Nimba Land Dispute: Fear That Never Goes Away, Settlement That Never Comes Through
Nimba County – Mariame Kamara had travelled from across the border in Djeke to Saclepea upon hearing that Liberian opposition Liberty Party was holding a political gathering in that town.
Report by Samukai V. Konneh (Freelance Journalist)
Her hope was dashed as nothing was mentioned concerning the reason she travelled to this place. She could not even speak to politicians she had hoped to meet.
The event was all about naming Harrison Karnwea as vice running mate to Cllr. Charles Brumskine. It was not about the Nimba land dispute.
But for Mariam and her family, the land dispute is what matters most because it has caused them to remain in exile for over a decade after the civil war and the ushering in of a new democratic dispensation. So, she travelled back to Guinea in frustration.
“My son told me he saw it on Facebook that the politicians were coming to Nimba for some meeting.
So, I sold cooked rice for a whole week; borrowed some money from my neighbor and I came to meet them. But they were too busy.
All they talked about was winning the election. They never spoke about our properties. This is unfair,” Mariame told me via phone.
Mariame still recalls our meeting sometimes in 2010 when I was covering some of efforts aimed at settling the long standing dispute.
She kept my contact all these years asking for updates. Her last call two days ago was not to ask for updates, but to inform me about her hope being dashed.
Mariame is the oldest surviving child of her late parents who owned many properties in Ganta, the main contentious area in the whole Nimba land dispute. During the war, she, like many others, fled their homes to settle in refugee camps in different countries.
Mariame chose to settle right in Djeke in Guinea, a 10-minute drive from Ganta hoping that the war would end soon and she would return to her home. But this was not possible.
Every time she thought and hoped of returning, the war in Liberia escalated.
Luckily for Mariame, the war did not destroy all the properties. But the portion that was not destroyed is currently occupied by another family.
Over the years, she has attended settlement-meetings, attempted in futility going to court and finally agreed to retrieve her properties through a Liberian government program that paid out cash to illegal occupants to vacate disputed properties.
The family occupying Mariame’s properties in Ganta did actually agree to vacate, and accepted payment from government to do so.
This was one of the success stories of the land dispute; but in reality, this didn’t materialize.
The illegal occupant refused to vacate the premises more than five years since he took government’s payment.
Knowing payment was made, Mariame prepared her family to return to Ganta. But they met resistance. All her hope again died. She returned to Guinea, and until date, there is no solution in site. Every time she crosses the border, she visits her property.
“Sometimes, I come to Ganta for no reason but to see how the people are handling our properties. I cry many times.
Here I am standing at the gate, afraid to step on a property I once played and could do with it whatever I wanted to do. Because they know me to be the right owner, I am careful not to be noticed.
Otherwise, there will be violence and I can’t stand it. So, I think it’s better I stay in Guinea until a miracle happens. But for now, I am desperately hopeless,” she says.
Mariame is not an everyday Mandingoe woman with broken English.
She is a high school graduate and during the war years, she worked for the International Rescue Committee as a teacher in refugee schools in the Guinean forest region. Her interactions over the years have improved her eloquence.
Mariame’s story tends to reverberate among her tribespeople.
But to say people signed MOU with the Liberian government to vacate illegally occupied properties after receiving compensation, but still refused to vacate the properties, is hard to believe. But, yes, it’s true, according to Dorr Cooper.
As mayor of Ganta and now Superintendent of Nimba, Dorr has been in the middle of all the resolution efforts. He is respected by all tribes in the county for what is known as his fairness.
“Yes, indeed. You know, this is not an event. It is a process. It takes time. That’s why government has sacrificed a lot of money to resettle people.
But beyond that, you still have people in the process who want to be claiming the very land (that they got compensation for.)
When such matter reaches in court, we as civil authority can’t delve into that. There are places where people received money – most of those people were owners of structures that were on the land.
