Liberia's silent land war has now become a war of words and placards with tension brewing daily either between individuals and families or companies and tribes or clans. (Photo: Wade C. L. Williams/ IPS)
BY WADE C. L. WILLIAMS
The land crisis between the cooper Family and residents of the ELWA community has hit boiling point and many fear if not handled carefully might degenerate into a crisis. The Cooper land saga is just a fragment of wrangling over land among citizens of the country since the end of the war in 2003.
Following the country's almost two decades civil war during which scores were displaced and hundreds of thousands died there emerged what Lofa County Senator Sumo Kupee calls a mad rush for land as many try to rebuild their lives.
But this rebuilding of lives has not come without deadly consequences. On February 26, 2010 mob violence broke out in Voinjama, with rival gangs of Lorma and Mandingo youth taking to the streets. The youths attackedmembers of rival tribes burning places of worship, businesses, and homes.
Several people died mainly from ethnic Lormas and Mandingos, a Catholic Mission was set ablaze, and the Free Pentecostal Church vandalized during the crisis as a result of the death of Korpo Kamara, an eleventh grade student of the Zorzor Lutheran High School, who was murdered sometime between February 22-26, 2010.
There have been land crisis in Nimba, Grand Cape Mount, Maryland, Bomi, Sinoe, Gbarpolu and Montserrado Counties. Some of these land conflicts have come as a result of tribal lands given to big concession companies operating in these counties.
Also there have been frequent disputes over land ownership which has been exacerbated by the loss of legal documents and other circumstances. Some Liberians take advantage of the high demand for land and devise means of disposing of almost any available land that has no visible ownership or that is not under immediate supervision.
Struggles for land and other assets have generated tensions and violent conflicts throughout the country conflicts which often take ethnic dimensions. According to a January 2012 report by Columbia University's Center for International Conflict Resolution, 'Liberia has experienced a number of high profile, even violent incidents related to land issues.'
The report also pinpointed the November 2007 incidents which resulted to the death of the foreign manager of the Belgian owned Liberia Agriculture Company (LAC) who was shot and killed by indigenous people upset with the company's expansion plans.
In March 2011, there was a mass demonstration near the Putu concession area which resulted to the death of two people and required the deployment of the Liberian National Police's Emergency Response Unit (ERU).
Liberia's Land Commission confirmed that the government entered into an agreement with Sime Darby to cultivate land in the four counties and added that the agreement states that within twelve months, the Ministries of Agriculture and Land, Mines and Energy would have demarcated said land in the counties.
Recently, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had to personally intervene in the brewing tension between the Golden Veroleum concession company and the people of Sinoe County admitting that the government made mistakes.
Court not the place
The behavior of some aggrieved residents of the ELWA area in reaction of Supreme Court ruling in a 180-acres of land dispute in favor of the Cooper's family taking to the street and blocking the highway while setting tires ablaze is believed to be a recipe for future conflict as Ali Kaba of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI).
Kaba said the ruling by the court is a costly precedence that could lead to future conflicts if care is not taken adding that land issues cannot be settled in courts.
"The land issue cannot be settled in the court, the court system does not have the capacity to solve the problems we face, the problems we face are historical, political and economic," he said in a mobile phone interview with FrontPageAfrica.
"If you move these people, giving rights to an individual against an assumed rights by those that are on the land. The danger is this could then question many other lands in the country where people have settled for generations."
It is a serious problem that everybody that lives in a situation like this must pay attention to. He said the ELWA residents/Cooper Family land war might have far-reaching consequences at the national level.
"This sets a precedence that might be very costly going forward because it could mean that most other conflicts and confusion about land will have to be settled in the courts," he said.
"But the problem we face in this country is bigger than the courts because the laws themselves have problems. I think that this is a precedence that might be very costly going forward as we get this land policy cleaned up."
Liberia's silent land war has now become a war of words and placards with tension brewing daily either between individuals and families or companies and tribes or clans.
Resident of the ELWA area recently took the battle on this same land to the capitol petitioning Lawmakers and craving government intervention in the case but to no avail. In the Petition the residents call for violent resistance against the Coopers or any attempt to evict them in this manner.
"They say the only way is for us who have been living on the land for more than 20 and 30 years is to buy the land from them,"an angry Adna Mason affected by the dispute had told lawmakers.
"They will value the house if the house is three bed rooms the owner is supposed to pay ten thousand to the Coopers. We have been talking so we decided to come here and call the government's attention. We have durable structures on the land and every time they sending text message to us that they will come and bring caterpillar bulldozer to take us from the land so we are not sleeping these few days."
Recently, the Supreme Court passed a judgment in favor of the Coopers over the Dessen calling for the eviction of people from the land. The Cooper's land like many other lands has been sold and resold in parts over the years and many on the land have been residing there for many years since the civil war.
They are decent hard working Liberians. When Elise White and other came to exercise the order of the Court, they were met with some resistance. Some residents lost their properties and cash by those escorted by the Coopers.
Sources say that the Coopers are requesting USD10, 000.00 for one lot and the value of the property. They are asking residents to pay USD 25,000.00, USD 75,000.00 etc. Residents filed a bill of information through the law office of T. Nebalee Warner, on 16th January 2013 requesting a stay of order from the court.
Claiming the attention of the UN
In late 2012, the United Nations Security Council asked the Government of Liberia through the Capitol tomake laws that would prevent land disputes in Liberia.
The Head of delegation of the UNSC members visiting Liberia Adullah Hussain Haroon, permanent representative of Pakistan to the UN, said the Council observed that land title issues and small weapons are major threats to peace in Liberia.
He stressed that if the issues of land is not properly looked into there would be problems for the UN and the people of Liberia. In recognition of the potential threat that land disputes pose to the peace and stability of any nation the Legislature passed an Act establishing the National Land Commission of Liberia.
The Commission seeks to examine existing laws on the books and find solutions to the crisis over land ownership and distribution in Liberia. But the ELWA-Copper land saga seems to be beyond the reach of the land commission.