30 July 2014

Liberia: RIA Land Deed Backfires - Land Owners Threaten to Sue GOL

Monrovia — Lawyers representing the legal interest of residents of the Roberts International Airport area said they would sue over President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's granting of a land deed to the RIA for the expansion of the Airport.

Speaking during a news conference on Monday, Cllr. Syrenius Cephus said they in consultations with other civil society organizations in South, East and West Africa, will in the coming days dispatch Attorney Edwin K. Martin first to Abuja, Nigeria, to the ECOWAS Court, and then to Arusha, Tanzania to the African Court on Human and People's Rights (ACTHPR) and Banjul, The Gambia to the African Commission on Human and People's Rights(ACHPR) to do a critical review of similar cases that have been decided by these international courts so as to aid them in the prosecution of a possible lawsuit against the Government of President Sirleaf.

Cllr. Cephus said the 2400 acres that was deed to the RIA cover properties belonging to several families, including the Bestman, Geegbeh, Fahwein, Suah, Barvien, the Gbenwein families as well as those of individual properties belonging to Nimely Bestman and Bestus P. Davis.

"As you may know, there has been a controversy between the RIA Management and residents in the immediate vicinity of the airport regarding RIA's purported claims of 2,600 acres," said Cllr. Cephus.

The lawyer said when news about the government's redevelopment plan for RIA broke, there were open attempts by President Sirleaf in particular and Justice Minister Christiana Tah to forcefully evict citizens, who are legitimate title owners of land in the RIA vicinity under the pretext that the RIA Management owns over 2600 acres of land.

"This forceful eviction order was strongly resisted by a Supreme Court order after the Minister of Justice and the President had deployed a contingent of the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) specifically trained to deter armed robbery and violent riots was unleashed on the poor villagers and residents to ensure nonresistance to the illegal and forceful seizure and occupation of their land," alleged Cllr. Cephus.

He said the Justice Ministry has no history of settling land disputes and instances where broad day thefts, robberies and forgeries are committed, little or no action is taken by the Ministry to remedy the situation.

"In fact, in most instances, the Ministry of Justice, which should be prosecuting people for these controversial acts, is itself involved in the forgeries in land matters," he said. Cllr. Cephus the President's action has led them to believe that she has an interest in the RIA land, thereby using her power as President with the help of her justice minister to take away the land from its legitimate owners.

"First, it was rumored that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf herself had an interest in the property around the RIA vicinity and was poised to acquire 1500 acres and had instructed the Honorable Minister to use the full weight of her power and authority to scare off the residents who are legitimate title holders; so that during the redevelopment exercise of the RIA, the Honorable Minister can sit with the investors as Personal Representative of the President-cum-Minister of Justice is negotiating on behalf of the Government. In a Government where there is no difference between Government officials and businessmen and businesswomen, it was difficult to ignore the rumors that the President was determined to illegally take away our clients' land," he said.

Continued Cllr. Cephus: "A case in point is the controversy surrounding the E.J. Roye Building Headquarters of the Grand Old True Whig Party (TWP). The Ministry of Justice claims that the Government of Liberia owns the E.J. Roye Building property, first in trust, and then by operation of law and so forth, but strangely executed a Memorandum of Understanding with a faction of the party on May 9, 2013 for those occupying the property to vacate or surrender the E.J. Roye Building, on or before March 31, 2013. One does not need to become a lawyer to see the evidence of frauds and outright theft contained in an MOU executed by a team of government lawyers."

The lawyer said on the on 26th of April 2013, lawyers representing the residents wrote the President of the Republic informing about the forceful seizure of the properties of private citizens by a unit of the Liberia National Police, enforcing orders from the Ministry of Justice, allegedly defending and protecting RIA's property.

"In that letter, we called on the President to intervene and pursue the most appropriate and civilized approach provided for under our Civil Procedure Code in acquiring private properties from private citizens. We also indicated in our letter that we would not be surprised if we did not get an answer or a reply because that has been the culture of the current Minister of State," said Cll. Cephus.

"Interestingly, on 2 May, 2013, we received a reply to our letter from Minister Edward B. McClain, Jr., Minister of State informing us that the matter had been referred to the Minister of Justice: "who is fully involved in the effort of the government to ensure the eviction of all squatters from land owned and managed by Roberts International Airport". The tone of Minister McClain's letter clearly confirmed our suspicions and the rumors that the President and her Minister of Justice had an interest in the property."

Cllr. Cephus said the government in collaboration with the land commission headed by Cllr. Othello Brandy surreptitiously led legitimate landowners to surrendering their deeds to the government. He said the Land Commission cited the parties to conference on 11 November, 2014 after the 4 November, 2014 meeting, but pleaded with them that the new meeting date be changed from 11 November to 20 November 2014. But after the Land Commission received all the title deeds of landowers it started giving excuses, endlessly setting new meeting dates and then changing them at the 11th hour.

"At one point we were told by the Chairman of the Land Commission, Honorable Othello Brandy, that the Commission will again do an investigative survey to determine the actual claims of our clients but will get back to us as soon as discussions are concluded with the President," he said.

"Unaware of their games, deception and robbery, we on 22 October 2014 wrote the Land Commission with all of the supporting documents including title deeds of our clients with a demand of US$72million for the seventy two (72) the RIA had illegally occupied the Land. Again, unaware of their stratagem we decided to wait only to now realize that the second investigative survey referred to by Commissioner Brandy was meant to surreptitiously carve out 2400 acres of land from our clients' property and then deed it to the RIA Management."

On July 4, 2014 President Sirleaf initiated a long-term plan to create an airport city at the RIA. At a signing ceremony in her office the President expressed said the long running demarcation of the RIA property was concluded and the property deeded in favor of the RIA.

Land Commission Chairman Dr. Brandy at that event said the process leading to the conclusion of the survey was consultative and participatory with the surrounding communities which, according to him, served as a catalyst for the finalization of the survey and deeding of the property. In the deed, the adjacent township of 'Smell No Taste' is not included in the property of RIA thereby remaining unaffected by the survey.

The deeding of the RIA property and subsequent signing of the deed by the Liberian President is expected to pave the way for the commencement of the first phase of the Master Plan of the reconstruction initiatives during the coming dry season according to an Executive Mansion release. The first phase, which is projected to cost approximately US$60 million will include the rehabilitation of the runway, taxiways, installation of airport ground lighting and instrument landing system (ILS).


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