“When they received the compensation, another party came and reclaimed the same land, instead of the previous claimant. And so, they decided to seek redress in the court; and the court issued a writ against the claimant.
If the court issues an injunction, we as civil authority cannot do otherwise.
This is a process that the Ministry of Justice is part of. People signed MOUs with the understanding that when payment is done, there wouldn’t be any interference from another person; but now another branch of government (judiciary) is issuing writ, then it’s out of our hand,” he told me in an interview.
Amid all this, the new Nimba superintendent says a lot has been achieved evident by the level of physical development in Ganta.
“A lot has changed. The face of Ganta told the explicit nature of the war, but now you can see the transformation.”
For Mariame, the promise to settle the land dispute is an overdue fulfilment after more than a decade of peace and her constant reminder of the dispute is reason for continued fear to return home.
She feels let down by not only her government, but also by the people she once trusted to advocate on her behalf. Maybe her fear is right.
Jurah M. Sanoe is a recognized and revered voice in the advocacy for the settlement of the longstanding dispute and resettlement of Mandingoe people.
As part of a prodemocracy group called the United Ganta Citizens for Reconciliation and Development, Jurah has intensely been involved with the issue for over five years now.
But all of this has come to an end. Since his joining the opposition Liberty Party, his position is was clear. He would not speak to the Nimba land dispute any longer.
“I have decided to stop all statements that have to do with the Nimba land dispute for political reason.”
Then I quizzed him if his new stance on the dispute was not disappointed to people who depended on him to get their lands through his advocacy. His response, again, was equivocal.
“Samuka, if you quote me on what I said, it would be fair to you and fair to me.
I have decided to cease all comments on the Nimba land dispute for now. You ain’t going to get anything from out of me besides that no matter how you twist your questions.
I have spoken on it for five years, no one told me to that me. It is my right. I am saying, starting now I am putting all political statements on halt,” he concluded the interview.
Several attempts have been made to resolve the dispute, but none has yielded any significant final result. In 2008, the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and the Swiss based organization, Inter-peace, launched a project aimed at supporting reconciliation in Nimba County in order to contribute to the process of sustaining peace in Liberia.
The project recommendations in its report that government addressed the “(1) urgent and more explosive land disputes as recommended by the Ad-Hoc Presidential Commission on Nimba (2) develop a sound policy framework for the development of a community-based mediation capacity and (3) promote political inclusion of Mandingoes, among others.
The work of the above cited Ad-Hoc Presidential Commission on Nimba membered by religious, tribal and local leaders did little to savage the situation.
The Special Presidential Nimba Land Commission was set up by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Prominent Nimba citizen, Musa Bility was appointed as head.
The commission included all lawmakers from the county as well as other prominent citizens.
On June 30, 2010, the commission presented its report to the President. In it, it recommended that government provided one million dollars as compensation to people illegally occupying people’s properties.
While many condemned the recommendation as compensation for wrong acts, others saw it as a fine way to resolve the dispute.
So, the President endorsed the recommendation. Some monies were disbursed and payments were made to some illegal-occupiers; yet some refused to leave.
So, they occupy people’s land, received payment from government, but still refused to vacate.
In any case, no arrest was made. No charges were brought on people that received payment but refused to vacate, and no eviction order was issued by the court. Only an injunction was placed.
For those who had a piece of hope that they would soon receive their properties after the payment, hope soon vanished as people defied government and went scot-free.
A 2010 executive mansion story quotes Mr. Bility as urging people of Nimba to do all they could to support the process; saying “It was not about winners or losers; it was about reconciliation.
The Commission did not look for who was right or wrong; it was meant to reconcile the people and bring peace.”
Well, peace yes; but reconciliation, not really. People in Nimba remain unreconciled as a result of the land dispute. Even Pres. Sirleaf herself admitted to this challenge.
“The land dispute in Nimba has dragged on for too long, sometimes creating constraint for some of the things we want to do.
