GBONYEA, Bong County – Emmanuel Tokpah always wanted a home of his own. The 27-year-old bike rider had saved enough money to begin construction on a house in this village. But his dreams were shattered in July 2016 when a group of men from neighboring Gbonata came and ordered him to stop work.
The men claimed the land belonged to the people of Gbonata and said Tokpah had no right to build there. The people of Gbonyea claim they have a “customary” right to the land which they had labored on for generations, often under conditions they called slavery.
With the dispute threatening to escalate into violence, local authorities banned all building, farming or fishing on the area pending an investigation and resolution to the issue. Years later frustrations are building.
Tokpah’s construction had no roof to shield it from the rain. It is now in ruins.
“Breaking my house down brought a great set back to me. I can’t spend a lot of money to build my house and at last my efforts go in vain,” said Tokpah, predicting the dispute will descend into conflict if things aren’t settled soon. “If the government, don’t come in, it will make human beings to lose their lives, because land issue is not a small thing.”
The dispute between groups of the Manquelleh clan, in the Walapolu chiefdom, is symbolic of disputes playing out across the nation as a result of the passage of the 2018 Land Rights Act. It was an ambitious law that clearly asserts the right to what is known as “customary land” – territory that can be claimed through oral testimony and community agreement.
A FrontPage Africa/New Narratives investigation has shed light on the delay in resolving this and many land disputes across the country. Five years since the Manquelleh dispute came to their attention government agencies cannot give clear answers to what is happening with the case. Neither government nor Parley, a Liberian organization working to help communities establish traditional land title, could say how many such disputes there are in the country but Parley said it has received so many it is overwhelmed. Our investigation reveals a system that is paralyzed, confusing, and ultimately, failing Liberians.
The people of Gbonyea say they acquired the disputed land when their forefathers labored for decades to claim it according to the Kpelleh culture and traditions.
“Our people were slaves those days to the people of Gbonota, and up to this time they feel we are still their slaves,” says Gbonyea Town Chief Alfred Sumo.
“Anytime they wanted to brush the roads they came for manpower here. When they wanted to tote heavy loads, they will come for people here. Now we own our place, they are saying why should Gbonyea people own that large portion of land?”
The fault line of this dispute is the Moinyea River, a narrow and clean body of water that flows peacefully through the area. On a recent visit women fetched buckets of cool water from the river. Fish swam lazily from side to side unaware of the dark clouds that were roiling a meeting of elders in a Palavar hut nearby.
Chief Sumo called a meeting with elders, women and youth to explain the dispute. Women who depend on farming for their livelihood told of the hardship they have suffered. Mama Sirleaf, a widow and mother of seven, said she is unable to make farm to send her children to school since activities on the land stopped.
“I have been making farm for more than 15 years and that’s farming I been living by,” said Sirleaf. “I am not just sitting down with hands in my pocket since my husband died. It was farming that was supporting my children to go to school, but since this land palava, we the women, are not making farm again. So now, we can just cook and sell and the balance one we can eat.”
As the tensions reach breaking point the people charged with settling these disputes do not appear to feel the same sense of urgency as the people here.
Bong County Superintendent, Madam Esther Walker told reporters that she cannot remember a land dispute in that area of Bong County because she is so overwhelmed with many land dispute cases.
“I have over six files on my desk regarding land disputes, that I cannot remember this particular area.
Our people have to understand that the land they are fighting over is customary land, which is for everybody and not one particular party according to the Land Rights law. And if they are saying they inherited the land from their forefathers, were it deeded to them?” asked Walker.
Surprisingly Madame Walker’s Assistant Development Superintendent Anthony Sheriff, does have knowledge of the situation. When this dispute came to light in 2016, he said the Minister of Internal Affairs sent out a message that all land matters in the Republic be handled by the government of Liberia’s Land Authority not local government. But when reporters queried the Land Authority Commissioner for Land Dispute, Kula Jackson, he said he was unaware of a land dispute in that part of Bong country. Reporters’ queries marked the first time such was brought to his attention.
Sheriff says he worked with Charles King, formerly of the Land Authority on the investigation at the time. King, though no longer at the Land Authority, said the case is still being investigated.
“We intend to get a technician from the Mines and Energy, to help us to look and find out whether they have a map for Mehnquelleh Clan,” said King. “Then we will get to know the boundary between the two towns. This is where we are.”
Frustration with the slow and bungled resolution process has angered Garmai Weefah, General Town Chief appointed by the government to oversee the two towns. Weefar who refers to herself as “twin mother” says she fears continued inaction may destroy the cordial relationship that has existed between them for generations.
“Apart from the land issue, the communities of Gbonota and Gbonyea are one. If somebody dies in Gbonota the citizens from Gbonyea, will all come here. The same with Gbonyea if somebody dies there, the citizen from Gbonota will go there and sit with them. But because of this land issue that has brought noise between us, none of these things can’t happen again,” says Madame Weefah.
According to the Land Rights Law, there are five steps communities should follow before owning customary Lands: 1. Community self-identification, which means the people in one or more towns, Chiefdom and clans come together and say they are one people and want to own their land together. 2. participatory mapping, when the groups come together and show the land, mountains, forest, rivers and creeks that their forefathers used. 3. Boundary harmonization where people in the community come together with their neighbors to agree on the boundaries between communities. 4. Development of By-laws, meaning they have to make their own laws on how to make decisions about their land. 5. The establishment of the Community Land Development Management Committee, (CLDMC)and the communities elect people to serve.
But neither Gbonota nor Gbonyea has gone through any of the processes to enable them get a deed for the disputed land. Parley Liberia, a non-governmental organization tasked with helping groups establish CLDMCs, says it cannot intervene until the two groups resolve their conflict.
“The issue between Gbonyea and Gbonota is internal because they are all in the same clan, so our focus is within the clan to be demarcated or harmonizing their boundary with the adjacent clans, so we want to do that external first,” says Josephus Blim of Parley.
Liberian historian and researcher Mr. Othinel Forte said the dispute reflects a lingering legacy of Liberia’s founding. After Liberia’s American settlers arrived in the 1820s they put in a place a fee simple process for land tenure in Monrovia. In the interior they allowed customary law. Through local chiefs the settlers reinforced a rural elite to enforce rule on rural communities. Often that meant enslaving weaker populations.
Forte says the Kpelle tribe far back in history, were noted for giving their children out to people in exchange for the monies they owed debtors.
“They used the Kpelle tribe as slaves because they were humble and easygoing people. The geological location also made them the best people to use as slaves. A good portion of the Kpelle tribe understood service; they believe that they live to serve,” he says.
Losing a house at such young age, Tokpah said he is devastated because he has not recovered the L$40,000 he used to make his dirt bricks for his house, and another L$4,000 to a contractor.
“I do not know when will this dispute end for me to see what to do about my place, but even if everything is over and I get my land, where will I get that kind of money from again? That was my life savings, “ says Tokpah showing his frustration. “Because of this conflict, all my money was wasted and yet our elders cannot come together and resolve this matter.”
This story was a collaboration with Front Page africa as part of its Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the American Jewish World Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.