The Nimba Land Dispute: Where Do We Go from Here?

The Donzos, Jabateh and Kromah families along with all other Mandingoes live on their respective properties before the establishment of Nimba as a County in 1964.

By Ali D. Kaba @

Recently, a land dispute in Nimba between a group of Mandingoes and Manos/Gios escalated into open threats, raising fears of the dark days of the Liberian civil war. All three ethnic groups were major players in the civil war, fighting largely on opposing sides. (As a result of these tensions, the campaign to establish a War and Economic Crimes Court has gained some traction).  

Considering current political dynamics, what is the most likely scenario in the near future for the land conflict in Nimba? To address this question, we want to look at some of the structural and functional forces at play. Most land disputes in Liberia do not arise from the legal title of the property but are rather based on customary or informal claims. The Land Rights Law of 2018 seeks to remedy this.  Other times, legal documents to land claims went missing during the war or are incomplete. The legal framework, mangled by years of neglect, has also been exploited by government officials and elites, blurring the lines between formal claims and those claims made by the powerful. Consequently, many people lack confidence in the legal system, and judgments rendered by the courts can often seem unfair, biased, or corrupt.  

There are a number of conclusions that can be drawn from the picture above. First, the Liberian judicial system is not equipped to handle these types of land related problems. Second, public trust and confidence in the legal and administrative system is low. Third, unless trust is established between the disputing parties, actors will resort to ethnic, identity-based rhetoric to support their claims. 

In particular, the land disputes in Nimba may indicate a lingering discontent between the Mandingoes, and Gio and Mano groups in the county. The situation is further aggravated by persistent (post-war) strategic positioning of ethnic and religious groups, many of which are vulnerable to co-optation by political elites. In this context, the land crises in Nimba are geographically as well as psychologically pressing, resulting in distinct narratives of belonging and longing. It is perceived by one group as a sign of continuous presence, while another sees it as an obfuscation of history. All these factors contribute to the (de)formation of our democratic system, which relies on the distribution of electorates (identity-based votes), subjecting ruling regimes to the logic of demographic, political forces.

Take, for example: during the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s era, the Musa Bility's Commission tried to resolve the land dispute in Nimba, without success. While it is beyond the scope of this commentary to critique that report, suffice it to say that the process was political, heavily government driven. The current president, George Weah, has set up a similar committee to investigate and report on land conflicts in Nimba; and to identify “the root cause(s) of the recent violence.” There are many helpful hints we can draw from these efforts. However, the setup of these presidential commissions tends to promote the political image of the problem, the power of the presidency, and the prospect of (foreign) resources to buy peace. Although both variables (political will and resources) are integral to any solution, they are also constrained by politics: presidents rely on political capital (translated into votes), and financial resources are often subject to political interference, which can restrict mutually examined and agreed upon prescriptions.

Alternatively, it may be useful to have an independent technical team to examine and suggest scenarios that would help resolve the land disputes and contribute to sustained peace. In such a situation, we can imagine normative objectives like imposing a win-win condition on the parties, subjecting protagonists to a cost-benefit calculation accompanied by local trust building initiatives.  In more practical terms, the president and his team may consider the following:

  • Set up a Technical Team to evaluate the situation and formulate a set of recommendations or scenarios for the parties, the president, and relevant stakeholders
  • Put in place a committee for alternative dispute resolution to boost communication and trust between the parties
  • In collaboration with local authorities, the executive can institute legal barriers to halt further construction or legalization of land claims in the disputed area
  • Support parties that can reach a settlement amicably, whether it be financial support, public services, or tax waivers
  • Make use of alternative (outside the box) proposals, such as a land swap scheme, to resolve the dispute between the protagonists, the county/city, and the national government
  • The Ministry of Justice, the Land Authority, and the courts should work together with a technical committee and parties to implement findings and recommendations.

Obviously, these suggestions are a simplified version of what could be a complex process, and there are multiple paths to peace. 

Regardless of the intervention suggested by the current presidential committee, it is essential that the process is locally owned, seen as transparent. Also, it is important to emphasize that land conflicts in Nimba will likely persist without technical expertise, a cost-benefit framework, and a local dispute resolution mechanism.

Meanwhile, if the land issue remains unresolved, continued construction and formalization of claims will eventually increase the price of peace. Additionally, political elites, particularly those from opposing political blocs, can use latent grievances to stir up tensions. Of concerns, the ground realities are already tilted in these directions. 

Finally, if the president's commission recommendations fail to reach a consensus or come across as one-sided; it could prove explosive for Nimba in the future and may negatively affect the President's political position.