Peace cannot be legislated. Peace cannot be commanded. Peace has to come from inside oneself and their willingness to accept things; to mediate, to collaborate; to reconcile, to compromise.”
The President might have been right. Even enforcement of the rule of law can sometimes be hard to achieve amid the land dispute situation.
On July 26, 2010, the President declared an eminent domain over the contentious Ganta market, just along the Guinea border.
Her Sanniquellie pronouncement, for some was further dashing of hope, especially for those who have owned it for years. For others, it was the best thing to do – all disputing parties will let go the property and government would use it for public good.
Seven years after this 2010 pronouncement, nothing really happened.
Government did not take control of the property. Few months ago, former Justice Minister, Benedict Sannoh gave a 30-day ultimatum to individuals squatting on the 5.8 acres of land in Ganta to relocate themselves or be removed. But then again, nothing happened ever since.
Just last month, the voters’ registration process for the 2017 general and Presidential elections was halted in Nimba because of a land dispute.
According to the Daily Observer newspaper in Monrovia, a land survey was disrupted by people who were predominantly Manos in Sokopa, near the boundary with Bong County.
Sporadic shots were fired and the entire community was deserted as residents fled in all directions.
One person was wounded and another missing.
According to the paper, a Mandingo family surnamed Soko had obtained a survey order from the court to survey some portion of land between Ganwee and Sokopa towns, but residents of Ganwee resisted the survey order.
A week ago, FrontPageAfrica reported that dispute erupted over reserved forest land in Nimba.
According to the report, residents of several towns in three districts in were deeply divided over Blei community forest reserve, a 629 hectares of forestland set aside by locals, with assistance from USAID through Association for Rural Development (ARD), for conservation purposes.
According to the paper, there was likelihood for serious trouble because some residents have publicly expressed strong opposition to the project, which they claimed is denying them access to the forest that once served as a source of livelihood.
In June 2015, The New Republic newspaper quoted former superintended Fong Zuagele as identifying unresolved land disputes as a major challenge that needs the intervention of government and the United Nations amid draw down by UN peacekeeping force. He called for the settlement of all unresolved land conflicts in the county before UNMIL troops leave the country.
In September 2015, the Inquirer newspaper reported that Muslims disrupted a team of surveyors backed bya sheriff from the 8th judiciary circuit court in Ganta. Sheriff William G. Layweh told the paper that he was sent to survey a land starting from the UBA bank to the mosque.
The land is one of the disputed properties and the case is before the circuit court for hearing. Surveyors along with the Sheriff ran to the Police station for rescue as angry Muslim youths obstructed the court order to survey the disputed land.
In October 2013, the New Dawn newspaper reported that one person was killed in another land dispute in same Nimba County.
This, according to the paper, followed a long-standing land dispute between citizens of Kpowin and Sahnquoi Town in Sacleapea-mahn District. Teh dispute has lingered since 1964.
Amid all this, trusting the judicial system is one of the biggest challenges. In the words of Mariame, only a few good things can come from the court.
“Sometime I am tempted to go to court.
But what good will it do? How trustworthy is the court? In the court, the judges, the clerks, the sheriffs and all those working there are from the same tribe of those who are illegally occupying our properties.”
Before Jurah Sanoe opted out of his longstanding advocacy, he has accused judge Emry Paye of the 8th judicial circuit court of favoritism in the Nimba land dispute.
The online news outlet, Bush Chicken, in September 2015 quoted Mr. Sanoe as saying judge Paye was bias against the Mandingoes.
“I will continue to make this clear to the public. Judge Paye is taking sides with people who are not legitimate owners of land in Ganta here and giving them rights to own land that does not belong to them.
He is simply doing this because they are paying him money.”
According to Sanoe, the judge’s actions “could create tension in Nimba because the rightful owners of the lands are the Donzos, Kromahs, Kamara, and Sheriffs families.”
The accused declined to speak to the issue. “I am making myself prepared to address this issue at the right time,” he told Bush Chicken.