Opinion

Sierra Leone: Land grabbing is the new calamity

28 June 2015 at 20:52 | 9082 views

By Anthony B. Conteh (Tony Bee), Sydney, Australia.

I am a researcher and investigative journalist with special interest in Sierra Leone, my homeland, despite the distance barrier. The ICC radar is focusing on the whole world, including Sierra Leoene for violence inciters who want to grab political power by force. My own radar is focusing exclusively on my country, Sierra Leone, 24/7 to know and expose the corrupt elements of peace, progress and development, especially the land grabbers and others.

Therefore, according to my research and investigation or radar, the Judiciary in Sierra Leone is contending with serious and complex problems related to land grabbing which most times are inextricably interwoven with the involvement of professionals.

According to my investigation, the growth of the phenomenon which has threatened the harmonious relationship between individuals and communities has caused the Sierra Leone Police to establish what is known as The Special Task Force against Land Grabbing. In many instances it has led to riots, mêlées, killings in extreme cases and also clandestine legal deals. The advent of the nouveaux-riches after the almost eleven years war in the country brought about a hike in the price of land (a lot of people migrated to the capital and surrounding areas where they felt more secure) which apparently spurred swindlers to grab lands belonging to others and sell them at exorbitant prices.

According to my research, in recent times, the high demand for land has even caused owners, especially in the west of the capital, Freetown, where the upper class resides, to demand foreign currencies in transactions, instead of the country’s legal currency, the Leone. The land grabbers in their bid to " get rich-quick" would fake documents and purport to be owners and would succeed to swindle unsuspecting buyers. It is sometimes difficult to authenticate documents as the syndicate itself is wide and even involves public servants and in some cases lawyers.

Sierra Leone was colonized by Britain and gained independence in 1961. The country inherited a legal system which though it is anachronistic and not in consonance with contemporary trends in the UK itself, is yet upheld and maintained in Sierra Leone.

As a result, according to my investigation, one of the greatest problems the judiciary is contending with in adjudicating matters related to lands is the proof of title. As such, a person claiming ownership of land merely registers the documents he has in his possession indicating ownership and not the title of the land. This apparently has caused the double registration of lands at the Ministry of Lands and Housing, which has introduced a new system called GPS (Global Positioning System) to curb the phenomenon.

According to information I have received, the other problem is the insincerity of surveyors; most of them connive with land grabbers in falsifying documents. A land situated at point B could be indicated to be at Point C giving an elusive knowledge of its location thus creating a situation that would enable two persons to be entitled to the same piece and parcel of land. It has caused a huge number of court cases that have overwhelmed members of the Bench.

I have also discovered that the same satanic surveyor that did the ungodly act, sometimes is the one they will call at the end of the day, in the course of adjudication; it is the same surveyors at the Ministry of Lands and Housing that are again called to testify and give expert opinion in determining who is entitled to the land in dispute. Do you see how corrupt Sierra Leoneans in the country are always putting the country in serious problems?

However, according to my investigation it’s not only surveyors and unscrupulous persons that are engaged in the "land-mania" and deals. There have also been reports especially at Bathurst Village, Goderich, Leicester and Regent on the outskirts of Freetown, of a group of young lawyers flocking there over the weekends offering to help land owners get conveyances. However, I am yet to find out more about these alleged corrupt crooks or new breed Sierra Leonean lawyers that are trying to bring the noble judiciary into a very funny position in the country.

According to information, it has apparently worried many land owners since these villages are within a geographical region known as Western Area Rural District created by a legal provision in what is called Laws of Sierra Leone of 1960 that makes this District distinct from the Western Area Urban or colony of Freetown.

The provisos and applicability of laws therefore in relation to this Rural District is akin to that of other rural areas in the provinces especially when it comes to land. For example, the mandatory acquisition of conveyance to prove title to land in the urban area or colony of Freetown does not apply to the Western Area Rural District, which operates a customary land ownership and acquisition system according to research.

What has brought sleepless nights to residents in villages within the Western Area Rural Districts is that some magistrates and judges on the one hand are not aware of this provision and would insist on conveyances to be provided to prove title whenever there is dispute over land. On the other hand, the unscrupulous have seen the loophole and would quickly grab land and prepare conveyances and then be ready for litigation since they would be in a stronger position to prove title in court. If it so, please Hon. Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Franklyn Kargbo and Chief Justice, Hon.ValiciousThomas do something to help the poor and helpless people in order to redeem them from the hands of corrupt and devilish Sierra Leoneans.

If this issue is not swiftly addressed it will create a situation in which land grabbers would continue to have the audacity and temerity to even challenge the real owner of a land who has no conveyance. According to reports, over the decades and to date, ownership of land in these areas has been by indicating mere demarcations through the use of trees, symbols or posts and the obligatory payment of taxes to the Rural District Council.

But in recent years, with the mad rush for land by the nouveaux riches, some prudent buyers have been forced to acquire conveyances for their lands but the majority of land owners have been overtaken by events since they were never under any mandatory requirement to acquire conveyances. The interpretation of the law now baffles them, and rightly or wrongly, it seems it is the land grabbers that would lord it over them and they (the genuine owners) would silently have to nurse their psychological wounds as they lose lands which they had inherited through generations. Please help the poor and powerless in the country.

According to my investigation, what also baffled the villagers is that the group of young lawyers who usually flock into these villages driven by land mania, end up helping people who are not entitled to these lands especially with the enticement of sharing the land.

There is currently a situation at Bathurst Village in which one lady is now challenging such a deal but the land lawyers have cowed her by demanding her documentary title to the land, which she has not got because the land ownership system never required her to have them. This is exactly what the land grabbers were praying for. If it so, I think the Judiciary has a serious job to do, to renew their laws, especially on this title deed issue. To stop the alleged new breed Shylocks, the bunch of corrupt lawyers involved in illegal land deals, from defrauding poor and helpless Sierra Leoneans in the country to avoid problems.

The land lawyers are benefiting from this lacuna in the land law system. Reports alleged that one of them has been rewarded with three acres of land as his own share for his satanic job done at the expense of the poor and powerless people in the country. This new phenomenon, which is so enticing, is magnetizing many more young lawyers to these villages over the weekend and it is envisaged that their activities would cause serious problems in the near future if they are not stopped, according to information.

However I would suggest that when land disputes are adjudicated in our courts of law, local authorities, including those from the Rural District Council, would be invited not only to testify but to give their expert opinion so as to guide the Bench instead of just declaring the person with the conveyance as the true owner, who could even be a land grabber.

Observers say what they are experiencing is that; every day in Sierra Leone instead of the honest chasing the dishonest, it is the dishonest that chase the honest around. The big question is; how safe are we in the country with such attitude and behaviour?

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