Digging in the Past: A New Look at the Customary Land Conflict in Liberia

A road in the middle of a forest in Gbarpolu County. FrontPage Africa/James Harding Giahyue

In 2018, the Land Rights Law of Liberia was passed into law. This was a good hundred years after the government formally declared “perfect, complete and absolute” possession of all lands within the borders of the State, This new law finally gives back to tribal people, the lands of their ancestors. It offers them the protection of fee simple ownership and several other benefits. This article offers the most comprehensive review of the various crisis points of customary land rights in Liberia.

Ironically, customary land disputes (CLD) between the Liberian State and tribal leaders, have origins in the United States of America. In fact, it did not even begin with future Liberians. It started when the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America or the American Colonization Society (ACS), composed of Quakers (who opposed slavery) and Slavers (who opposed the freedom of blacks), decided to resettle, back to Africa, the growing, dissatisfied black population. “[T]hey both agreed that freed Negroes should be repatriated to Africa.” (Gray, Negro Nation, 42). Though, the slave owning south and the more relaxed north, had different reasons to want America’s slave issues resolved speedily.

Often, the French and American Revolutions are cited as precursors to the growing slave dissent across America. However, most immediately, the Haitian Revolt (1804), the growing smaller resistances that bred a sense of fear across America, the Act of Congress abolishing the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1807) and Paul Cuffee’s self-sponsored trip to the west coast of Africa in 1815, shaped the issues of freedom and liberty for slaves and freed persons in America. These incidents forced a need for a pressing solution.

The British government’s experiment (1792) with the Free Colony of Freetown (some 30 years before the establishment of Monrovia), though not an overwhelming success initially, offered some hope. It meant that a solution was not too far-fetched. However, arriving at that solution would be painfully costly, eventually leading to the American Civil War.

For future Liberians, none of the politicization mattered. They simply needed a place to call home; seeing how they were not citizens in a land they had built and were now being told that they were undeserving of even occupying that land.

The Liberian Dream, through repatriation, offered them all they could not expect to get in America. Their support to the emigration movement was then a most logical reaction. For them, no price was too high. If it meant taking the tedious, risky journey to a land that was barely livable for them and dwelling amongst a distant kin that sold their ancestors, then so be it.

Settlement Expansion and Conflict

The first group of 86 emigrants onboard the Elizabeth, left New York in 1820 but it wasn’t until 1821 that the colonists actually landed on Providence Island. Their new home was previously inhabited, for centuries by smaller tribes. These tribes held customs vastly different from the Settlers’, especially regarding land titleship and ownership. Tribes owned their lands, they could sell them freely as long as the elders agreed. This very reality was how the ACS purchased land for its colony. No contention existed in this regard. The rest of the land not in used was typically held in common by the town or clan and was left to exist in its natural form.

Upon settling, the colony instituted two types of land ownership, public/government land and private land. This was clear. Customary or tribal land was clearly understood to remain in the jurisdiction and domain of tribal people. According to Gray, most of the hinterland didn’t wish to be a part of the new republic. In fact, in many ways, the tribal people were better off than the Settlers.

The Settlers, with their western orientation held a different view of land. They priced land and its ownership. For them, titleship was a most important aspect of their existence. They were from a nation that refused them, largely, the right to ownership. They intended to correct that injustice on the new land they called home.


Initially, upon settlement, the colony effected a no expansion policy but upon independence-1847, President Joseph Roberts, expanded only when necessary. However, President Stephen Benson, his successor, initiated a new aggressive policy regarding land. Benson’s administration didn’t wish to sit around waiting for help from the ACS when they were surround by arable land. Emboldened by the annexation of Maryland and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Davis vs RL (recognizing tribal inhabitants as full subjects of the Republic), he negotiated for more inward land with local tribes. Thus, by expansion, they could have more farmland and still use the other resources. Later, this expansion would prove to be a major fault line.

This expansion policy continued into the next administration of Daniel Warner. By this time, the Republic was desperately in need of money. Warner is credited for officially starting a hinterland policy. His administration commissioned Mr. Anderson’s first trip to the hinterland (1868). Anderson’s detailed report of the richness of the interior lands, the multiplicity of crops, food and opportunities for commerce, informed the government’s official policy. An Act of Legislature was passed in 1869 creating the Department of Interior to ‘manage’ all matters of the Hinterland tribal people. The act granted extensive judicial powers to an executive arm of government; which would turn out to be a major contention and turning point in the land crisis of Liberia.

