MONROVIA – The complex web of land rights issue catches everyone in Liberia with its tendrils reaching rich and poor alike. One family that claims it is a victim is that of the slain president, Samuel K. Doe. Former first Lady NanceB. Doe, accuses Cllr. Archibald F. Bernard, legal advisor to President George Weah, of using political power to hijack a property she says was sold by Mr. Bernard to President Doe just before the country’s civil conflict in 1990.
This story first appeared on FrontPageAfricaOnline as part of a collaboration for the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.
The family says they are powerless against a senior government figure.
“Because Archibald Bernard is legal advisor to President Weah, so he is using his power to suppress us, because his good friend the late Doe is dead and we do not have anybody to fight for us,” said George W. Wright, nephew of the late Samuel K. Doe, and spokesperson for the Doe family.
Wright claims that Bernard bought the land adjacent the VAMOMA House for US$ 16,000 from the Gbangay family in 1988 and sold it to President Doe in 1989 for US$ 25,000.
The Bernard children, in whose name the property was bought, were minors when the sale went through. Now they’re grown they want the property back, claiming their father had no right to sell the property because it was not in his name. In 2005 the children sued Samuel K. Doe Jr., the former president’s son. By 2011 the case had made its way to the Supreme Court where the justices ruled that indeed Bernard had illegally sold the property belonging to his children. The court ruled that the land be given to Bernard’s children.
The Doe family now argues that if they are to hand the property back to the Bernard children, the children should repay them the $25,000 Doe paid Bernard plus costs for damage done to the property. Since Bernard has refused to pay, according to Wright, the family says it is left with no option but to sue Bernard. Wright says the Supreme Court did not rule on the issue of repayment in 2011 saying it was not part of the case before them. But the court advised the Does to sue Bernard for the money. Frustrated by the judicial process they are asking the president put an end to the matter.
“I am appealing to President George Weah to please intervene and tell Bernard to pay our money back for the land and foundation on it,” said Wright.
In an interview at his office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bernard denied he had ever sold the land and taken Doe’s money.
“I never sold my land to President Samuel K. Doe.” He said the Doe family is taking advantage of his high position in the Weah administration to try to claim the land.
“The only thing I have in this world is my good name, so if two or three persons can say Archibald took advantage of them, then I am in the wrong,” said Bernard. “But once I know I did not do anything illegal, and since people feel that they can run to the media to sensationalize the issue, to accuse me, they can go ahead because my hands are clean.”
As in so many similar cases playing out across the country, there are competing title deeds.
Though Bernard would not provide Front Page Africa with a copy of his deed for the property, a source supplied FPA with a deed that came from previous administrators, Boima Tombekai and Morris Kallon. (An experienced lawyer at the probit court validated the authenticity of the deed. He did not want to be named saying he feared retaliation from Bernard.) The deed says the title was conferred to Bernard’s children including the following names: “Lionel, Sir Johmuga, Elijah Bokpolo, Raydee Danielle and Danielette Bernard.” It was probated on July 23rd, 1988, indicating volume number; 1688 and page number 165-167.
Though he would not provide the deed, Bernard did bring the area Chief Gbangay Sannor to the interview with Front Page Africa to back up his claim. Chief Gbangay said the Gbangay family originally owned 350 acres of land on which many people have encroached. Among those encroachers he said is VAMOMA House. Chief Gbangay said the family never approved Bernard’s sale of the land to the late President Samuel K. Doe.
“Mr. Bernard is our son through his grandmother was a Vai woman, so anybody who wants to take this property from Mr. Bernard, they will have to fight us first,” said Chief Gbangay.
The Doe family has provided Front Page Africa with a Warranty Deed. It states that Bernard, representing his children, Lionel, Sir Johmuga, Elijah Bokpolo, Raydee Danielle and Danielette Bernard, sold the land to Samuel Kanyon Doe Jr. The Deed was probated June 8, 1989, with volume number 11-89 and page number 612-614. The deed carries a signature saying it was witnessed by Doe’s Finance Minister G. Alvin Jones in 1989 during the sale.
Bernard rejected the Doe family’s document.
“The deed which the Doe family claims of having is a fake deed they forged and wrote some of the children’s name on it and said I was representing my kids when I sold the land to Doe,” Bernard said. “Does it make any sense to you that I will buy property in my children’s name and represent them to sell it? I challenge that fake deed the Doe family is carrying around.”
President Doe built the foundations for a building on the property, something Bernard does not contest. When asked why he allowed the late president Doe to erect a foundation on his land if he did not sell it to him, Bernard burst into laughter. “Are you sure you asking me such question when president Doe was a military leader, who got what he wanted? If I had refused for him to use my land at the time, then it meant I did not value my life,” he said.
This is not the only property Mrs. Doe has tried to reclaim since the war. She claims President Doe also purchased the VAMOMA House and a Congo Town property currently occupied by Senator Varney Sherman.
The Land Rights Act was recently passed into law by the Legislature, and the Land Authority did not exist when this case was first brought. According to Johnson Wilson Akoto, Land Dispute Officer at the Land Authority in Monrovia, the government is yet to receive hard copies of the recently passed Land Rights act to share with the general public, but in the mean time, the Land Authority is using the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) method to solve land disputes and conflicts around the country so that people involved in land disputes, do not have to go to court as the Does and Bernards did in this case.
“People come to us with cases and we cite the parties involved and mediate between them to ascertain the facts to get the history of the land,” said Akoto. “Then we request their Deeds to substantiate their claims. Then we do the spot check, which is verifying the property and at times during this period, we sometimes resolve the issue right on the spot.”
Akoto said the Land Authority cannot intervene in the Doe family and Bernard land dispute case, since the matter has already gone before the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.
Meanwhile the Bernards have plans to build a parking lot on the property.
At the same time the Doe family insists they will not give the land up until Bernard repays them for the money they say he took from Doe.
“I know Weah will tell Bernard to settle us, but if he refuses, we will be forced to sue him for our money and damages,” said Wright.