JULIJUAH, BOMI COUNTY – Senator Sando Johnson has been accused of stealing land from the people of Julijuah in the Tehr District by elders and the town chief. They claim the land grab occurred 18 years ago when Johnson was an official in the regime of former President Charles Taylor.
Report by Varney Kamara with New Narratives
Senator Johnson has refuted the accusation, claiming that the controversial portion of farmland belongs to him.
“Sando Johnson wants to take our land by force but we will never allow this, because this is our inheritance,” said Mohammed Seh, Clan Chief of Terh Clan. “He asked us that he wanted to plant sugarcane in the area, so we gave him the land on traditional ties,” he claimed.
Chief Seh further claimed that the dispute with Senator Johnson began back in 2004 when he and other townspeople decided to survey the land but were resisted by Johnson. “He refused to leave the land and denied the surveyor of extending the survey in the disputed area which is also ours,” Chief Seh said. He added they conducted the survey leaving out the controversial plot of land.
Liberia’s passage of the Land Rights Act last year was hailed across the world for recognizing customary communities’ rights to land, but advocates are bemoaning a new wave of land grabs by the Liberian political establishment.
A report by the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI)— “The Struggle between the Powerful and the People: How Customary Communities struggle for Land and Livelihood”—released June this year, found that past and current government officials might have illegally obtained more than 9,000 acres of land in Bomi. The report didn’t name Senator Johnson or any past and current officials but captured him on its map of elites who it said owned farms in the western county. The report said it did not name any officials because it said it did not independently verify allegations made by people it interviewed.
“The pattern of elite land grab in Liberia is systemic,” said James Otto the program manager at Sustainable Development Institute, who is one of the authors of the report. “This situation dates as far back as pre-war Liberia, and it has only intensified in recent years, after several government officials, both past and present, decided to venture into small farm business, using their financial and political influence to grab more lands from communities.”
A deed in possession of Julijuah seen by this reporter shows that the 2,199.56 acres of land was surveyed on December 15, 2004 and probated on April 27, 2015. Its diagram excludes the controversial plot of land, though.
Senator Johnson did not deny nor confirm claim by Julijuah that he does not have a deed for the controversial land
“I really don’t have time for all that they are claiming,” Senator Johnson said. “They can say anything they want to say, but all I know is that the deed that they are possessing is not legitimate. It should not have extended into the area that they’re claiming,” the lawmaker said, refusing to comment further on the matter.
However, Seh Gbota, Town Chief of Goldee Dodo, the hometown of Senator Johnson, jumped into his defense.
“What the Julijuah people are claiming is not true,” Gbota said. “We got the land through intermarriage. We don’t have a deed for the land in dispute.” Julijuah is a dense forest region where most locals depend on farming. Suehn-Mecca and Senjeh District, where Goldee Dodo is located, comprise predominantly the Kpelle, Gola and Vai tribes.
Veronica M. Nimene Tarley, Vetting Officer at the Liberia Land Authority (LAA) assigned to the dispute, said the LLA did not have any record of Senator Johnson’s claim to the estimated 60 acres of land in question, but said they were aware of a survey he conducted but did not complete. Tarley also revealed that the LLA has not done a complementary survey as required by the Land Rights Act before a customary community gets a deed for their land.
“I am aware that Julijuah people have a deed, but I am also aware that the LLA needs to do a confirmative survey to establish whether or not what the [Land Commission at the time] instructed was implemented by the surveyor before the Commission can certify the deed,” Tarley told this reporter.
The LAA and civil society organizations are currently granting customary communities deeds to their lands after they meet all requirements under the Land Rights Act. Among other things, they must organize themselves, form land governance structures and harmonize boundaries with their neighbors.
Otto said the only hope for Julijuah was the law.
“The LAA must fast track the implementation of the Land Rights Act in order to stop this land grab spree,” Otto said. “This is a classic way of taking away land from the poor people,” he claimed.
“This situation also poses threat to food security and the livelihood of the people. It leaves them vulnerable, and this attitude must stop.”
Aaron Boimah, spokesaman of the Julijuah people, said they will soon embark on a “mass media campaign” and won’t give up their fight to get their land back from Sando Johnson.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as of a Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding is provided by the American World Jewish Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.