Land Disputes and Coercion  

Before 1852, the Liberian government maintained a land policy that left the tribal peoples and their lands alone, unless by treaty, war or to prevent slavery. Few factors account for a policy shift.

Internationally, Liberia was floating in dangerous waters. Her desire to eradicate the slave trade had led her to send President Roberts to the British Court to raise money (1852-1855) to purchase the tract of land from Sherbro Island down to the Gallinhas. In 1856, Roberts, armed with deeds of claim from the tribal people, returned to Britain to show claim. In 1862, President Benson, on his British visit, was shocked when informed that the Crown, who had no earlier contention, was now protesting Liberia’s rights to impose tax on British subjects operating in the region. This was the first sign of decades of trouble to befall the new colony.

In 1883, Britain formally annexed to Sierra Leone, the disputed Sewa Mano Protectorate. Governor Havelock came with four armed gunboats so Liberia dropped claim to the land. Unfortunately, for Liberia, America deferred action against Britain. President Anthony Gardiner was forced to resign in protest. Two years later, President Hilary Johnson acquiesced in the annexation; he also forcefully resigned in protest. This was personal, considering that Johnson’s father, years before, had rejected British offer of protection to the new colony.

On the heels of all this provocation was the Scramble for Africa in 1885. The Berlin Conference produced a poorly worded treaty that was loosely interpreted by the great powers. Again to Liberia’s detriment. France, emboldened by America’s deferment to act for Liberia, sent troops and claimed lands deep into northern Liberia. Before then, she had only occupied parts of present day Guinea.

In 1891, they tried annexing lands, (previously gained through treaties and purchase by the Maryland Colony from Grebo Chiefs), well beyond the Cavalla River. Liberia’s claim had until then, laid up to at least 80 miles into the interior as far as San Pedro. Their argument being that the Berlin Treaty suggested that exercise of authority should precede any claim to territory and since the Liberian government had failed to exercise effective control, they could not claim the land. Instead, France had sent troops to quell disputes in the region multiple times, thus, France had a right of claim.

But through skilled diplomacy, Liberia enlisted the British who rejected the French claim as ‘greedy’. This forced the French to settle for land just after the Cavalla River. This formalized the annexation treaty in 1892 with Liberia (Franco-Liberian Treaty) and set the eastern border up to Cavalla River.

Thus, from 1860 to 1911, Liberia had lost, to Britain and France about 40% of its inland territories.

Policy Shift/ Land Grab Policy/ Customary Land Conflict

On the local front, things were not any better. By 1860, Liberia was hard pressed with financial issues. The ACS had lost most of its clout in the US power corridor. No power meant no money. The young nation, forced to find avenues for income, looked inward towards expansion.

It fell upon the Warner administration to make a workable policy. President Daniel Warner then commissioned Benjamin Anderson to visit the interior kingdom of Musardu. Anderson’s trip yielded much needed information. The interior was rich in food, commerce and trade. Warner was now faced with finding a way to tap into that wealth. Thus began the official shift in national land policy.

President Warner, armed with the knowledge of much needed wealth, realized that that there were two legal instruments he could work with to assert control over the hinterland. The first was a legislative act, “An Act to Maintain Peace and Enforce Order on the Highways to the Interior,” passed 1859. Drawn by treaty with warring tribes, the government was mandated to enforce order on all parties.

But even more important, was the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Davis v RL [1862] LRSC 2. The ruling concluded that, the tribal peoples were, “bona fide subjects of this state, and the political authority of the same covers them in all of their relations”. Also, by virtue of their abilities to form treaties with the government, subjected themselves to the full weight and protection of same, seeing how these treaties are confirmed by the Legislature, thus making them laws of the land.

Secondly, the Court recognized the “depth of ignorance and their incapacity to understand the workings of civilized governments”, however, the “peculiar situation of the natives,” made it, “necessary to draw their connection and acknowledgment of our political rule over them in form of treaties”. It notes that that ignorance shouldn’t be “misconstrued that the whole law of the land is not binding upon them, and that they are not to have the benefit of it when arraigned under it”.

This ruling, arguably, singularly presented the strongest legal justification for the Liberian government’s policy change to control tribal lands. Henceforth, every administration, exerted more control over tribal land. Despite the policy shift, customary landowners, initially, still had claim and rights to their lands.

