Liberia: What to Do about Land Disputes?

Joe Dorah, Land Administrator, Margibi County   

The criminal conveyance of land, in the forms of double deals and fraudulent land deeds, continues unabated across Liberia, especially in Marshall City, Margibi County, with no end in sight.

And given that there is no telling how far some parties — legitimate or illegitimate — are willing to go to secure property that they believe they are entitled to, the issue of land disputes might be a pandemic that needs serious attention. Curbing land disputes is indeed a task the Liberian government must not underestimate if it desires to ensure that there is lasting peace and genuine national reconciliation among its citizens.

This report focuses on cases in Margibi County, particularly Marshal City and its environs, where there have been numerous disenchantments expressed by people who have claimed to be victims of illegal land transactions. In November of 2019, the Daily Observer reported a story bearing the headline “Liberia: Double Dealings? Margibi Land Administrator Accused of Illegal Land Sales,” a news story in which there were a plethora of allegations that Joe Dorah, Land Administrator of Margibi, was involved in the criminal conveyance of land. 

In that November 2019 report, it was noted that documented complaints from a few of the victims, as well as from the offices of the Margibi County Superintendent, Jerry Varney, and District #1 Representative, Tibelrosa S. Tarponweh, revealed that the County Land Administrator, Joe Dorah, had collected tens of thousands of United States Dollars as payments for parcels of land from unsuspecting land buyers, without delivering any to those he allegedly took the money from, accusations Dorah denied.

Helena Nah, according to last year’s report, claimed to have given US$9,800 to Dorah for two lots of land in Marshall City. This money, Ms. Nah claimed, was paid to Dorah in three installments but the Land Commissioner was yet to live up to his side of the bargain.

Johnetta Wiggens also alleged that she gave Dorah a red Ford Ranger Pick-up Truck in exchange for a parcel of land in the Foday Town area along the RIA highway, but did not obtain the property.

Neree K. Bartee, displaying a copy of the deed for a parcel of land located in Kpakpacon, along the Marshall Road, complained that relatives or people connected to Dorah sold his land to an unknown woman, prompting him to formally complain to Dorah.

Bartee said Dorah was yet to issue him a clearance as promised, despite an investigation proving that Bartee is the legitimate owner of the property. Bartee added that the ‘illegal buyer’ of his property from Dorah’s alleged collaborators had ongoing construction works on the property. 

For Melvin Z. Lackay, he alleged that he paid US$16,000 through Dorah to the Doewein’s family for 30 acres of land, but was finding it difficult to take full possession of the land.

Fast forward, on June 28 this year (2022) a Freedom of Information (FOI) request was filed with Dorah, Rep. Tarponweh and others in connection with the investigation in order to ascertain whether or not the crises from 2019 had been resolved, either through court proceedings or by other agreeable means.

Joe Dorah: Land Administrator of Margibi

Commissioner Dorah did not respond to our FOI request until mid-August, when he agreed to grant an interview on the matter.

“I have always been innocent of the allegations against me and I remain innocent. There is no proof anywhere and anyhow that I ever took money from anyone to facilitate sales of land and ate such money. Besides, I have always been the peacemaker, and I continue serving in that role as per my portfolio up to date,” Dorah told the Daily Observer.

According to him, the claims linking him to unorthodox deals were and continue to be politically motivated. He accused Tarponweh of being behind the alleged machination.

“He is afraid that I am becoming popular with my people based on the work I am doing and that they might consider me one day to represent them at the Legislature. He thinks that his job is threatened if I continue to stand up for the right reasons. The Lawmaker knows that I have instituted measures that led to the arrest of some people who were involved in creating chaos for our community and county in general,” he alleged.

Both Dorah and Tarponweh are partisans of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), though they apparently see each other as bitter rivals, as their remarks concerning each other over the years have shown.

Dorah shared with the Daily Observer land deeds of two categories: fake and legitimate.

“This is a fake deed,” he said.  “It has a signature not the same as the originally known when Joe S. Mason was Land Administrator in Margibi County in 1994. The signature was forged and placed on this other deed bearing the same year,” Dorah said as he reported that the deed displayed was uncovered when there was a land conflict between two parties. He added “This deed was gotten from one of the parties and we ensured the real owner got the land. We communicated with the rightful authority to prosecute him. That’s how far we have to go. We are not a court and we have no power to just grab people and jail them,” he said.

With support from a technician who knows about reading land deeds and confirming the authenticity of each that comes his way, our investigation was informed that indeed the deed displayed by Commissioner Dorah was fake. Our investigation has shown that none of those claiming to be victims ever took Dorah to court to account for the claims they have made against him over time.

Rep. Tilberosa S. Tarponweh

Tarponweh granted us no audience for any in-person interview, in spite of many phone calls and text messages sent to the lawmaker by this reporter.

However, after more than two months, the lawmaker’s press and public affairs officer, Emmanuel Tokpa, on September 28, answered a call on his boss’s phone. The call was placed by this reporter from a different phone number that neither the lawmaker nor his public affairs officer would have recognized, suggesting that they had been intentionally dodging our calls. The public affairs officer, having listened to the questions from this reporter, responded by trashing Dorah’s claims.

“I don’t want to dignify what is being said of my boss, but the truth is that we did our best by not only talking but also making available documents to the effect in order to justify that our concerns were germane and worthy,” he said. He added that the office of Rep. Tarponweh is not a court and, as such, the relevant authorities, including the Ministry of Justice, Liberia Land Authority and the office of President George Weah were written and duly informed about the involvement of Dorah in questionable land deals that led to conflicts.

The public relations officer at the Liberia Land Authority (LLA), Kweshi Tetteh, told the Daily Observer via a phone interview that the issue of land conflict remains an alarming incident and requires the support of everyone.

According to the LLA communication officer, his agency lacks the needed financial support to do its work and, as a result, cases of land dispute keep piling up.

“Since the establishment of the Liberia Land Authority, the government has not given us a single vehicle to work with. The pickups bearing the emblem of the entity were donated to us by the World Bank for a project it sponsored. We are constrained and until we can get the needed support, the challenges continue to confront us as an institution and the country in general,” he explained.

Tetteh noted that apart from logistics, LLA lacks adequate manpower support to effectuate its operations across the country.

He reported that the Authority’s sub-offices across the country are not functioning fully as they ought to, due to a lack of at least 16 staff as should be under normal circumstances. He registered that there was a retreat involving LLA and its stakeholders, including courts’ judges and magistrates, so as to have collaboration in dealing with land crises from legal perspectives as well as community-based forums, noting additionally that LLA needs legislated prosecutorial power in order to fast-track cases of illegal land sales.

According to him, the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) has no compelling power to cause anyone to act based on LLA’s mandate because it is not a legislated instrument.

On whether or not LLA has the technicians to handle issues of illegal fabrication of deeds, an issue that feuds conflicts most times, Tetteh boasted that there are competent technicians who know how to track down fake land deeds.

Other sources spoken to, who preferred anonymity, told the Daily Observer that there are possibilities of chaos in the future in Marshall if the government does not penalize those involved in illegal land sales.

This report was done with mentorship from CEMESP through the generous support of Internews.