By Joaquin Sendolo, New Narratives fellow
GANTA, Nimba County – Conflicts over land have long plagued Nimba County but the 14-year-civil war made the problem much worse. Now, 15 years from the end of the war, conflict over land is threatening to spill into violence once again.
Here the chief rivalry is between the Mandingoes and the Gio-Mano. The Mandingoes claim the Gio-Mano drove them from their land as the country became consumed by ethnic rivalry fueled by propaganda from various warlords.
Now the Mandingoes have decided to take their case to court.
The Mandingo ethnic group recently filed a lawsuit in the ECOWAS Court against the Liberian government, demanding US$500 million in damages for lost property and suffering. The group claims that their properties here in Ganta have been seized and, in some cases, destroyed. They claim the government has failed to intervene.
The Mandingos claim that their property was seized by the Gio and Mano tribes on the basis of hatred, discrimination, false accusation and prejudice. Lawyers argue that under the Rome Statute, to which Liberia is a signatory, that act constitutes ‘Deportation’, which is a crime against humanity. Deportation under the Statute is defined as “the forced displacement of persons by expulsion or other coercive acts from the area in which they are lawfully present, without grounds permitted under international law.”
This act, according to Mandingo Community spokesperson Vamara M. Jabateh has displaced many of his kinsmen, causing them to suffer. He points to the current market occupied by thousands of sellers of various commodities including food, used clothes, rubber dishes and charcoal that once belonged to heads of Mandingo families who are now displaced.
“This place belongs to 16 Mandingo family heads that also have over 50 children and grand children,” said Jabateh. “History will tell you that this place is called in the Mandingo language ‘Sokuala’, which means ‘New Town.’ Marketers are now occupying it without the feeling that other people must have their place to live.”
Swahili Sesay, one of the lawyers representing the Mandingo community, confirmed the case had been filed but refused to comment further except to say that it is not yet known when the case will be assigned for hearing.
The government is represented by Cllr. Daku Mulbah, Solicitor General of Liberia. Cllr. Mulbah said the Government has not committed human rights violations against anyone.
He said the government intervened to resolve a land crisis existing between two groups but it could not be resolved, and it would be a violation if the government had claimed the disputed land to turn it over to one party.
“In such a case the affected party will still take us to the same ECOWAS Court for violation,” Cllr. Mulbah said. “Land business is settled in a court by providing documents to back your claim.”
“The contending party in the case can use the court to claim their land and not government that has no idea of how the land in question was acquired or lost to others.”
Late last year Mandingos converged on the main street of Ganta with placards, asking President George Weah to intervene in the land crisis so that they could reclaim plots of land they said belong to them.
The Mandingo claims go back to 1985 when some Mandingos allegedly pointed out members of the Gio and Mano tribes for execution during the failed coup led by General Thomas G. Quiwonkpa of the Gio tribe of Nimba.
Amos Nyan Glehbogeah Suah is a lead player in the land conflict. Mandingoes accuse him of leading the effort to deny them land that they occupied for years prior to the civil war.
Suah says the land in question is an inherited property belonging to his brother and himself of the Mano tribe. According to him, his parents gave a portion of the property to some Mandingo families to squat because of marriage and business relations they had with them.
Suah said the relationship turned sour when the Mandingoes sided with Samuel Doe in 1985 and identified Manos and Gios who were being chased by the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) for execution during the coup attempt in that year.
In revenge for the coup-attempt, President Samuel Doe ordered extrajudicial killings of Manos and Gios.
“In 1985 my brother, John G.N. Flomo, was pointed out by our in-law Samulkai Sando and was killed by the AFL, pain that has gone with us for a long time,” Suah said.
Suah said the situation was worsened by attacks on Ganta by the Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) on March 29, 2003. “Before that war, Mandingoes were still occupying land given them to squat, but to our surprise on March 29, 2003, LURD that had membership dominated by the Mandingoes from here, attacked and destroyed Ganta where Charles Taylor was not living. After the attack was repelled on June 30 of that year, other people of different tribes here at the time occupied the land as squatters.”
Some residents of Saclepea, a town about ten kilometers away from Ganta, agreed with Suah’s account. They said Mandingoes in 1985 were locating Manos and Gios in their hiding places when the attempted coup took place and many of them (Gios and Manos) were killed by the AFL soldiers.
Vamara Jabateh, spokesperson for the Mandingo group in Ganta, counter argued that LURD was a rebel organization headed by Liberians who should be responsible for their own actions. He said people who pointed out others for execution did it by their own volition, and therefore other innocent people should not bear the consequences for them. “The ordinary Mandingo people who also ran away from war cannot be denied the right to own areas they dwelt on for years because of what other people did,” Jabateh said.
The Mandingoes have based their claim to ownership in Ganta on the legal principle of “Adverse Possession,” which under the Land Rights Law says that a person can automatically possess a portion of non-negotiable land that no one has raised qualm or concern about after 20 years according to Jabateh.
Manos and Gios argued that Mandingoes did acquire the land that way. They claim that most of the Mandingoes in the land dispute did not possess the land by Adverse Possession but were only given “Squatter Rights”. “Squatter Rights,” according to Cllr. Lofen Kerneah, is when a landlord allows another person to occupy a portion of land on negotiation that he/she will return it over when the need arises.
According to Suah, people who possess legal documents for land have reclaimed it since.
Many stores and petroleum stations on Ganta Main Street are on land belonging to Mandingoes who have legal documents and owners of those stores are leasing from them.
According to operators of Sethi Brothers, His Grace Business Center, City Promoters Business Center, the Gwikolo Incorporated, and TOTAL Filling Station, they are leasing from the Donzo, Jabateh and Kromah families of the Mandingo tribe.
Mandingos and the Gio and Mano people of Nimba reportedly came into contact with one another in the early 1900s. The Mano people are said to have migrated from an area that is now in Guinea. Oral accounts say some members of the Mano tribe, who reside along the St. John River bank and extend as far as to the Lola and N’Zerekorè belts in Guinea, were left on the Liberian side of the border when an international boundary between the two neighboring countries was created following the period of the “Scramble for Africa” by European powers.
The Mandingos are said to have traveled from the north of Guinea to Liberia in the 1940s to trade. They traded farming tools, salt and clothes for kola nuts, snuff and minerals (gold and diamond).
Accordingly, the Gio and Mano people, in need of goods from Guinea, welcomed the Mandingos and offered them plots on which to live.
The relationship was deepened when some Mandingos married Gio and Mano women and had children, though the Mandingos never accepted Gio and Mano men to marry their girls for religious reasons.
That long harmonious relationship was fractured, along with so many others, in 1985 when Liberia’s civil crisis escalated.
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of its West Africa Justice Reporting Project