food from? Where should we acquire new land when the big man occupies so much land? We would have to go to Kaduna, Jos or Cameroun.”
“Big Men” having taken off their uniforms seem to be all over, grabbing for land. Just at the border to Samuel Isa and Co.’s fields, one can listen to a similar story: A retired army general claims a land of comparable size as his own and the case went to court.
For now, Samuel and the others still farm on their lands and so far the rice harvest is going well. It appears that in the Nigerian reality the court often remains the only hook for farmers to defend their farmland.