Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Liberia’s Land Reform: Perspective on a Historic Opportunity and Potential Challenges

Liberia’s most recent profound policy on social and property rights is the Land Rights Policy promulgated in May 2013. In this edition of the series, I bring to you excerpts and reedited version of a speech I delivered at a one-day Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue on the Land Rights Policy held at the University of Liberia on July 30, 2013 by civil society organizations under the above topic, and with emphasis on local governments and land governance:

Fellow panelists, ladies and gentlemen. Let me first expressed my gratitude to the organizers for inviting me to this unique occasion. I believe that it is through these initiatives of dialogue and constructive engagements that we can collectively address our national social, economic and political challenges in well-coordinated and inclusive ways. I am particularly delighted that the focus of today’s forum is on land reforms and the new land rights policy.

The views expressed here are informed by my experiences as a student who has sought to understand the political and socio-economic dynamics of my country, and my role as an activist with a passion to act in ways that those dynamics are shifted in the interest of every Liberian. Finally, these views are greatly informed by my experiences as a policy practitioner who has been charged with professional responsibilities at the Governance Commission to investigate and make recommendations for the advancement of good governance practices in Liberia.

Land governance is a critical element that must complement governance arrangements in all sectors to have a vibrant economy and social stability. The results of poor governance in land and related issues, like resources have led to huge disparities in wealth and social status in many societies and consequently civil war or ethnic crisis.

Civil wars are mostly caused by some of the factors associated with land, like natural resource management, economic prosperity, and property ownership. While land issues do not feature prominently as part of the causes of the civil war in Liberia, opposing forces however exploited the civil war to settle scores associated with previous land disputes. This made the issue of land to come to the fore in the aftermath of the civil war. For example, in places like Nimba and Lofa Counties, land related crises that erupted during the civil war still prevail and having them resolved have become a major challenge to stability in those counties. Similar issues, but at lower scales are all over the country.

As public sector institutions and governance arrangements are reformed after civil war, so it is equally important to reform land laws, settle land disputes and rearrange the institutions of land governance and management so that they become responsive to addressing grievances associated with tenure security and ownership issues. Not only that, land reform is also critical after civil wars to reestablish inheritance rights, protect disadvantaged segments of the population and redistribute to empower agrarian communities. The above are equally applicable to the situation in Liberia. That is why we strongly believe that successful peace and economic development cannot take place in Liberia if the issues of land are not prioritized as major national issues with implications on social stability and economic development.

In 2006, the Governance Commission started a process of land reform which involved nation-wide consultations with citizens, local officials, and members of the civil society. The most profound outcome of those consultations was the respond to the popular consensus amongst the people that the issue of land be addressed holistically and through a special commission or agency. This was how the Governance Commission formulated and recommended the creation of what is today the Land Commission. Since its inception in 2009, the Land Commission has worked across this country engaging local citizens, officials and national stakeholders eliciting their views on land reforms and land governance matters.

Through these initiatives, we have today a comprehensive and well-articulated land policy called the Land Rights Policy. The question today is can the Land Rights Policy address all of our problems associated with land? That is do we have recourse through this policy for our various tribal claims, private and corporate claims, and also does the government retain its right to lease any portion of land for investment and what are the mediums through which disadvantaged people can seek redress related to land loss, forceful eviction, and so forth? It is my understanding that the Land Commission is working out policy and legal frameworks on issues pertaining to land rights, land use and management that will together answer some of the questions above.

In any case, the Land Rights Policy of May 2013 presents a remarkable opportunity for Liberians in all walks of life. The categorization of land rights in separate categories is novel to Liberia and for the first time make the government a landowner with specific rights like private citizens or groups. This novel categorization of all land in Liberia as either, Private, Customary, Government or Public, answers several questions. First it tells us the conditions under which a land is owned and the status of the owner or owners; second, it tells us the various rights we have as landowners; and finally it helps us all to know where and from whom to buy a piece of land.
The methodology of Land Reform in Liberia is also very impressive. Contrary to the methodology of radical, imposing and often contested reform programs in other countries, Liberia is using a human rights based and participatory approach in which the citizens are directing the program. The outcomes of such initiatives are usually generally acceptable and all-inclusive. This methodology and the broad-based participation the reforms are benefitting from are the first opportunities Liberia has for peaceful land reform programs once the policies get at the implementation stage.

A second opportunity that Liberia’s land reform program is to benefit from is the ongoing decentralization reform program. This reform is intended to decentralize political, fiscal, and administrative powers to local units of the state, such as the county, the district, and the chiefdom. The National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance has already been promulgated by the Government, and a Local Government Act intended to give legal effect to the policy is been drafted. The Local Government Act provides for several local administrative departments, among which is a department on land, environment and natural resources.

Local governments are the most effective institutions for land governance. The position of a local government authority as the most proximate authority to local people and their problems make a local government the most reliable authority to deal with land conflicts, distribution and tenure security, provided that the local government itself has the legal mandate, administrative will, and resources needed for such interventions. The draft Local Government Act is drafted to give local governments the authority and resources to provide good governance and accelerate socio-economic development in counties, districts and other sub-national units. This law is in full compliance with the political principle of subsidiarity, which propounds that every matter must be handled by the lowest competent authority, and that the central authority must continue to play a subsidiary role. As land governance is mostly a local issue, particularly that of private land and customary land rights as provided for in the Land Rights Policy, the most competent local authority will be those provided for in the draft Local Government Act.

Governance reform in Liberia has not gone through without challenges. In fact, they are the most critical and challenging aspects of postwar nation building programs. It is the same with land reform. There are challenges associated with it, and if not handled properly, land reforms can sometimes trigger new rounds of crisis.

The challenges associated with land reform in Liberia are not exclusive of the challenges associated with reforms in the security sector, economic sector and public management. Like all other sectors, the institutions of land governance and management in Liberia are weak, ineffective and corrupt, and the legal frameworks are divisive, and very ambiguous. Remaking the land laws, and building institutions to enforce the land laws in the national interest is a huge task, and the Land Commission can tell you how challenging it has been for them to even to reach at a point of promulgating a land rights policy. A second challenge is the multiple ownership problems in Liberia, and the most difficult ones amongst them is the multiple tribal claims, or claims from two to three communities over a single area. This challenge is compounded further by the perennial conflicts associated with concession agreements, which the Liberian government enters into with multinational investors. From the signing of the Firestone Agreement in 1926 to the signing of the Sime Darby Agreement in 2009, communities have continued to protest and in some cases, like the Liberia Agricultural Company plantation extension program in 2007, communities have resorted to violence.

These are pressing issues that Land reform in Liberia must address and in a timely manner. If these communities cannot reclaim what they are laying claims to, land reform programs must then include reparations as part of addressing long-standing grievances associated with land loss in Liberia. Through such reparation programs communities can rebuild their lives, and have sustainable assess to livelihood and other needs previously served by their lands. Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you!

-In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry-

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