As the clatter of fireworks raged on during Nigeria’s civil war 50 years ago, unknown to Nigerians, the Biafran and Nigerian governments were also pursuing the case at a British court.
The Appeal court judgement on the case read by Lord Denning in Agbor v. Metropolitan Police Commissioner (reported in the London Weekly Law Reports, Vol. 1 of 1968), makes a compelling reading.
Lord Denning said …”There is a civil war flaring in Nigeria. Sparks from it have come down in London. Some have landed on No. 35 Woodstock Road, London, NW 11. In 1965, the house was bought by the government of the Eastern Region of Nigeria.
It was occupied by one of their senior officers. In 1966, a Federal Military Government was set up in Nigeria. It was then arranged that an officer of the Federal Government of Nigeria should occupy the ground floor of No. 35 Woodstock road, while the first floor of No. 35 Woodstock road, remained occupied by an officer of the Eastern region. Afterwards, civil war broke up in Nigeria.
The Eastern Region seceded. It calls itself the Republic of Biafra. But this house remained occupied as before. The Federal officer was on the ground floor. The Biafran officer was on the first floor.
“Now, we come to January of this year, 1969. On the ground floor, there was a Mohammed, who was on the Diplomatic staff of the Federal Government of Nigeria. On the first floor was a Mr Onuma, who regarded himself as being employed by the Republic of Biafra.
Mr Mohammed on the ground floor decided to leave. But the Nigerian High Commission still intended to keep possession of the ground floor. They arranged for decorators to come in. They intended, after the decorators had finished, to put another of their officers at the ground floor. On the very day Mr Mohammed left, the decorators came in.
But they left at 9.00 o’clock at night. They left the place locked up. But the Biafrans on the top floor had been keeping watch. They knew that Mr Mohammed had gone. They had themselves got a key of the ground floor.
They got into the ground floor and installed a family of the Biafrans into it. They put in Mrs Agbor, her husband and six children. The family occupied the ground floor. An hour later, two men came from the Nigerian High Commission.
They tried to get into the ground floor. But the Biafrans kept them out. On the next day, January 5, 1969, some 20 Nigerians came and sought to turn out the Biafrans but the police persuaded them to go away. The Biafrans then went to their Solicitors, Linklaters and Paines.
They wrote to the Nigerian High Commission, which did nothing to evict Mrs Agbor and her family. Then, suddenly on March 7, early in the morning, the police came and told her she must leave.
They said they were authorised by the Home Office on behalf of the Nigerian High Commission. The police officers bundled her out of the house, including her husband and children.
Her Solicitors issued a writ on her behalf to challenge this eviction. They asked for an order to restore her back to the house. The judge in chambers refused to make such an order. They then went to the court of appeal.
The appeal court ruled in favour of Mrs Agbor. Said Lord Denning:” The plain fact here is that Mr and Mrs Agbor’s claim of right to be entitled to the the possession of the ground floor of the house. They entered by stealth.
They used a key that had been left behind. But they did it under a claim of right. It may be that they had no such right as they claimed. But even so, the proper way to evict her was by application to a court of law.
No one is entitled to take possession of premises by strange hand or with a multitude of people. This has been forbidden since the statute of Richard 11 against forcible entry…The police must not take laws into their hands.
If she must be turned out, it has to be by due process of law and not by action of the executive…In my judgement, this court should make an interim order that she be restored to her possession of this flat. I would allow the appeal accordingly.”