Sunday, January 21, 2007


Sierra Leonean Land Rights in the Western Province and Beyond

Downtown Freetown, January 2007

“It’s like the wild, wild west out here,” stated Judy Nelson, Director of DOVE International. DOVE is an NGO that cares for approximately 30 orphans dislocated from families during the war. This assessment was made after spending the past two years battling to retain land and water rights of property owned by the orphanage.

Sierra Leone’s political history is fascinating. I’m doubtful that it is possible to grasp all of the subtle impacts it has had on the country’s development. Forgive me if this email is a bit ‘dry’ but I have recently become very interested in the implications of both ‘formal’ and ‘traditional’ governing structures on land ownership – so you all get to be the beneficiaries of my research!

The return of the ‘Krios’ happened right around the same time as Britain began to explore West Africa. Though the British were not under the same ‘mandate’ to form colonies that other European nations seemed to be, Sierra Leone was of particular interest because of its strategic location on the western coast of Africa and it’s natural port (Port Loko). The Krios were freed British slaves, and came in essentially three waves:

1) In 1787 a group of British abolitionists proposed that the ‘ideal’ way to respond to the plight of newly freed black slaves (who, for the most part, were jobless and poor) would be to establish a ‘free state’ in Africa to which they could be re-settled. The British government provided funding for several hundred blacks, as well as dozens of white Europeans interested in trade, evangelism and the building of the ‘Sierra Leone Company’ settlement. The venture proved a ‘near disaster’ and many died of starvation and disease.

2) The Nova Scotians followed several years later. They were black slaves who had fought for the British during the American War of Independence in exchange for freedom and a promise of land (in America). The American victory forced these ‘loyalists’ to emigrate to the British settlement of Nova Scotia after the war. This land (i.e. climate) proved unacceptable, so when the offer came for them to go to Sierra Leone (with the promise of free land), they took it. This new group of settlers was more industrious and independent than the prior, and managed to breathe new life into the project.

3) The Maroons were the third major group of Krio settlers. They were blacks from Jamaica who had revolted against slavery and maintained independence in the mountains. In 1796, Jamaica was conquered by the British, and the free blacks were shipped up to Nova Scotia. They too requested ‘transfer’ to Sierra Leone, and were granted it near the turn of the century.

The Western Province of Sierra Leone (including Freetown, the coastal region directly to the south, and the mountains directly to the east) became a ‘Crown Colony’ of Britain in 1807. The land was purchased from one of the tribal ‘kings’ of that era (though he initially saw the negotiation as a ‘lease’ and his successor succeeded in getting further payment for a ‘sale’ – which was a foreign concept at the time).

Mid-late 1800’s were the ‘heyday’ of Krio society in West Africa. The British desired to sustain their port and to protect their ‘vision of’ and ‘stake in’ the concept of an African free state. However, it was expensive, and they needed for the ‘Sierra Leone Company’ to ‘cover’ its own expenses. The best way to accomplish ‘self sufficiency’ was to increase trade through the Freetown port. This was becoming increasing difficult - as the French were rapidly colonizing the surrounding regions in West Africa. While not wanting to ‘colonize’ all of what has later come to be known as Sierra Leone, they began to realize that the ‘friendship treaties’ that they had established with the ‘hinterlands’ were not enough to impede regional tribal kings from entering into new land treaties with the French. So, they upped the anty – and adjusted the ‘friendship’ treaties to treaties that declared regions to be part of a ‘British Protectorate.’ The chiefs (in many cases unknowingly) forfeited their right to negotiate with any nationality except the British.

Prior to modern vaccines and anti-malarial medicine, Sierra Leone developed a reputation of being ‘the white man’s grave’ (with good reason). The British did not believe that they had the manpower, nor the finances to govern this new ‘protectorate’ in the same way that they were able to govern the smaller ‘colony’ in the Western Province. They discovered the Krios to be indispensable as members of the ‘civil service.’ The Krios assumed such positions as: teachers, administrators, legislators, etc. for the British Empire. They enjoyed many advantages of this status: income, stature in society and, most importantly, land rights in the Western Province.

The rest of the country had a clearly different status as a ‘protectorate’ of Britain. ‘Kings’ of tribal regions were demoted to the status of ‘Paramount Chiefs,’ as no one within the protectorate could hold a title or status equivalent to that of Queen Victoria. For the most part however, the protectorate was still governed by the chiefdom structure. Krio ‘district officers’ were appointed to each of the five additional provinces, and several levels of courts involving solely chiefs, chiefs and district officers, and solely British district officers were developed to govern the country.

