Ganta — With close to 25 years surveying land and helping resolve land disputes, J. Patrick Vanie has unrivalled expertise on the nuances of land ownership in Nimba County.
“I know this county right down to my fingertips,” says Vanie. But Nimba’s land commissioner admits to feeling swamped by an overwhelming caseload. “The land business here is tough, it is no joke,” Vanie concedes. “The demand for land here has become very, very high.”
There is serious concern at national and local level over unresolved land issues in Nimba. The northeastern county has remained relatively calm since the war ended seven years ago. But longstanding grievances have frequently surfaced.
Visiting the county’s administrative capital, Sanniquellie, for Independence Day celebrations on 26 July, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf warned: “The land dispute here has dragged on for too long.”
She also announced that the market in Ganta, one of the biggest in the Liberian interior, would now fall under “eminent domain”, effectively becoming state property. This was meant to bring a definitive end to a long-running controversy over ownership of the market land, which had pitted traders from the Mandingo community against residents from the Gio and Mano communities. A specially appointed Land Commission presented a report to Sirleaf at the end of June, outlining possible compensation measures and regulation mechanisms. But Land Commissioner Vanie warns there will be no quick fixes. “I am dealing with two or three cases coming to me every week.”
Working closely with Vanie and his colleagues is a team from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). The NRC’s Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) project was set up in Liberia in 2006. The primary focus was on tackling the needs and helping the reintegration of former refugees and internally displaced people in a region which had seen huge population movements during the war. But the ICLA project is also looking to promote practical, accessible solutions for individuals and communities embroiled in land disputes.
Both the NRC and Vanie warn against simplifying and exaggerating the problems in Nimba. They are particularly critical of attempts by sections of the Liberian media and others to boil land issues in Nimba down to a crude stand-off between the Mandingo community on one side and the Gio and Mano on the other. NRC Project Officer Nyahn Flomo warns of attempts to politicize and ethnicize the land question, with politicians keen to make capital from communal grievances. “When you get to understand some of the factors responsible for the problem, you realize that these are things that can be addressed and resolved,” said Flomo.
With close to 500,000 inhabitants, Nimba is now the second most populated county in Liberia after Montserrado, which incorporates the capital Monrovia and its surroundings. Population growth has increased pressure on the land, so too has the legacy of the war.
Legacy of war
Having served as the launch-pad for the insurgency led by former President Charles Taylor in December 1989, Nimba was caught up repeatedly in the 14-year conflict that followed. Thousands fled, many into neighbouring Guinea, prompting a series of land and property transfers, forced and voluntary, legal and illegal. The reintegration of returning communities has been complicated by continuing confusion over who rightfully owns what.
Fighting wrecked much of Nimba’s fragile infrastructure. An ambitious four-year County Development Agenda (2008-2012) focuses on security, economic regeneration, the provision of services and the rule of law, pinning its hopes on expanding cross-border trade, agricultural growth and new investment from companies like steel giant ArcelorMittal, but also noting that long-term land solutions are crucial.
Land prices are on the rise in both rural and urban areas in Nimba, with plots going for US$600-$700. According to Land Commissioner Vanie, landowners are growing younger, with young men keen to get out of their parents’ homes and acquire property. But while there is a steady business in land transfers, Flomo of NRC warns of the need for a much more systematic registration system, stressing that Liberia is now paying the price for poor record-keeping and documentation.
“There is a lot of confusion and ignorance”, said Flomo, much of it down to the existence of two sets of land administration policies, one based on deeds, another based on customary land tenure. “For the customary people, they consider wherever they are as their legitimate land, whereas the government says that before obtaining land legitimately you must have a deed.”
Some of the cases that come the NRC’s way go back generations. Many of those seeking help will have a “tribal certificate”, confirming land ownership. This carries no legal weight, but is at least a starting point in staking a claim. Acquiring a formal deed can be a long, laborious and extremely costly process. A would-be owner has to commission a government survey of the land in question, then wait while the deed passes from county superintendent’s office to the Ministry of Land, Mines and Energy in Monrovia, then to the President’s Office, before being approved by a probate court.
With government survey teams heavily overstretched, NRC has provided its own expertise on land surveys, while encouraging parties in dispute to resolve matters privately, without recourse to expensive legal procedures. Keeping people out of the courts is a priority, but mediation requires extreme patience, and a sound knowledge of both legal mechanisms and local customs.
NRC Assistant Project Officer Rebecca Secklo said ordinary citizens often have no documentary proof of any kind, leaving them vulnerable to land grabs and the abuse of what they consider to be their property. “They might say: ‘this creek is the boundary of my land,’ but people nowadays will just deliberately jump over a traditional boundary and start planting crops like rubber and cocoa. This is how the confusion will come.”
NRC tackles a wide variety of cases. In Sanniquellie, Westmore Gayleh and John Zulu are in dispute over several portions of land. Gyaleh has a deed made out to his late mother, signed by former President William Tubman over 40 years ago. Zulu maintains the land was awarded to Gayleh’s father but should now rightfully be his. NRC is trying to mediate.
Cooper Gehpaye says he has fallen victim of confusion over village boundaries, losing land awarded to his family under President Edwin Barclay in the 1930s.
Mathew Payzine, a mechanic, bought land on the outskirts of Ganta from a prominent family with the intention of building housing on it, only to find it had already been sold on. Awarded a second plot in compensation, he found that it too had gone to another buyer, a gravely embarrassed Ghanaian pastor.
Flomo of NRC warns that unscrupulous operators are profiting from the prevailing confusion. “There are some people who are just unfair when it comes to business practice”, Flomo acknowledges. “You take money from one person and then after a few days you take money from another person until you make a deal with the highest bidder.”
NRC stresses that it cannot enforce its recommendations, but can keep the parties in negotiation until an informal settlement can be obtained.
For NRC’s Rebecca Secklo the passion for land ownership is more than understandable. “If you own land you have life. It’s land that you use to build a house, to plant crops, to plant food that you can eat. If you do not have land you are nobody.”