Its been barely seven year since the Nimba county land dispute commission led by current Liberia Football Association (LFA) president and Business tycoon, Musa Hassan Bility; as part of its report, recommended to the government of Liberia to provide one million United States dollars to be given as compensation to people illegally occupying properties most of whom belonging to members of the Mandingo ethnic group.
Initially reluctant to act upon the commission’s reports for fear of political backlash in the vote rich county, according to inside sources, the government with numerous advice from the National Land Reform Commission along with international development partners, allocated over one million United States dollars in the subsequent national budget (FY 2011 – 2012).
In further implementation of the commission’s recommendation, the government through the Ministry of Finance (MoF), now Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) along with the Nimba Land Commission, the National Land Reform Commission with help from development partners, began disbursement settlement funds to concerned illegal occupants.
The process had started with contentious land cases in and around Ganta and Sanniquillie. It was embraced by many especially victimized parties and local traditional leadership of the county, as they have anticipated that it extends to other land dispute cases across Nimba county. This process, as described by one of the leading property owners, if implemented fully and enforced, would have been the single most highly recommended non- violence approach to land settlement in the nation’s history.
It was initially remarkable as many illegal occupants were voluntarily coming out and receiving settlement funds, and planning evacuation; a process that reclaimed several properties especially in the Ganta and Sanniquillie areas.
However, barely a month after the process had gone into full swing, the commission received its first setback, with president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declaring an eminent domain over one of the most contentious land space now Ganta market, which the commission had hoped to be a major breakthrough if the settlement would have proceeded.
This case was between a prominent Mandingo family, the original owner vs scouse of residence who had claimed not direct ownership to the property, but that it was idea for a market place; a decision that got many actors concerned.
The Land space upon which the president declared an eminent domain, credible sources and document obtained, have confirmed that the land space was legally acquired and occupied by a prominent Mandingo family dating far back in the 1950s.
The source however, alleged that the eminent domain declared by the president was politically motivated as the president had received threats of votes withdrawals in the then upcoming election in October 2011, from the Nimba legislative caucus if the land space was given back to the original owner and not used as market place.
“We have received information that the Nimba county legislative caucus headed by Prince Y. Johnson, nearly all of whom are Mano and Gio ethnic groups members, have warned the president that she would lose votes if illegal marketers were evacuated” our source noted.
This declaration by the president was seeing by many especially top commission members as a shot in the legs of the land settlement process, and an outright victory for the illegal properties occupiers.
Not did it generated supports land grabbers, the president’s eminent domain also reinforced the reluctance of most illegal occupiers, even after collecting their settlement funds, as well as others wanting to reclaim surrendered properties.
Nearly seven year until now, the process is yet to yield the necessary fruits. Most properties owners still await getting hold of their properties, and the government has become even more reluctant to enforce any plan for fear of political backlash, as Nimba county stands strategic in the upcoming general and presidential elections scheduled later in October of this year.
Land disputes cases across Nimba county remain persistent, even though with no major violence reported, but the likelihood for any seem eminent as the country heads to a very crucial election. Votes and supports to candidates in Nimba county are being gartered through a strong position statement in favor of no further action on the commission’s report, or silence which also implies same.
Another factor that could be seeing as eminent threat to deriding the land settlement process in these last few months was the constant denial of thousands of Mandingoes and affiliates especially in Nimba county and other parts of Liberia by staffers of the national elections commissions to register to vote in the upcoming elections.
Some of the reasons according sources, were the failure of elders in many towns and villages to acknowledge or otherwise confirm the citizenship of many of those denied; a procedure that is legally accepted by election commission to verify people with no proper identifications.
But Mohammed John Fofana, a prominent citizen of Karnplay city and a small business owner, has a reservation. He told our correspondent that while it is true that national election commission has quantified those methods to be legal, he however frowns on the minor in which it was being carried out.
“Our problem with this process is that they are only applying it to Mandingo people and those with Mandingo names” Mohammed alleged. “When you come, and say your name is Petter Gweh or John Brown, they register you with no question even without identity; but when you called a Mohammed or a Musa name, they asked for all kinds of document” he furthered.
Mohammed who is also a victim of illegal land occupation, noted that many times he along with several youths from the Mandingo community in Karnplay, tried raising the issues of people illegally occupying their land to candidates vying for position in the upcoming elections, but near all of them declined making comment.
“Politicians will often come to us seeking our votes and making promises, but out of the sudden when we ask about their position on the land dispute issues, nobody give us answers” quote Mohammed.
As our correspondent placed several phone calls to some of the potential candidates to substantiate Mohammed’s claims; nearly all of them couldn’t be reached at that moment except one who also decline making any comment.
Elsewhere in Saclepea, Nimba county, Vayebah Konneh, a son of a prominent resident of Saclepea, told our news outlet that he and several other Mandingoes have experienced similar intimidation at the hands of national election commission staffs and residence, when they tried to register to vote.
“I’ve traveled from Monrovia all the way here in Saclepea to register to vote in my home town, but I was denied because no one elderly person here could identify me” said Vayebah Konneh.
“They don’t know me because I’m not living here, but how can I live here when our entire property is being illegally occupied by the Mano and Gio people while government sits there and does nothing about it?” questioned Vayebah.
Like Vayebah Konneh, Mohammed Fofana and many other Mandingo families, believed the refusal of the national election commission registration staff to register them on the basis that no one community elder could identify them, pose a dark cloud on their Liberian citizenship.
They’ve equally blamed the government, especially the president and members of Nimba legislative caucus for politicizing the land settlement process.
As our staff writer made efforts to confirm the allegation of discrimination in the voter registration process from authorities of the National Elections Commission, the commission declined responding, adding that they are considering the allegation very serious.