Theophilus Sahr Gbenda: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 26 October 2018:
Recent developments around land governance and land ownership have left many with an impression that in the next five to ten years in Sierra Leone, issues around land will be a major flash point for bloody conflicts.
Focusing on the Freetown area where land has become the hottest of cakes, there are problems here and there, with fears that there is hardly any piece of land that has not been taken already.
Given the mad rush for land especially in many areas of Freetown and communities in the provinces that are affected by large scale acquisition of land by multinational companies embarked on industrial agriculture, effective land governance is key if only to avert the impending dangers ahead.
The National Land Policy categorizes land in the Freetown area as either state owned or private owned.
State Land refers to land owned by the state, administered by the State Land Act of 1960 which empowers the president, or a minister appointed to make and execute grants of any state land or of any interest thereof.
Private Land on the other hand refers to land owned by private individuals and other corporate entities and can be freely disposed of by the owner.
The fact that the governance of the country’s land space is based on laws formulated even before the country gained independence in 1961, only means that the whole land business is in chaos.
Because of the overwhelming powers bestowed on the president and his appointed lands minister, insofar as dispensing state land is concerned, management of it has since been overshadowed by politics and corruption in the past.
It is the general expectation therefore that the current government under the New Direction will do all it takes to right the wrongs that have characterized the land sector for so long, by identifying and isolating notorious land grabbers and those acting in connivance with them including rogue elements at the lands ministry itself and other associated line ministries, agencies and departments.
I wonder whether there is any acre of genuine state land left. Little wonder why the new Minister of Lands Country Planning and the Environment Dr. Dennis Sandy upon taking up office, vowed to reclaim all state lands and have gone ahead to cancel all state land grants approved by his predecessors.
Whether the minister is right in this drive remains to be seen; and whether the cancellation of state land grants also extends to his time as minister in that same ministry under the All People’s Congress (APC) past regime and even beyond.
The need for a humane approach in achieving this all-important objective cannot be overemphasized, especially so when the majority of people caught in the middle of such a hardliner action went through legitimate channels, including the lands ministry to secure their allotted plots of state land.
So far, this seems the opposite, as there are instances where Lands Minister Dr. Dennis Sandy in his desperation to achieve his set goal as indicated above, has even come under accusation of converting private lands into state lands using political power and the security forces (the police and the army).
Many families have been dispossessed of their genuinely acquired lands and rendered practically homeless. This no doubt, is without a human face and therefore constitutes a gross human rights violation. It’s barbaric to render people homeless.
Deceitfulness in land deals has become the other of the day, with so-called private lands now too expensive and risky to buy. Even land belonging to an established individual, family or corporate entity with all relevant documentation, can be taken away using falsified documents and the power of political, judicial and police connections.
What has baffled many is the fact that there are people who are claiming ownership of hundreds of acres of land in certain strategic or prime areas in the far outskirts of Freetown.
Goderich area has seen so much of that already, and now it’s in places like Bawbaw and Number Two River in the Freetown Peninsular, where people widely perceived as serial land grabbers are reportedly taking a deadly toll on unsuspecting and vulnerable legitimate land owners.
There is plenty of evidence of such perceived land grabbers using fake powers of attorney, fake Land Survey Numbers that do not correspond with the actual location of the land, fake or back dated site plans and forged signatures of former directors of survey at the Ministry of Lands Country Planning and the Environment.
Because the administration of private lands is not directly controlled by government, it is most often the courts that handle disputes over such.
There are scores of land matters in court today than ever before in the history of the country. Land grabbers do not work alone. Allegedly, they operate in a joint criminal network inclusive of some top lawyers, magistrates and judges.
Land grabbers do not fear the courts. They work with it to get their way. The strategy is to grab and share. Luckily for them, they also have certain rogue village headmen dancing in their hands alongside the security forces, notably the police.
It’s quite an organized clandestine business and many families have become victims of what can best be referred to as a land cartel.
This story is intended to draw the attention of the authorities concerned to claims on vast areas of lands by individuals who have had hands in the land market for far too long and ascertain the originality and validity of such claims.
This is so because over the years, there has been so much injustice around land ownership and by the look of things, this might spill over into sustained bloody attacks in the near future.
Already, countless number of people have lost their lives in heated land disputes across the Western Area urban and rural districts in particular.
Just recently, a young man serving as caretaker of a particular land at the Goderich area, was killed in cold blood by thugs.
By way of suggesting ways to put things in there right perspectives, it will make absolute sense for the new Lands Minister Dr. Dennis Sandy to fully enhance the already available mechanism for tracking authentic Land Survey Numbers (LS Number) digitally.
This is so because often, certain LS Numbers do not match with the actual location of the land. What has come out clearly is that so-called technical personnel at the Ministry of Lands Country Planning and the Environment have over the years acted in ways that can only be described as unprofessional and unpatriotic.
Imagine directors of lands and surveys appending their all-important signatures to land documents without first going on the ground to track the ownership profile of the land at stake and suitability of it for the given development project. This obviously gives rise to multiple allocations and bad name for the ministry.
It is widely believed that certain officials in the ministry have over the years been conniving with notorious land grabbers to lay claims to lands legally owned by others. They forge land documents and use official ministry stamps to give legitimacy to them. A number of such officials have been picked up over the years and summarily laid off.
The Office of the Registrar General at Roxy Building in central Freetown, responsible for the registration of all title deeds with legitimate LS Numbers, is another spot where land grabbers explore for relevant information to perfect their land document forgery scam.
As stated earlier, land grabbers don’t fear the court. They work with it. This is a crucial matter because it undermines the course of justice.
Stories abound as to how in most land cases, the parties in a particular matter are not treated equally when it comes to the service of notice for hearing.
In this way, the magistrate or judge is left with no option but to deliver judgment in default, with the party genuinely entitled to the land but not properly informed about the sittings of the court, becoming the victim.
I’m of the view that in land cases, the bench hardly has time to go on a locust visit to the contested site alongside technical personnel including a government surveyor to determine in the first place whether the LS Numbers in the ownership documents presented in evidence match with the exact location of the land.
We’ve seen judgments being delivered in favour of persons whose LS Numbers can only be located up in the skies.
To avoid such an unforgivable error of judgment, a locust visit should be paid to the disputed land and all necessary doubts cleared before the actual commencement of trial.
Many development projects have stalled unduly because of court cases arising from the blue. This has driven many investors away and as a result undermines huge economic and employment opportunities.
We’ve seen fake demolition warrants used to illegally demolish legitimately built houses. We’ve also seen lawyers jumping sides in most land matters involving land magnates. There’s a particular instance wherein a lawyer wickedly tried to force his client to sign a forged document that would have seen him losing his entire land to the other party, in a complex land matter.
The Ministry of Lands in currently looking into the matter to ensure that justice is done. There’s so much to it than the scope of this piece can contain.
Author: Theophilus Sahr Gbenda is editor of More Fire Publications