GANTA, NIMBA COUNTY – The Eighth Judicial Circuit in Sanniquellie, Nimba County passed its ruling in a land case in 2018, giving right of possession to Fred Suah of the Mano tribe over the Jabatehs and Donzos, two Mandingo families. The two-acre parcel of land stretches downward from the Saclepea parking in the heart of Ganta City and ends with Harley Street.
The Jabateh and Donzo families took exception to the court’s ruling and filed a writ of prohibition to the Supreme Court, but they were denied.
That did not end the year-long legal battle for Suah. It was just the beginning. The Jabatehs and Donzos have refused to leave the land, putting Ganta on the cusp of yet another round of ethnic tension that has marred this populous city since the end of the civil war.
“When the police and the court sheriff came to enforce the eviction order, the Donzo and Jabateh families along with other Mandingos took cutlasses and other weapons and resisted the eviction order, denying us of our land,” Suah recalls in an interview with the Daily Observer.
“If we continue to go to court and do all other things and we do not get our property, we too will take it by force. We are more than them,” Suah says. “If they bring one cutlass, we will bring more than 50 cutlasses.”
The spokesperson for the Jabatehs and Donzos in Ganta, Saidu Kromah, denies Suah’s allegation that the Jabatehs and Donzos resisted eviction. Refusing to comment further on the matter on grounds that the elders of Ganta are handling the case, he says that they are waiting on the ECOWAS Court to rule in the general land case involving the Government of Liberia and members of the Mandingo tribe in Nimba.
In 2018, the Mandingos of Ganta sued the Liberian government for not mounting pressure on the Gio and Mano tribes allegedly occupying their land to turn it over to them after the civil war. The case was pending hearing in November, according to Saidu, but the hearing has yet to take place.
Saidu accuses the Suah family of “bringing confusion,” pointing to an old portion of the controversial land where he claims his family lived prior to 2003 when land crises spiraled in Ganta.
His version of events is corroborated by a Nigerian spare parts dealer only identified as Emmanuel. “No, I did not see on that day anyone taking weapons to stop the police and other law enforcers,” Emmanuel says. “The law enforcers came to carry out the eviction, but left after seeing that many people were on the land and not willing to move.”
Judge Roland Dahn of the Eighth Judicial Circuit Court of Nimba also substantiates Saidu’s assertion, telling the Daily Observer that the eviction did not proceed due to “some legal matter.” He however declined to comment further.
The tension between Mandingos and the Gio and Mano tribes dates back to the civil war. Mandingos, who were granted citizenship by then President Samuel K. Doe, were accused of being regime collaborators when the Gio-and-Mano-dominated National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) launched its rebellion in 1989. The NPFL rebels killed Mandingos and, to exact their revenge, Mandingoes formed the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) and killed Gios and Manos in retaliation. They ravaged towns and villages accused of collaborating with NPFL.
That trend continued with the Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), another Mandingo-dominated faction that fought against the regime of then President Charles Taylor.
The Council of Elders of Ganta, which comprises eminent citizens and local officials, is brokering an amicable solution to the crisis between Suah and the Jabateh and Donzo families.
“We do not want [a] repeat of war or violence here, and it is the reason why we are intervening, so that those aggrieved Mandingos will not get on the rampage to bring violence here again,” says Joseph Kiepeeh, the spokesperson for the group.
Kiepeeh tells the Daily Observer there is a window of opportunity for a peaceful settlement as the Jabatehs and Donzos have occupied the disputed land for more than five decades. “There is no account of the late Paye Suah (Suah’s deceased father) challenging the occupancy of the land and on account of any form of agreement between him and those who occupied the land prior to and after the civil war,” Kiepeeh explains.
Lawyers representing the Jabatehs and Donzos made a similar argument of adverse possession during the case, but Suah’s legal team defeated it. When a person occupies a private land for at least 20 years without any legal objections by the owners, that person can claim adverse possession of that land, according the Land Rights Act (Article 22). Suah’s lawyers proved that his late father retained ownership of the land by collecting rent periodically from the two Mandingo families.
But Suah does not trust Kiepeeh and the rest of the Council of Elders of Nimba. He alleges that his kinsmen of taking bribes from the Mandingoes, but this he cannot prove. Kiepeeh denies that allegation.
The case is an example of land conflicts that are an aftermath of the civil war, according to Dr. Emmanuel Urey, country director of Landesa, a nongovernmental organization that works with the government on land reform. The ethnic cleansing that took place during the civil war broke down customs and traditions on land.
“We can have a conference in Nimba where we will bring the Gios, Manos and the Mandingos together to talk on a serious basis, whether or not some can be relocated or compensated based on how a person in conflict with another person over land has developed that land, or how he or she got it,” Urey told the Daily Observer in Monrovia. “On a serious note, we need to sit and discuss as a true reconciliation what we did during the war and talk about some of those issues surrounding land.”
Ali Kaba of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) agrees with Urey’s idea for a discussion on the Nimba land dispute. “There is a need for a roundtable on land, because it cannot be solved just traditionally or legally,” Kaba says.
According to him, people are exploiting the traditional aspects of land tenure rights as well as the statutory aspects. “Though the Land Rights Act recognizes traditional land tenure rights, the situation in Nimba has reached a level where we do not know who is saying the truth.”
Nimba is one of the counties with the most land crises, with Montserrado, Lofa, Bong and Margibi also highly prone to land crises, according to the Liberia Land Authority.
Back in Ganta, Suah is discouraged over the turn of his case. He carries a voluminous pile of documents, including title deeds, court filings of the case he thought had ended. He delivers a somber warning: “If the ruling by the court that is the final decision-making institution in our justice system cannot be respected, it means we too will use force without respect for the court to retake our property.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as of a Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding is provided by the American World Jewish Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.