President David Coleman, even more desperate for money, saw control of the hinterland as a means to that end. He aggressively enforced the expansion policy. His underestimation of the situation led to a massive political fallout. Things escalated quickly; the treaties, though with smaller allies, proved detrimental when he lost the Gola War-1899/1900. The collective discontent that reached Monrovia was a political killer. The government feared the situation turning into that of the southeastern wars with the Grebos and Krus, which had drained the national coffers. He was forced to resign.

Barclay puts the pieces together:

In 1903, incoming president, Arthur Barclay, led a commission to settle the last major border dispute between Liberia and the British colony of Sierra Leone. He was determined not to make his predecessor’s mistake.

The commission had determined that a new approach should be taken when dealing with the land issue. They proffered consultation based on four strong reasons. They understood that, traditionally, for the sake of peace, the State had gone into treaties with local leaders. The State also formed treaties with tribes to boost commerce. The third and fourth reasons went back to the colonial times when it was a mission to abolish slavery and protect the sovereignty of the State.

Thus, he opted for negotiation and consultation over a forceful approach. For the rest of the year, President Barclay initially consulted with the tribal leaders with whom the Liberian government had treaties, then other tribal leaders. He laid out the case that the land grab by foreign powers were not going to stop unless Liberia acted in a certain way. The solution, as he saw it, was to rule by proxy. This was what he sold to the tribal leaders. In exchange for the state support, leaders would get to rule undisturbed. This indirect rule would satisfy the stipulation of exercise of control, as per the Scramble for Africa’s Berlin Treaty.

Of course, it is arguable that all the chiefs understood the intricacies of the packs, but they got to keep their leaderships with a powerful ally backing them, the State. They also got to use that to rid themselves of their oppositions, directly or indirectly. Based on the wordings of the first deeds initiated after this strategy, it is seen that the State had indeed granted tribal leaders, basic usufruct, fee simple rights. For example, one of the earliest such deeds granted to the people and leader of Vai Town states:

“Whereas it is the true policy of this Government to induce the aborigines of the country to adopt civilization and to become loyal citizens of this Republic; and whereas one of the best means thereto is to grant lands in fee simple to all those showing themselves fit to be endowed with the rights and duties of full citizenship as voters; and whereas Murphey and the residents of Vai Town (Vai John’s People) have shown themselves to be persons fit to be entrusted with said rights and duties.”

“Now, therefore, know ye that I, Arthur Barclay, for and in consideration of the various duties of citizenship hereafter to be legally performed by the said Murphey and the residents of Vai Town, I, Arthur Barclay, President of the Republic of Liberia, for myself and my successors in office, have granted, and by these presents do give, grant, and confirm unto the said Murphey and the residents of Vai Town, his heirs, executors, administrators, and assigns forever, all that piece or parcel of land situate, lying and being in the Island Bushrod in the County of Montserrado…”

By this proxy rule action, the Government effectively exerted authority over all lands within the territorial borders of Liberia, especially those not initially under its jurisdiction. This effectively showed exercise of author. But president Barclay did not stop there. He pushed for stronger legal backing of the land grab policy.

Legal Instruments: Right To Exert Authority Over Tribal Lands

A year later, in 1904, the legislature passed the first detailed land rights law under this expansion, Public Lands Law. This act set the procedure for tribal people to purchase, allot, lease (to foreign parties) public lands. It also set forth the procedures for tribal people to reclaim that land if it reverted to the government because of disuse or other legal reasons. It was last amended in 1972 (Wily 2007).

In 1905 the administration further tightened her grip and passed the Hinterland Law (The Aborigine Grant Law). Under the law, The State gave tribal communities Aborigine Deeds and granted Tribal Certificates in fee simple (in some cases). However, other certificates were restricted. They prohibited any sale, transfer or assignment of the land without the expressed consent of the Liberian government. In 1907, President Barclay travelled to the US to settle his administration’s final border dispute with the British and French governments.

In 1914, the Hinterland Law was amended setting up the administrative system of proxy around the chieftaincy. This was most because from 1900 to 1920, Liberia was beset with wars. President Daniel Howard was bugged down with more wars than any other president up to that point. For example, along the Kru-Grebo coast, there were wars in 1909, 1910, 1912, and 1915 the same year of World War I, which stopped all international trade. The government needed to conclude the wars for fear of losing its sovereignty- from either local tribes (inward) or whichever powers that evolved victor of the War World (outward). To the Stare, the land grab situation was no longer permissible.

