Feature

Fight between 85-yearold landlord, Lebanese firm over Lagos property gets messier

The property on 33 Balogun Street, Lagos, is in dispute. There are two claimants. While the Dr. Charles Oladeinde Williams’ family wants their asset handed back to them, the Lebanese firm, which supposedly leased it, claims the property had long been sold to them. Taiwo Hassan, who has been following the disagreement, reports

For the former Chief Medical Director of Unity Hospital, Lagos, Dr. Charles Oladeinde Williams, it’s been a tug-of-war trying to reclaim his inheritance. His father, late Clarence Olatunde Williams, inherited the property with his siblings from their own father, James Wilson. His father, and his uncle, Charles Adeyinka Wilson, as well as his aunts, Florence Aduke Bajomo (Nee Williams) and Adenike Wilson, had leased the property to Mohammed El-Khalil and others in 1953.

The lease was for 50 years. And the 10-storey building was on 3/5, Bankole Street, Lagos, at that time. The street had since been rearranged and it’s now on 33 Balogun Street. Williams Snr. and his siblings had declared themselves owners of the aforementioned property by inheritance under native laws and customs. But in 1953, they granted a 50-year lease of the property to Messrs Mohammed El-Khalil and Ramiz Moukarim.

However, a little over three years (1956) after the execution of the 1953 lease, Moukarim and El-Khalil allegedly claimed to have out rightly purchased the property from Williams’ father and his siblings; the same brothers and sisters who made the 1952 Declaration and signed the 1953 lease. But Williams has maintained that he had no knowledge of the purported sale of the property, insisting that the Lebanese were occupying the building under the 1953 lease.

At the expiration of the lease on March 31, 2003, the Lebanese, Williams said, refused to vacate the property, prompting him to formally notify them of the expiration of the lease, while at the same time requesting them to vacate the property. Williams said: “We approached the Lebanese to get back our property, but their response was disheartening. Instead of complying, they claimed that the property had been sold to their progenitor three years into the lease agreement. This, they said, was perfected in 1956.

They drew our attention to the 1956 Deed of Transfer under which they claimed the property was sold to them.” Worried by the turn of events, the 85-year-old Williams conducted a search at the lands Registry, Alausa, Ikeja, but what he found out was more confounding. It was discovered, according to him, that the Deed of Transfer of title was indeed registered by the Lebanese as the rightful owners of the property, barely three years after the commencement of the 50-year lease by the Williams’ family.

Not satisfied with what they saw, the Williams went to obtain a copy of the 1956 Deed of Transfer and forwarded same to the Forensic Science Laboratory of the Nigerian Police, Alagbon, Lagos, for further scrutiny and to verify the authenticity of the signatures of his father and his father’s siblings and compared with those on the 1953 lease. After the analysis of the forensic report, the Police concluded that the signatures on the 1956 supposed Deed of Transfer of title were entirely different from those on the 1952 declaration and the 1953 Deed of Lease.

They subsequently declared that the 1956 Deed of Transfer was forged. Another seeming abnormality that caught Williams’ eyes was the failure of the 1956 Deed of Transfer to cancel or even make any form of reference to the 1953 Deed of Lease, which ordinarily ought to have been the case.

It was also noticed that the Lebanese inadvertently misrepresented or wrongly described Williams’ aunt, Adenike Wilson, as “Anike Wilson” in the purported 1956 Deed of Transfer despite the fact that in the 1952 Declaration and 1953 Lease, the same aunt was consistently described as Adenike Wilson. It was the combination of the Police findings and these contradictions that prompted Williams to approach the High Court of Lagos State to seek to void it and to recover their family’s property.

On March 8, 2012, the family commenced a suit at the High Court of Lagos State, against El-Khalil & Sons Properties Limited and three others. They included the personal representatives of the Estate of Mohammed El-Khalil, personal representatives of the Estate of Ramiz Moukarim and the Registrar of Titles, Lands Registry of Lagos State as defendants. Williams had approached the court seeking repossession of the property. The legal battle spanned seven years before the court delivered its judgement in the suit on December, 6, 2019, in favour of Williams and his family.

A look at the summary of the background upon which the legal battle was fought as shown in a court document made available to this newspaper indicated that Williams is a descendant of one James Wilson, the original owner of the property in dispute. Incidentally, the Lebanese firm, according to Williams, had refused to hand over the property to him and his family and has since been frustrating the court order on the excuse that they had appealed the judgement at the Court of Appeal, Lagos.