That’s it for my brief history lesson! I should acknowledge that most of this information is derived from reading a nice text available in the Kabala market: “A New History of Sierra Leone” by Joe A.D. Alie. I’ve condensed one hundred and fifty pages down to one – which I hope that you appreciate! This history has implications for current ‘land rights.’

The only region of the country where land can ‘officially’ be owned, bought and sold in independent transactions is in the Western Province. In all other provinces, the Paramount Chief officially owns all of the land. Granted, most people seem to be able to negotiate with the chief to ‘hold property’ with a relatively permanent status, but if a chief were to deem it appropriate, they could reclaim it at any time. Some chiefs are more ethical in this regard than others.

In Kabala, the ‘land rights’ issues closest to our hearts and experience are regarding:

a) Land being used as the site for the development of a new Christian school.
b) Land for Kumba and Joseph Sesay’s new house.

In each of these cases, the land involved is a ‘choice spot’ of land, and there are a number of interested parties. The ‘case’ for a particular use of the land is brought to the Paramount Chief. He will make a determination based on several factors:

1) The sum of money that the person is willing to pay for a ‘lease’ on the land.
2) The intended use: Is there a perceived ‘need’ or ‘desire’ in the chiefdom for this kind of development? If so, this may impact (lower) the price.
3) The person asking… (Does the chief have a good relationship with this person?)

In both of ‘our’ cases, the chief has accepted a negotiated price for the land. This still leaves the ‘lease holder’ in a dicey position until the property has been developed for the stated purpose. If one waits too long, a chief may determine that another ‘use’ is more appropriate and reclaim the land. An ethical chief will, in all likelihood, compensate the individual or organization that has paid a leasing price with the option of alternative land – but the ‘alternative’ is usually less valuable and in less of a ‘choice’ location.

According to Yegbeh, a farmer in Foria, rural land-holders in chiefdoms have fairly secure rights to property once it has initially been acquired from the chief. If one wishes to farm land that falls within the boundaries of a neighboring village, they must secure permission from the neighboring chief and ‘pay’ with one bag of rice (annually). Farms within one’s own village boundary can be farmed with no ‘cost’ and can be transferred from one generation of a family to the next. This is true of housing property as well.

Even in the Western Province of the country where ‘land rights’ seem to be clear, there is much confusion (often caused by corruption). In the case of the DOVE International orphanage property, Judy is constantly fighting a battle. As Freetown has tripled in size (during the war) governmental officials have started to ‘eye’ the surrounding hills as places of respite and retreat from the city. Most of this land is owned by Krios who are unwilling to sell – as the land has been passed down from generation to generation. Judy says that the government has recently instated laws that require land holders to re-certify their ownership of property (requiring a fee) on an annual basis. The paperwork is confusing, and often gets ‘lost,’ enabling the government to reclaim ‘forfeited’ land. Many of DOVE’s neighbors have paid significant sums of money in the fight to keep their land, and have still lost rights – with no compensation.

Outside of the Western Province, people are more and more interested in getting ‘government paperwork’ detailing their ownership of property. Despite the ambiguities of land ownership in the north, people are less concerned about chiefs and paramount chiefs taking their land than they are of the increasing practice of governmental officials coming in and appropriating land that had been ‘secured’ within the traditional system.

Reinforcement of ‘land rights’ is of deep concern. The land holders of Sierra Leone (especially in the coastal and mountainous areas of the Western Province near Freetown) are the vital ‘middle class’ of this country. According to Mary Hodges, a British doctor residing in Freetown, land ownership (and rental) provides supplemental income that enables Sierra Leonean professionals (doctors, professors, etc.) to remain in the country – even though their compensation would be much greater elsewhere. It will be fascinating (to me at least) to see the results of colliding ‘traditional’ and ‘formal’ governing structures in the coming decades – as this collision will have a huge impact on the future development of the country.

1 comment: said...

Hi Emily! I was hoping I would be your first blog comment post! Yeah! Looks like I might be!

I love your writing! You have such detail, I feel like I am right there with you, without the absence of bread - you poor thing!

Take care of you and hubby and Dad Paul! Time is flying, can't wait to see you! Miss you much!

All is great over here, cold as ever with snow - which Abby is loving...we all have colds, yuck!

Love, Jeannie & Tim & fam!