Fortunately, for the King administration, in 1919, the government of Liberia received the singular most important legal instrument to justify its policy to exert complete control over tribal lands throughout the country. The Supreme Court decided on the case, Karmo, et al v Morris {1919}LRSC 2. Chief Justice, Joseph J. Dossen, wrote the Court’s ruling. The decision to exert full control over customary land was made on three fundamental bases:

  1. Papal Bulls [Nicholas V (1454) and Alexander VI (1493)] – using history, the Court noted that the Papacy was the first to claim authority over granting of the “right to acquire, hold, and govern African territories;” and that, “this authority was exercisable independently of the assent of the natives over whom such powers were granted.”
  • US Supreme Court ruling in the Johnson v. McIntosh [1823] – as precedent, the Liberian Supreme Court held that, just as the “potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity in exchange for unlimited independence”, the Settlers could hold same claim, because, it “was a right … which all asserted for themselves and in the assertion of which by others all assented. Those relations which were to exist between the discoverer and the natives were to be regulated by themselves.” The ruling further held that,”[i]n the establishment of these relations the rights of the original inhabitants were in no instance entirely disregarded; but were necessarily to a considerable extent impaired.” Therefore, as the American Settler did, the Liberian Settlers were doing.
  • BERLIN Conference [1885] Articles 34 & 35 of the General Act. The ruling held that the “theory upon which a civilized state may extend its sovereignty and laws over uncivilized tribes who may not have previously come under the political and governmental control of some other civilized country, was developed and carried further at the African Conference of Berlin …It has been settled by International canons that whether the ideas of a native tribe permit soil occupied or claimed by them to be ceded or not, and by what tribal authorities the cession ought- to be made if permitted at all, are obscure and immaterial questions. So also are the questions whether a proposed cession, has been fully explained to the tribe and fair value given for it.” 

Chief Justice Dossen aptly argues that although Liberia previously only exercised authority and supervision over areas gained by treaties and conventions with local tribes, “modern international practice”, and multiple conventions between “neighboring countries” [Britain and France] “are not only evidence of the highest character, as to the recognized territorial status quo of the Republic by” these states; but, “they also by force of modern international rules and precedents noticed above, impose upon the inhabitants comprised within those prescribed limits the obligation of submitting to the sovereignty of the Republic of Liberia and the consequential right and duty on the part of the Government of extending its laws and polity over those parts and bringing the inhabitants under the influence of civilization.”

Therefore, based on the above and more, “[we feel no hesitancy in declaring that our sovereignty over what is called the hinterland of Liberia, is perfect, complete and absolute and that the Constitution …applies with equal force and effect over that section as it does over any part of the Liberian Republic.]”(bold and italics, author’s own.)

With this declaration, the amendments to the Hinterland Law [1909], and the Act of Legislature of October 13, 1914 granting more powers to the Interior Minister (both responsible for the creation of the local administrative system of Paramount and Clan Chiefs (Wily 2007).-, the King administration had enough to call to Monrovia all the chiefs for a conference. The chiefs were given the authority to collect taxes on behalf of the government, they now were a part of and allowed to keep some of that proceed for the running of their chiefdoms. They were generally free to rule their territories according to their tribal customs and laws, but also to recognize the supremacy of the legal codes upon appeal- thus solidifying the dual legal system. President King used the conference to do what America did with the Seven Major Crimes Act (1885) and the Indian Reorganization Act (1934), but in a subtle way. In exchange, tribal leaders were to understand that they were proxies of the government.

Thus, based on precedent, international law, standard practices, and to some extent, the agreement of the tribal chiefs in attendance to the 1923 conference, the Liberian state claimed full authority over all lands within her recognized boundaries.

Then in 1949, the Hinterland Law was amended but customary landowners were still given rights as fee simple. However, in 1954 amendment led to the Aborigine Law with a seemingly insignificant change of the wordings in few parts. The new law said customary landowners had the “right of use and possession of the land”. Where the previous said the “right and title to the land”. Though the change in wording seemed minor, it officialized, in the legal canons, any previous ambiguity regarding customary landownership. It placed all tribal land in the public space under the government’s care. Thus, customary landowners became mere occupants of the lands they occupied.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as of our Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding is provided by the American World Jewish Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.

D. Othniel Forte is a researcher, social scientist, and a career educator who has authored over ten books (academic and fiction). He is currently a PhD scholar and a university lecturer.