For 16 years Augustus Sibley has been proud of the small lot he managed to buy here in 2006 in the Paynesville area on the outskirts of Monrovia, and the three-bedroom house he built for himself and his family.
But today the plot is a source of pain for the 62-year-old who says the government is taking the land from him. The house is built on a lot back from the main road. But a half lot on the main road leading to the Omega central market he was renting to store holders. That area has now been taken over as part of the market land. He was not consulted and has received no compensation.
“I obtained my property in 2005; one and half lots of land from the George Barning and Moses Gaga families,” says an emotional Mr. Sibley. “During that time, they had eight acres for sale at the time.”
Mr. Sibley showed The Daily Observer a title deed that shows Augustus Sibley, along with his wife Judy Sibley, paid $1,275 in 2005 for 1.52 lots. The deed shows George Y. Barning, Sr. and Moses Gargar, administrators of the Estate of Stephen K. Barning and Saturday Gargar, signed and turned the parcel of land over to them.
The Sibleys are just two of many landowners in this area who were impacted in July this year when the government decided to relocate thousands of marketers from the long-existing Red Light market to here. The 400-acre area, known as Omega, had been designated as a market ground in 2013 when the US Coast Guard’s radio tower here was dismantled. The facility’s use of the Very Low Frequency (VLF) Navigation System known as OMEGA gave the area its name.
Then-US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield handed ownership of the land to then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In the meantime, pressure had been mounting to move the Red Light market which had sprung up on the capital’s main thoroughfare during the war and had become an impediment to the construction of the major roadway from Parker Paint to ELWA Junction. The presence of marketers at Red Light has also caused health and security problems in the area.
Sirleaf decided to solve that problem by handing the Omega site to the marketers at Red Light. When the radio tower was dismantled and the area subsequently declared a market site, there were no occupants.
President Sirleaf said in an interview following the US Coast Guard’s departure, “That area will be used for market. The red Light market will be transferred to Omega and the Sirleaf Market Women Fund will begin building there soon.” By then people were warned not to build on the land and or encroach on it because it was public land and is set aside by the government for a special project. There was no resettlement package promised to anyone since the government was not moving people from there to be relocated.
On July 11 this year police officers, acting on the orders of the Ministry of Public Works and the Monrovia City Corporation, moved into the area. Mr. Sibley said the officers ordered them to leave the area because Public Works was coming the next morning to demolish structures that are on the land belonging to the Omega Market.
“I saw armed police officers marching into my area claiming that the place belongs to the government and therefore they were taking it from me,” says Sibley.
The government claimed the right to act under Article 53 of the New Land Right Act passed in 2018. The Act says the Government may take ownership of the land space once occupied by OMEGA.
“Government land or public land may be acquired by reversion where the land ceases to be used by a diplomatic mission or a charity or missionary organization provided that such land used by a diplomatic mission or a charity or missionary organization was not customary land,” according to the Act.
The actions have thrown private property owners here into turmoil. The Sibleys and others say they own the land legally and the government cannot override their legal title and give the land away. Sibley claims nobody has ever made any claim on the land since he bought it in 2005. He says he was shocked to see police officers claiming the area as the government’s property.
“We went to the Lands and Mines Ministry to make sure that all documents are genuine. In fact, when we came here for the exercise, we were accompanied by a police officer because we wanted due diligence before procuring the land,” he says.
Not only has Mr. Sibley lost the land, he has lost the income he earned from it.
“I gave my space to petty traders to build their temporary market stalls so that in the future I would build stores and shops. Look at the inhumane act that has been committed by public works and the police.
He vows to fight. “I will get a lawyer. I will not compromise this. We will go to the court to obtain a stop order.” Unlike Mr. Sibley, who possesses a deed for the area he occupies, Beatrice J. Kollee, 32, is among squatters dwelling here who also want help. The National Housing Authority is responsible for making use of public land or land purchased by the government to build housing units that the government can rent out to citizens. It may only allow squatters on its land and then remove them when it is ready to construct houses.
