Community chairman alerts
The chairman of the Johnsonville community, Alpha H. Momoh, has warned that the huge number of land cases from the area, especially those lingering at the magistrate and circuit courts, remains a future threat to the community if nothing is done to reduce the caseload.
Over the years, land issues have been the cause of serious conflicts in Liberia, resulting to the loss of lives and the destruction of properties.
“We see this as a future threat to this community, because many of those selling land in this community are caretakers who do not have the authority to sell properties that don’t belong to them. Many of those who sold land have been identified as caretakers, not legitimate owners. So I believe there will be serious land conflicts, some of which (are already) arising,” said Momoh who has lived in the area for over 15 years. He added that many land cases in the Johnsonville area continue to linger in the court system.
According to research, about 30 percent of cases at the courts are land cases. “Most often, land issues go to court and remain at a standstill, thereby leaving both parties with the notion of still owning the land. I don’t know what is really responsible for some of the cases lingering in the court without them being adjudicated,” he said.
Chairman Momoh said the judicial branch of government, which is also charged with the responsibility of resolving disputes over land, should prioritize land cases in the area and hear them speedily in order to prevent future conflicts or threats.
He said that although there have been some reduction regarding land conflicts in the community in recent times, there are still a significant number of cases yet to be adjudicated.
He however acknowledged that here have been ‘some serious awareness’ initiatives in terms of educating the public on how to go about buying and selling land in the area.
Chairman Momoh, who also intervenes in land issues as a first step to resolving conflicts, often refers major cases to the Township Commissioner’s office due to complications associated with some cases. He, however, noted that only a few people seek his advice as chairman in the process of acquiring land while most of the people avoid getting his office involved.
Chairman Momoh encouraged community dwellers and potential buyers to seek his advice before purchasing land. “We want them to come see the community chairman to ascertain who owns the land before moving ahead to purchase it,” chairman Momoh said.
Still on land conflicts, one of the victims of illegal land sale who preferred anonymity told the Daily Observer that a neighbor secretly sold their family’s land in the Gardnersville area.
“We have a land that was bought by our late father, but our neighbor sold the land to another person claiming that the land belonged to their family. While trying to peacefully resolve the situation and reclaim the land through the commissioner’s office, she ran to the court, which landed us here,” the victim said.
To avoid misunderstanding or a conflict, the victim said, “We took the matter to the commissioner so that we could have it handled, but only ended up with the bailiff serving us a letter to appear before the court.”
“Unfortunately for us,” the victim said, “upon arrival, the entire family was placed on the prisoner’s bench from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. by the judge handling the case without asking any of us regarding the complaint filed.”
The victim added: “The decision by the judge was a complete sign of intimidation from the court.”
The family’s spokesperson described the court’s action as unfortunate and a misrepresentation of the justice system, adding: “We all, regardless of financial status or affiliation, deserve justice.”
“We have made arrangements with the judiciary requesting that the judge does not handle this case,” said the victim.
Another victim told this paper that her case has been at the court for over eight months without it being looked into.
“I have spent over US$500 just for the small piece land and I am now getting exhausted with this legal issue that has no end. I bought this piece of land and just for me to start building, three persons claimed ownership,” she said. “We are in court and hoping that the judge will consider who bought the land first.”
Conflicts related to land are common in Liberia: There are multiple sales of land, boundary disputes between clans and chiefdoms; disputes over ownership of parcels of land; and conflicts arising from communities’ resistance to land grabs by investors among others, according to the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL).
CENTAL’s Land Corruption Research report indicates that Liberia has made progress in addressing land-related challenges.
The findings reveal that studies have been conducted, policies adopted, executive orders issued, laws enacted, and institutions created to improve and strengthen the sector.
“Research is available on title registration, spatial data infrastructure, land related laws, women’s land rights, urban law reform, land dispute management, Supreme Court decisions on land cases, and overall land management and administration,” the report stated.
The report noted that although policy making and research have been infused with the recognized importance of land to Liberians in the urban and rural areas, or communities and individuals alike, minimal emphasis has been placed on the extent to which corruption undermines the viability of the land sector.
“Corruption in the land sector is widely accepted as consequential, but there is no extensive study that examines its impact on land access and ownership, tenure security, citizen participation in decision-making, advocacy, and dispute resolution among others,” the CENTAL findings observed.
Atty. Bob Laywhylee (a lawyer residing in the Paynesville community giving his expert view on the land issue) said there is a need for surveyors and buyers to know who the original land owner is before proceeding to survey the land, because according to the Criminal Conveyance Law, both parties can go to jail.
Atty. Laywhylee said building human capacity and having more than one judge would help address some of the delays associated with land cases at the courts.
“We need to prosecute at all levels. Some victims end up leaving the land because of the cost associated with land issues, including hiring a lawyer, and transportation going to court sometimes on a regular basis,” Atty. Laywhylee said.
According to him, there are many issues attached to land cases in court, including stress, frustration, peculiarity among others, stating: “Since the law was passed, only one person has been sentenced.”
Many women who are or have been affected by land conflicts in the Johnsonville and Paynesville communities refused to speak to us due to fear of being pursued or attacked after being heard or published on the media.