At the hearing of the suit, both Williams and the Lebanese called for forensic evidence in respect of the authenticity or otherwise of the signatures on the 1956 Deed of Transfer as compared to the signatures on the 1952 Declaration and the 1953 Deed of Lease. But in a rather bizarre twist, the forensic doctor called by the defendants testified under crossexamination before the trial court that the signatures on the Deed of Transfer were so different from the signatures on the 1953 Lease “that there was no basis for any comparison between the two sets of signatures.” After the judgement, the defendants filed an appeal at the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division, seeking to overturn the ruling. They also applied for a stay of execution of the judgement of the trial court pending the outcome of that appeal.

Yet, at the hearing of the application for stay of execution, the defendants informed the trial court that they were prepared to deposit a bank guarantee with the registrar of the trial court for the judgement sum pending the outcome of their appeal.

Incidentally, Williams did not oppose the defendants’ proposal that a bank guarantee should be deposited in the account of the registrar of the court. He merely added a further condition that the management of the property should be vested in a reputable estate management firm, while the appeal is pending before the Court of Appeal. Interestingly and notably, the defendants did not also object to or contest this additional condition. In its ruling delivered on February 17, the trial court, among other things, granted a conditional stay in line with the proposals of the parties. The judge made an order to the effect that the judgement sum and interest accruing on it up till the judgement should be deposited within seven days via a bank draft in the name of the Chief Registrar of the High Court of Lagos State.

He also said that the management of the property should be vested in a reputable estate firm to be appointed by the Chief Registrar of the Court. However, the defendants, it was further learnt, launched a second appeal, this time, against the order of conditional stay granted by the trial court virtually on the defendants’ own terms.

The defendants’ counsel, Chief Tunde Olojo of Elubode B. Omoboriowo Esq, Shinkafi, Kusamotu, Olojo & Co, on December 9, 2019, sent a notice with Appeal No: Suit No: LD/331/2012 to the Court of Appeal, Lagos, a copy of which is in possession of Saturday Telegraph. They, through their lawyers, said they were dissatisfied with the decision of the High Court of Lagos State, contained in the judgement by Justice Candide-Johnson, delivered on December 6, 2019.

