Liberia’s land issue is very vital to the stability of our peace. Thanks to the present administration, through the Land Commission, for its work done so far to review and resolve the land related issues in Liberia. Though there are varying sentiments expressed around what’s right and wrong in the corridors of public opinion, it is important that we voice out and tolerate our opinions on this issue. However, let’s be able to examine some important questions and answer them with sincerity, temperance, and a reconciliatory mindset. Be it as it may, Let us review the arguments:
The Humanitarian Argument:
There are those who make the humanitarian argument that squatters have nowhere to go; in fact the land was abandoned by owners; and squatters maintained it in owners’ absence. Therefore, squatters deserve compensation from owners who return or they (owners) lose their rights to their land. Better yet, others question why are owners returning after long absence to reclaim “their land” when investment such as construction of mud or cement houses, or zinc shacks have brought development to the land? To those who support the above mentioned views, is it fair to ask squatters if they enjoyed any benefits from the land that they occupied freely, not to mention illegally, that warrant compensation for owners? To those who question the protracted absence of owners, at what point in time did they start counting owners’ time of absence from their land to warrant squatters’ ownership? Are squatters suggesting that Liberians who fled abroad from a 14-year-old civil war don’t deserve ownership to their land anymore? Or are squatters claiming land without deed based on humanitarian reasons or word of mouth agreement (squat until I am ready for the land) of yesteryears? Are squatters claiming “Usufruct Right” which is defined in Civil Law as the right of one individual to use and enjoy the property of another, provided its substance is neither impaired nor altered? Squatters would have more of a claim of “Adverse Possession” than Usufruct Rights because this right is conferred by the legal owner; for example, if husband dies and leaves land with no will, the surviving spouse has Usufruct rights until either her death or she remarries (assuming, of course, that it was only the deceased spouse who owned the land). But a squatter can occupy a land without permission, openly and notoriously, uninterrupted for a period of twenty years and then claim ownership of the land through Adverse Possession. However, advocating “Adverse Possession” against owners who fled the civil war is illegal. Squatters who are attempting to dispossess owners cannot claim “20 years of uninterrupted occupation” of owners’ land because owners can also claim that the civil war interrupted any development for the last 14 years and counting toward peace and stability. Or owners can also claim that efforts were undertaking to remove squatters until the civil war came.
Finally, others cite examples of multiple evictions around Monrovia with nothing being done on the land. Should we be infringing on the rights of owners by compelling them to have a timeline for the development of their land as a prerequisite for eviction? Fellow Liberians, as we ponder over these questions, is the concept of humanitarianism being misapplied or misunderstood? Humanitarianism does not trump the rule of law to dispossess deeded land owners. Should this be allowed, anarchy becomes our constitution thereby threatening peace and stability amidst the progress made. What can be suggested is that we uphold the rule of law and a coordinated effort is undertaken to relocate displaced Liberian brothers and sisters. This can be a humanitarian thing to do, for example, by interest groups, political parties, government through the assistance of the international community, or individual Liberians who can afford it. Government NOT land owners can play a pivotal role in leading this endeavor and upholding the rule of law.
The Rule of Law Argument & Courts’ Decision:
The Liberian Constitution, specifically Article 11 A and C, “…defends life and liberty, of pursuing and maintaining the security of the person and of acquiring, possessing and protecting property, subject to such qualifications as provided for in this Constitution and equal protection under the law” for all, respectively. Hence, private land ownership in Liberia is indicative of a formal process authenticated by the legal issuance of a deed. And the one with the oldest deed usually claims ownership to the land thus enjoying protection under the law.
While we all recognize the humanitarian concerns of our Liberian brothers and sisters, it cannot replace the rule of law that guarantees and protects private properties. And squatters cannot insist on dispossessing owners who have legitimate deed(s) to their land under the law. Clearly the court of public opinion does not trump the law of the land. Otherwise, people can now move into other people’s homes, occupy their land, and refuse to leave based on humanitarian ground as being done today. A case in point is a woman who fled Liberia’s civil war. A young man’s father called asking for her to assist him with shelter in return for watching her property. The young man’s father died later-may his soul rest in peace. The young man took over the woman’s property and began defacing it as his own and renting it out. The owner sought peaceful resolution to reclaim her property, but to no avail. Suddenly she finds herself in court incurring expenses to reclaim her property because of a kind gesture gone badly. And there are many other Liberians in and out of the country who are becoming victims of this trend. Imagine someone taking your property that you have worked for or inherited.
History reminds us and supports that land acquisition by urbanites in coastal Liberia used a system of land ownership based on fees that granted title. Liberians in the interior used their own traditional systems based on community or collective ownership of unique land and land without deed is owned by government; thus denying ownership rights to squatters unless conferred by government. The Public Land Laws of 1956 and 1973 provide the legal framework governing public land. Provisions in the law acknowledge the Liberian government as the sole authority of public land despite communal claims. It protects government-owned land and its ability to exercise eminent domain-government’s right to appropriate private land for public use, with owner benefitting from compensation. While it is true that Liberia’s Land Policy needs reform as has been drafted by the Land Commission, it still remains to be passed into law. However, it does not give squatters’ rights to claim private property at their choosing. In fact the drafted land reform policy addresses the following, Public Land, Government Land, Customary Land, and Private Land for every one’s review.
Finally fellow Liberians, what kind of Liberia do we hope to build? Do we want a nation of anarchy that threatens our peace or a nation of Law that protects our peace? Land disputes must not become the new instrument of divide among us or a catalyst for war. Let’s respect the rule of law as we build a new Liberia. Squatters are Liberians as land owners are Liberians. Hence, the following is proposed as previously stated:
- Everyone respect the rule of law and observe court’s decision;
- Government, in collaboration with the international community, can lead on the issue of relocation of displaced Liberians;
- Political parties, and interest groups can help facilitate the process by raising awareness on the law and make meaningful financial contributions towards effort to relocate our brothers and sisters;
- Let us desist from fanning the flame of confusion.
May God bless us all as we build the new Liberia!