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Ganta in smoke

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-As land dispute sparks violence

The skylines of Ganta, the commercial city of Nimba was covered in thick grey smoke early Tuesday morning when violence erupted over disputed land in the city center. Businesses were closed, while parents and guardians rushed to school campuses for their children and wards as an oil depot and a warehouse were gutted by fire. A number of properties were also set on fire.

The violent clashes amid demonstration followed a demolition exercise carried out on Monday April 19, 2021 based on a court eviction orderissued by the 8th judicial circuit Court in Sanniquellie city.

The demolished buildings were situated on a disputed land between the Jabateh and Donzo families on one hand and Pts. Fred Johnson on the other. Dispute over this parcel of land has been going for a protracted period of time.

The Donzos have claimed that the demolition exercise were done illegally without prior notice.
Joint security officers including Police and Liberia Immigration Services (LIS), were seen guarding the site on the Dunbar Field around the Saclepea Parking Station.

No human casualty have been reported as the city remained tense as at the time of filing this report. Dispute over land in Nimba has been a long running issue. In May 2019, a case over land dispute in Nimba was filed before the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS.

The case was between the government of Liberia and the members of the Mandingo tribe of Ganta, Nimba County, the same place of Tuesday’s violent demonstration.

The suit in question emanated from a long-standing land dispute, which was offset by the “illegal occupation” of real properties of residents of Ganta, who are mainly the members of the Mandingo tribe, who fled the country during the war.

“The Mandingo people have been the owners of the properties in Ganta, Nimba County, Liberia from time immemorial.” The suit claim. “All of the lands in question were developed land that had our homes, business houses, farms, and plantations. Also, there was no court case/s anywhere claiming these Centuries-old owned properties of Mande’Nkoh people”.

In 2006, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf set up an ad-hoc committee headed by the late Internal Affairs Minister, Ambulai B. Johnson, to resolve the Nimba land disputes that many fear had the potential of plunging Liberia into crisis. Another commission was constituted comprising only Nimbaians and presided over by Mr. Musa Hassan Billity.

The two commissions established that to achieve peace and foster reconciliation, there was the need to compensate all the squatters to enable them to vacate the properties.

“With particular reference to Ganta and its environs, two hundred and fifty (250) cases out of the two hundred and eight (280) land dispute cases were resolved and the illegal occupants were fully compensated by the Government of Liberia,” read the suit.

“Disputes over land tenure in Nimba are common and  illustrate clashes between evolving notions of individual  ownership and customary systems of collective use, writes the Juliette Syn and the Norwegian Refugee Council information, Counselling and Legal Assistance Team in Nimba County.

In a report detailing the causes of the land dispute in Nimba, the NRC observed that “in the  past, when land belonged to a clan or family, there was a  clearly identified elder who would speak for the collective  regarding rights to use their land. 

Communal discussions were part of the process, so many people could attest  to traditional boundaries.” ”Today, the NRC went on, “the younger generation  often sells land without consulting anyone, resulting  in too many buyers for not enough land. Knowledge imbalance between wealthy urban, and  poorer rural Liberians is significant.”

 According to NRC  mediator Rebecca Secklo, “the secret of how to acquire  land was hidden from the country people” who, without  education, would forever be at a disadvantage. There are numerous cases in which deeds from the capital show  individual ownership of lands that have been occupied  by communities for decades. 

By Othello B. Garblah, with additional files

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