Ms. Kollee, who possesses a $10.00 US receipt issued by the National Housing Authority and giving her squatters rights to the land while it was vacant. She says the government did not inform her that anything had changed.
“The government has not informed us that it was about to take the place from us until this day when they came surprisingly to drive us away,” she said.
The National Housing Authority has turned down a request to respond to this concern on two occasions. The Daily Observer got no response to a request on September 17. When this reporter contacted NHA Director, Celia Cuffey Brown again on September 20 she said she was not in the position to speak to the press.
The Liberia Marketing Association (LMA), the main owner of the Omega land space, is also confused about its boundary. In a letter to President Weah dated August 7, 2021, LMA Secretary Melvin Kemokai, Superintendent Mary Saydee Walley, and Assistant Superintendent Esther K. Stephen, stated, “Mr. President, since the five markets were relocated to this 14h Omega International market, the LMA does not know its boundary between the Transport Union and National Housing Authority (NHA) and we have been denied to build on the land.”
Upon removing sellers from Red Light, the President constituted a committee headed by the Ministry of Public Works with the Monrovia City Corporation serving as the Co-chair and the Liberia Land Authority and others serving as members.
John Zoegar, Director for Highway Road Construction at the Ministry of Public Works (MPW), assured The Daily Observer that there is a “Resettlement Action Plan” that the government designs for any affected party in such a project like the one at Omega, and all those with claims will be addressed individually.
“They will call people involved to provide legal documents and will have some forms of compensation. This is what the government does whenever it engages in such a project like this and people are affected.”
Zoegar clarified that the Omega Market land is a little over 400 acres, but said people have been encroaching on it and therefore the Presidential Committee comprising the Ministry of Public Works, Monrovia City Corporation, and the Liberia Land Authority has decided to carry out a survey to set the proper demarcation.
Kweshie Tetteh, the Land Authority Public Relations Officer, said the Authority could not comment on matters that involve government-owned land and when a committee has been constituted to address all of the concerns arising in the wake of the relocation. But two months on from the demolitions at OMEGA people here do not trust the government. Resettlement, they say, was promised before demolition not after. 85-year-old Monigo Kpangbala’s whose three-bedroom house was demolished is pleading with the government to uphold its promise.
“When it was declared a market ground, the government said before taking us from here it would resettle us. We want the resettlement package to come now to help us get another place,” she pleads. “I am in tears and I am asking the entire community to fight my battle. It’s very painful. I suffered too much, and all my small, small money I got went behind that house that was damaged, but I depend on God and the Omega community.”
However, prior to dismantling the Omega tower, no one was allowed to live on this land because it belonged to the US Government, and upon dismantling in 2013 the government immediately took over and declared the land as public land and cautioning people not to build there. Land Rights Advocate Dr. Emmanuel Urey of Landesa says “Criminal conveyance and deliberate encroachment on others’ properties have become rampant in Liberia as a result of weak laws.”
Nathan Oweh, 44, whose two-bedroom house was demolished said the timing, during the country’s economic crisis was cruel and unfair.
“We are citizens too. If the government will break down houses to create space for marketers, it must also consider the well-being of the other citizens too,” Oweh pleads.
Kema Jallah, whose four-bedroom house along with a shop was demolished is also distressed.
“I am a widow with two children. I have been living in Omega for the past 15 years. But I was driven out at night to break down my house. I don’t have anywhere to carry my children. Let President George Weah help us, we don’t have anywhere to go,” she says.
Archie Darkpannah Tarkai, Co-Chair of the Omega Community, echoed the frustration and sense of powerless that many in the community are feeling. He said he would make use of the one tool he has to persuade the government to act. He would mobilize youth to vote against them in 2023.
“My three-bedroom house with one shop was broken down. I have nowhere to go. President Weah must know that we are the same people that he is depending on to give him power in 2023.”
This story was a collaboration with Daily Observer as part of the Land Rights Reporting project. Funding was provided by the Jewish American World Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.