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"Give us this day our daily rice": The search for food security in Sierra Leone

8 September 2016 at 04:58 | 3262 views


By Dr. Hassan B. Sisay, USA.

Sierra Leone has a severe and complicated relationship with rice, exacerbated by its reliance on an obsolete land tenure system.

Rice is Sierra Leone’s main food and part of a daily menu. And yet, only a minimal amount is grown by locals. It doesn’t matter what other food they eat, Sierra Leoneans must eat rice at least once a day before they can say they have eaten at all, said BBC Correspondent and local journalist Umaro Fofana.

Despite extensive expert reports indicating that almost 80% of the land in the country is ideal for cultivation of food and cash crops, Sierra Leone continues to rely on imported rice. The nation has maintained for decades a rice research station at Rokupr (in the northern region) and received lots of international financial and expert aid to boost its efforts; still reliance on imported rice persists.

There is a litany of failed policies in rice cultivation and leaders seem to be oblivious of the possibility that current foreign food suppliers might someday stop selling rice and other food products to Sierra Leone due to perhaps weather related crises, unfavorable market conditions, or political instability.

Rice is especially scarce from June to August, when the rains are heaviest and the need for rice is at its highest. As earlier mentioned, this state of affairs has been ongoing for decades with a relentless unwillingness of past administrations, both civilian and military, to implement effective solutions to the nation’s perennial hunger.

Instead, there is a fixation on the easy way out by resorting to rice imports estimated at $200m and $300m annually thus siphoning the already limited foreign reserves needed in other crucial areas of national development. Meanwhile, hunger continues and promises are periodically made to hungry citizens by our politicians that a permanent solution to the problem was imminent.

The late president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 2002 vowed to galvanize his enormous political power and resources to end hunger in Sierra Leone within five years, adding that no Sierra Leonean should go to bed hungry. Of course he failed; Sierra Leoneans continue to go to bed hungry.

Similarly, current President Dr. Earnest Bai Koroma, on signing the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) in 2009 stated, "this is an important historical moment not only for Sierra Leone, but for Africa as a whole. We regard CAADP as being pivotal to our poverty and hunger eradication efforts." Still hunger persists (at least for now).

To date, no previous administration, be it civilian or military, has ever succeeded in solving the nation’s perennial food crisis. Could there be individuals who benefit from these food shortages? So, what causes hunger and sporadic food problems in Sierra Leone? Could it be linked to our maintenance of dual land tenure systems? Probably so. Aren’t there viable solutions to solving food insecurity and current dependence on imported foods, especially rice?

Former Minister of Agriculture Dr. Joseph Sam Sesay, suggested that the country should eat less rice and supplement the regular diet with yams, cassava and sweet potatoes. Good luck with that quick solution to a seemingly complex and ingrained social and political problem. Sierra Leoneans are socialized from birth to eat rice daily. Changing this addiction would require a major paradigm shift.

Meanwhile, foreign and local experts have over several decades suggested some best practices to alleviate the nation’s food crisis, namely:

- Implementation of mechanized farming,

- ensuring reliable electricity supply,

- providing fertilizers and tractors to farmers,

- reducing the importation of food stuffs,

- taxing food imports when local replacements are available,

- constructing effective food storage facilities for locally produced foods,

- purchasing harvested crops from local farmers and processing them for export,

- construction of feeder roads to and from rice producing areas, and extension of loans to small farmers who comprise 90 per cent of the farming population.

The above notwithstanding, there is general consensus that the persistent food crisis is primarily caused by an archaic Land Tenure system, which has resulted in vast areas of the hinterland to remain underutilized for food production. Without implementation of effective and carefully thought out reforms of the current land tenure system, much arable land needed to grow crops including rice for domestic consumption will continue to be inaccessible.

The problem is compounded by a dual system of land ownership based on statutory and customary laws, the former is written and the latter is not. Considerable excellent research has been conducted on this topic including, Dr. Aderemi Desmond Renner - Thomas: Land Tenure in Sierra Leone: The Law, Dualism and the Making of a Land Policy, John Unruh, Land Policy Reform, Customary Rule of Law and Sierra Leone, African Journal of Legal Studies, USAID Country Profile: Property Rights and Resource Governance, Sierra Leone.

Further, in a brilliantly written article entitled Tenure System in Sierra Leone: A Proposal, author Omotunde E. G. Johnson, of the International Growth Center (IGC) London School of Economics and Political Science, methodically outlined the origins and confusion associated with the current dual system of land ownership in Sierra Leone, and why it may continue to be costly to the nation if left unreformed. Briefly, Dr. Johnson, links much of the blame to the actions of the British Governor of Sierra Leone, Sir Alexander Ransford Slater’s 1927 Land Ordinance based on two Sierra Leones” - the Colony and Protectorate” territories.

