Liberia: No Rights for Squatters?

 I may not have been the managing director then, but whatever receipt any [NHA] managing director has given them stands,” said  NHA Managing Director, Celia Cuffey Brown “So then the ministry of public works has to compensate the people.” 

 

 

....Demolition on Omega Land seems to expose injustice in Liberia’s land rights law

Ms. Beatrice Kollee is among several victims with $10.00 US receipts issued by the National Housing Authority (NHA) as authorization to squat on the land that now hosts the Omega Market.

But when the government of Liberia, through a committee co-chaired by the Ministry of Public Works and the Monrovia City Corporation, ordered the demolition of structures erected by squatters like her, Beatrice and others were suddenly rendered homeless — with no prior notice. 

She says the abrupt demolition of their homes came about as the Government of Liberia mandated that all marketeers be relocated to the Omega community, where a new market ground was built.

The mandatory relocation exercise, which began on Sunday, July 11, 2021, was enforced by the Ministry of Public Works, evicting street sellers from Red-Light to Omega market in Paynesville to complete the ongoing road construction from Coca Cola factory to ELWA junction.

Immediately following the relocation, President George Weah constituted a committee to ensure that complaints raised by marketeers about limited space, inadequate warehouse, and toilet facilities were addressed to ensure that the Omega market is conducive for businesses. 

The committee is headed by the Ministry of Public Works (MPW) and co-chaired by the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC), with the Liberia Land Authority and others as members. 

With this mandate, MPW and MCC began backfilling the wetland to provide more selling space for the vendors who were then complaining about the lack of sufficient selling spots, toilets, and warehouse facilities at the new Omega Market. A sub-committee was set up to manage the land distribution amongst marketeers.

As if this were not enough, the committee reportedly began demolishing homes to give space to the marketeers without notifying people like Beatrice and other community members. 

After the demolition, the residents accused Public Works Minister Ruth Coker-Collins of destroying their properties and giving their front view lands to business owners. But the Minister denied the accusation, shifting the blame onto the Committee chaired by her, which was set up to manage the land distribution.

According to the Minister, the Omega Market was reserved by the government for the purpose which is being carried out now. “So it’s not Public Works deciding to break down places, it was the team that was set up,” she claimed. 

The Minister may have a technicality as her defense concerning the rights of the Omega Land squatters, but she may not be wrong either. Is there any legal provision for squatters' rights in Liberian law? 

According to a 2011 report by the Norwegian Refugee Council, “the issuance of squatters rights is, in reality, simply an established de facto practice that is broadly accepted but not clearly legal. Regular payment of the fee entitles the holder “to occupy the area until such time as the government fines [sic] it necessary to use the land in which case, one month’s notice will be given to vacate the premises.”

The report, titled, “Beyond Squtters’ Rights: Durable Solutions And Development Induced Displacement In Monrovia, Liberia”, published in May 2011, cites a provision of the 1957 Zoning Code on non-conforming structures as the basis of the informal practice of granting squatters’ rights. 

According to the Liberia Housing Profile (2014), published by UN-Habitat, some squatters have been given a measure of security by their having paid annual ‘squatters’ rights fee’ (US$20 per annum) and some have invested in permanent houses. The UN-Habitat document was published four years before the Liberia Land Rights Law was finally passed in 2018. 

But even the Land Rights Law, passed in 2018, appears quite vague in terms of recognizing the rights of squatters. The law filters through a range of terminologies such as “License” (Chapter 17) and “Adverse Possession” (Article 58). The law defines a License as “a privilege to use [land] owned or possessed by another and may be created by an agreement expressed or implied.” 

Adverse Possession, however, is more elaborate in its definition by law. It is “the acquisition of Title to private land by a person or his privy based on the person’s notorious, continuous and uninterrupted possession of said private land without any objections being interposed by the owner for the period established in Article 22 of this Act.” Article 22 says 15 or more years.

And while adverse possession is the closest thing to squatters’ rights by definition, the law is absolutely clear by saying that “the elements of Adverse Possession do not apply to Government Land or Public Land.” 

The NHA is responsible for making use of public land purchased by the government to build housing units that the government can rent out to its citizens. The entity may also issue receipts to people (as was done with Beatrice), giving them squatting rights on the land per the agreement that when the government is ready to use the land it would resettle the squatters.

In a phone interview with the Daily Observer, the current NHA Managing Director, Celia Cuffey Brown, said the Ministry of Public Works did not inform the NHA about the demolition exercise but went ahead to break down structures that have rendered many residents homeless.

“Nobody came to us, nobody told us what they were doing. They just broke down some people’s houses. The [affected] people came to me. I empathize,” said Madam Brown. 

“I may not have been the managing director then, but whatever receipt any [NHA] managing director has given them stands,” said the NHA boss. “So then the ministry of public works has to compensate the people.” 

Long before the government of Liberia decided to repurpose the land into a market complex, the Omega land hosted the world's first global-range radio navigation system operated by the United States, in cooperation with six partners. It was a system that enabled ships and aircraft to determine their position by receiving very low frequency (VLF) radio signals in the range of 10 to 14 kHz, transmission. 

It was built by the U.S Navy in 1973 through a partnership with the government of Liberia. The U.S. government provided technical support for the station, while the Liberian government maintained ownership of the tower and manned the station under a bilateral agreement.

The tower was dismantled in 2011 by the U.S government.

During the dismantling ceremony, the US Ambassador at the time, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, described the tower as historic and said the construction of a market complex will go a long way for Liberians.  

The President of Liberia at the time, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, said the dismantling of the tower will now pave the way for the construction of a modern market complex that will accommodate local marketeers and help ease congestion at the Red Light. 

The Liberia Land Authority, which is responsible for administering deeds and land registry, establishing standards, and regulating surveys and mapping services of both public and private lands, has failed to disclose the total land acreage of the Omega Market. But John Zoegar, Director for Highway Road Construction at the Ministry of Public Works said the Omega land is a little over 400 acres of land, though he said people have been encroaching on it.  

Kweshie Tetteh, the Land Authority Public Relations Officer, declined to comment on the matter, saying the Minister of Public Works is the best person to speak to the Omega market issue.

The Liberia Marketing Association (LMA), the main owner of the Omega land space, is also confused about its boundaries. In a letter to President Weah dated August 7, 2021, LMA Secretary Melvin Kemokai, Superintendent Mary Saydee Walley, and Assistant Superintendent Esther K. Stephen, stated, “Mr. President, since the five markets were relocated to this 14 Omega International market, the LMA does not know its boundary between the Transport Union and National Housing Authority (NHA), and we have been denied to build on the land.”

“We are unsure of the total amount of land that the tower occupied,” said the U.S Embassy near Monrovia. ”The antenna field was about one mile in diameter, meaning from the base of the tower (which is a triangular cross-section steel tower—each side of the triangle is 12 feet) to the outermost guy wire anchor was about 2,500 feet.”