The return of thousands of Liberians from camps across West Africa is fuelling ethnic tension over the ownership of land and homes in northern Nimba county, which saw some of the worst fighting in the civil war.
Hundreds of machete-armed youths from the Mano and Gio ethnic groups took to the streets of Nimba’s second largest commercial city Ganta last week after rumours circulated that ethnic Mandingos, who have been living in refugee camps in Guinea, were about to attack the city to reclaim their land.
UN peacekeepers and newly trained police officers rapidly contained the trouble, making four arrests. But frightened residents, still reeling from 14 years of violent warfare, scuttled into the bush for safety.
The advance in the 1990s of Charles Taylor, the rebel leader who would become president in 1997, ended the peaceful coexistence of Mandingos with their Gio and Mano neighbours.
Taylor launched a war in the late 1980s on then president, Samuel Doe, in Nimba from bases in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire. Taylor’s fighters were mostly Gios and Manos. They accused the Mandingos of supporting Doe and his ethnic Krahns, and chased them from their homes, and often, out of Liberia all together.
A decade and a half later, Liberia is at peace and the colossal task of rebuilding the entire infrastructure - from roads to schools, power lines and hospitals - has begun. The refugee camps that sheltered tens of thousands of Liberians are closing and UN agencies are transporting families home.
But many Mandingos are returning to Nimba to find that their homes are now occupied by the Mano and Gio neighbours that chased them away.
Sekou Donzo, a local Mandingo leader in Ganta, told IRIN that patience is running out among his kinsmen after several failed mediations by local government leaders to re-possess their properties.
“We do not want war, no more war in Liberia, but our rights to live freely on our lands and houses that we built before the war are being trampled upon by our fellow Liberians here in Nimba… Our people are returning and they cannot be squatters in towns where they built their houses,” he said.
Donzo said that since he returned from living in a refugee camp in Guinea’s forest region, he has been staying with some friends of friends while his four-bedroom house in central Ganta is being “illegally occupied”.
“I have gone to commend the occupants of my house for taking good care of it since the war and I gave them about six months to relocate. The ultimatum expired in December, but a gentleman who is receiving rent from the occupants told me boldly in January that I have no claim over the house,” Donzo said pointing to the house.
But some Gios and Manos contend that they are just taking back what was theirs before Mandingos - mostly Muslims who trace their roots to territory beyond Liberia’s northern border - moved into the area in the 1960s.
“The houses and lands that most of our Mandingo brothers are saying we are illegally occupying were owned by our grandparents. [The Mandingos] took it from them because those Mandingos had money at the time,” said Mathews Saye, a Mano. “Any attempt by anybody to forcibly take our land will be resisted.”
Others say that the occupation of Mandingo homes and land is a simple act of “revenge” against Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the largest force fighting to oust Taylor from 1999 onwards, which also attracted many Krahns formerly linked to Doe.
“LURD fighters were mainly Mandingos who, from bases in Guinea, used heavy artillery right across the border to bomb Mano and Gio houses… Now, we cannot be homeless because of their actions, so we are occupying their houses,” said Benedict Gonleh, a Gio.
John Saye Gbatu, a traditional leader and Mano, said that owners could get back what was theirs with the presentation of a land deed.
“I have told my people, Manos, Gios and Mandingos, that anyone making title ownership of any land in Nimba must bring forward supporting documents… Everybody has the right to live in this county. We lived together before and there is no need for us to be at conflict over properties,” Gbatu said.
However, Donzo said most of his kinsmen lost their land deeds during the war.
“Bullets were flying, people were being killed; no one cared about taking land deeds along. We were fleeing for our lives!” Donzo said.
In April, a report by Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group (ICG), called on the Liberian government to address the problem of land ownership.
“The situation in Nimba County… is tense, and there too the state must impose itself to ensure equitable settlements of disputes, many of which trace to the ambiguous relationship between land ownership and use rights,” said the ICG report. “The government must seriously address the inter-ethnic tensions that have been fuelled by land ownership and tenure issues.”
Johnny McClain, Liberia’s Information Minister told reporters after a regular cabinet meeting on Thursday that President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf would set up a committee to look into the problems in Nimba.
The argument over property and land is creating a climate of fear in Nimba, a region that was ravaged by marauding rebels in a civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
“The government must really intervene in this matter by holding traditional reconciliatory talks because the threats against some Mandingos are increasing,” Ganta resident Musa Sannoh said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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