According to Counsel to Khalil: “The learned trial judge erred in law when he held that 1st Respondent- Dr. C.O Williams has the locus standi to institute the action for and on behalf of the alleged deceased predecessors-in-title. The 1st respondent throughout the trial did not bring any death certificate to establish the demise of any of his alleged deceased predecessors-in-title. In the Notice of Appeal, the 1st respondent did not also lead evidence of any probate/letter of administration as the executor/beneficiary of the estate of any of his alleged deceased predecessors-in-title. “Also, the 1st respondent did not tender any letter of Administration to show that the 3rd Appellant is a beneficiary of the estates of both 1st and 2nd Appellant. So, the learned trial judge erred in law when he held that the 1st respondent has established a case of forgery against the 1st -3rd Appellants and that the doctrine of genuineness did not avail them.” In another twist however, Williams petitioned the Federal Government through the Office of the Inspector General of Police (IGP). He specifically asked the IGP, Mohammad Adamu, to save him in the hands of Lebanese descendants of El-Khalil, whom, he said, have refused to release his family’s property after the expiration of their 50-year-old lease agreement. The petition also covers that of forgery, fraudulent conversion of property and obtaining through force pretence. In the petition dated August 28, and duly signed by him, a copy of which was made available to Saturday Telegraph, showed that he was claiming that the company of M. El-Khalil & Sons Properties Limited forged a Deed of Transfer dated December 2, 1956, and has been claiming ownership of and occupying his family’s property since then based on the forged titled document. Williams equally claimed that the company, M. El-Khalil & Sons Properties Limited, now managed by Francis Uzom of Frank Harden Limited and Obinna Chima had relied on false claim of ownership of the property to pocket huge money running into billions of naira in rents collection from unsuspecting tenants at the property. “They have been attempting to sell the said property based on the said forged title documents,” he further alleged. He said that his efforts to warn the occupants of the property and the general public, especially potential property buyers about the claim of ownership by M. El-Khalil & Sons Properties Limited, have led to several threats of death directed at him by officers of the said company. While responding to the weighty allegations, the Lebanese speaking through their lawyer, Elubode B. Omoboriowo Esq of Elubode B. Omoboriowo Esq, Shinkafi and Kusamotu Olojo & Co, dismissed the death claims allegation in his interview with our reporter. According to him, “This is a lie that was well fabricated. In fact, the allegation is not only a lie, but also false and baseless. It is a complete lie from the air.” Omoboriowo did not only rubbish Williams’ claims on property forgery, but insisted that, “It is a fabricated lies that cannot be proven by him at the law court because M. El-Khalil & Sons Properties Limited is a company and if he is insisting that a company forged a certificate like he claimed, so why didn’t he come out and mention a director (s) or staff of the company that did it in M. El-Khalil & SONS Properties Limited and the so-called director or staff will come out publicly to accept or deny that.” The lawyer explained that the claimant has no proof of evidence to that effect as he’s using the threat to life as a ploy to gain sympathy following his clients move to appeal the High Court of Lagos Judgement. “There is no iota of truth in that,” he added. Omoboriowo told our reporter that the case is already in the Court of Appeal and that it is already slated for hearing on December 14. “We are ready to take it up to the Supreme Court because our clients have a strong case to upturn the judgement in their favour following the slim victory that Williams is enjoying over the High Court judgement that gave him one of the lands on the property.” On the coming December 14, Appeal hearing, Omoboriowo said: “My clients have a strong case against him to upturn the judgement as a matter of fact. That is why we are treading the line of professionalism, the line of the law and not resorting to press, police and here and there. He’s the one that goes about talking as old as he is. We are going to upturn it by the grace of God. The case is still going to the Supreme Court and we are going to overturn the initial judgement; it is just a slim victory he has now.” Recently, Williams has also complained of other alleged underhand dealings by the Lebanese. For instance, during the period when the case was before the trial court, he said, the defendants, under the guise of a bogus settlement initiative, delayed the hearing of the case for a substantial length of time. He also claimed that the Lebanese at some point re-configured the property to accommodate more tenants from whom rents running into hundreds of millions were collected by the defendants. After the defendants were done with the configuration of the property and had let out the newly added spaces to tenants, all pretences towards amicable settlement of the dispute with Williams were done away with by them as they returned to announce to the trial court that the settlement initiative failed. Again, while their two appeals were pending before the Court of Appeal, the defendants allegedly started boasting to the tenants in the building and the people in the immediate environment that they were prepared to keep the case in court indefinitely through the appeal process. They even pointed to the notoriously slow judicial process in the country, to drive home their point, Williams alleged. “They claimed that given my advanced age, it is virtually impossible for me to see the end of the case in my lifetime,” he further told our reporter. But the threats and wishes of death notwithstanding, Williams believes that the same Almighty God, who kept him alive throughout the duration of the case at the trial court, would sustain him through the appeal processes until his final vindication by the Court of Appeal, and if need be, the Supreme Court. Williams said that he was steadfast in his belief that though the wheels of justice may turn slowly, they do, in fact, turn exceedingly fine, saying that his faith in God and the judicial system had never been stronger. Omoboriowo however, explained that his clients’ company has been in possession and occupation of the same property since 1966 without any challenge or disturbance from Williams’ alleged predecessors’ intitle or the Claimant. He insisted that his company carried out a general repair in the tune of N150 million for the trespass and lawful execution carried out by the Claimant and/or his agents on the affected property in December 2009. According to him, the Claimant lacks the locus standi to institute or commence any case against them in that he is not a party to any of the transactions (title documents) when signing the deed of agreement in 1953 was carried out. Assistant property manager of M. El-Khalil & Sons (properties) Limited, Obinna Chima, on his part said that there is nothing in any of the documents placed before the Court by Williams from whom the Court could find or infer any relationship or connection between the Claimant and his alleged predecessors-in-title. This, the Lebanese’ lawyers, agreed with, when they said that this action is statute barred in that the cause of action which is challenging the authenticity of the Deed of transfer of Freehold dated November 2, 1956, arose 55 years ago. The learned lawyer argued that this suit amounts to an abuse of the process of the Court in that the notices to quit and notice of owner’s intent to apply to recover possession upon which this action is founded were purportedly served during the pendency of suit No LD/2144/05 (Dr. C.O. Williams vs M. El-Khalil & ORS) in which the said suit, parties and the subject matter are the same as in the instant suit and also a Notice of Appeal filed by the Claimant which has not been withdrawn. However, a visit to the property in question by our reporter, showed that it is a 10-storey building with shop space ranging from N3 million to N15 million per annum with traders of all sorts occupying the property. The traders sell mostly shoes, bags, leather, clothing, jewellery accessories, and occupy each floor of the building.

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