He noted how the document specifically indicated that “all lands in the provinces (formerly the protectorate) of Sierra Leone are vested in the tribal authorities who hold such land for and on behalf of the native communities concerned.” The Ordinance excluded two groups from acquiring provincial lands, “strangers” most likely Creoles, and “foreigners.”.

In the event that the above two groups needed such lands, they were required to solicit “the consent of the tribal authority,” and accept mandatory restricted years of occupancy and renewal.

Similarly, in a balanced article,” Land tenure, food security and investment in postwar Sierra Leone,” by John D. Unruh and Harry Turay, renowned academician and former principal of Njala university, the two writers provided an in-depth account of the implications of Sierra Leone’s land tenure system and why resolving the customary aspects of the law will require careful deliberation and planning.

For example, while both writers acknowledged that Sierra Leone “had abundant fertile land,” estimated at “4 million hectares of prime farm land of significant arable potential…,” they warned of potential problems of modifying the current customary land ownership laws absent proper consideration of some crucial facts.

Above all, they stressed the importance of understanding the origins of the land tenure system, and particularly the customary responsibilities of land owning families and rights of local paramount chiefs in the crucial areas of land sales. Both must approve all land transactions before they are finalized. As noted by Unruh and Turay, the role of paramount chiefs on land sales is significant because, “there is no rural land in the country that does not reside within a chiefdom, with the exception of the Western Area and therefore not subject to customary tenure.”

However, Chiefs’ involvement in family land sales has been problematic. For instance, a myriad of complications has arisen in cases where a land sale is approved by a paramount chief but then upon his demise, the successor disapproves of the transaction. Besides, how are customary land boundaries determined? Why is there such a reluctance to sell family lands to large agricultural companies? “

This land is all we have,” is the familiar response to land buyers, by many landowners in the rural areas who are fearful of losing what they consider as transferable property within their families and not for sale in perpetuity to outsiders.

Accordingly, any proposal at changing the current land tenure system must allay the widespread fears in the provinces about a government intervention that will permanently take away their landed property. In addition, the nation’s banking system is woefully inadequate regarding the funding of large scale agricultural projects to ease the nation’s food crisis. With the main banks located in Freetown, management of these financial institutions are unenthusiastic about extending loans especially to poor farmers without bank accounts, acceptable credit history, and land claims often based on word of mouth. Structurally, banks have become part of the problem rather than the solution to the national food crisis. Much advanced work is paramount prior to enacting a full blown reform of the current land tenure system.

Leasing of farm land has been mentioned as a suitable alternative to outright purchase. That too is fraught with challenges. While some local chiefs supported the idea, the overwhelming preference was for a limited period of land leasing subjected to periodic renewals. This step by step approach to land tenure security advanced by traditional land owners and chiefs is popular, but dismissed as a major stumbling block by those who would like to engage in extensive agricultural cultivation in the provinces. Trying to convince customary land owing families to permanently release their grip on farm land in order to achieve national food security, has been an arduous task for all governments.

Earlier, President Joseph Saidu Momoh’s administration appointed a 35 Member Committee to examine land tenure issues and make recommendations to his government. Unfortunately, his committee report took the easiest way out by embracing the status quo based on Governor Slater’s 1927 Land Ordinance forbidding land sales to foreigners in the provinces. As stated in its final report, “…once it became possible to sell land to foreigners in the provinces, many family lands would soon be sold to rich absentee landlords and in a short time a proportion of the provincial population would become landless.”

As we await the impending publication of President Koroma’s constitutional review committee, questions abound on the fate of the customary land tenure system. Will the current Committee recommend fundamental reforms, or will they too succumb to the easy way out by continuing the status quo? In its first draft, the Koroma Committee made progress by recommending that “the two land tenure systems in the country should be harmonized.” This is a good start but how is the harmonization going to be achieved? How will the concerns of interested groups such as banks, customary land owning families, rights of local paramount chiefs, and so-called “strangers” going to be addressed?

Obviously, passing the buck to another administration will continue to stifle agricultural productivity and escalate reliance on imported foods. Indeed, the land tenure problem requires a final solution acceptable to all stakeholders. The time for equivocation and temporary solutions is over. What is at stake is food security intertwined with the nation’s survival. This is also another way of equitable leveraging of the abundant and fertile land resources God has granted for the benefit of “ALL SIERRA LEONEANS.” Accordingly, I completely agree with Dr. Johnson that a land tenure reform “would unleash the vast economic growth potential of Sierra Leone in tourism, agriculture and industry…” The nation is in a quagmire and awaits with anxious suspense the final Constitutional Review Committee’s report on this matter.