by Alexandre Corriveau-Bourque
Since the end of the civil war in 2003, the Liberian government and the United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNMIL) have been working to stabilise the country and rebuild a functioning state. Despite their ability to (arguably) maintain political stability at the macro scale, the ability of the state to effectively intervene in localised problems is limited. Many of these localised disputes manifest themselves over land, as individuals return to their pre-war homes or resettle in an attempt to rebuild their lives and encounter a complex web of often conflicting claims on the same parcel.
This process is situated in a context of recent massive social disruption which indelibly altered the pre- war systems of authority that regulated access to land resources. Since the judiciary can only intervene in the rare cases in which formal title deeds are involved, the state is limited in its ability to enforce the rule of law with regards to land relations. As a result, individuals are predominantly reliant on customary and informal institutions to resolve disputes. For reasons articulated in a recent report from the United States Institute of Peace, many Liberians prefer to use mechanisms for informal mediation, even for disputes that could technically be handled by the courts.
However, the repeated displacement and return of populations has forced individuals and groups to forge new networks and relationships, giving rise to new opportunities to question or challenge the legitimacy of pre-war authorities. As such, while disputes may be between individuals, their ability to seek out alternative fora for a resolution that will satisfy them often brings multiple systems or networks into conflict with each other. The NRC report notes that opportunities for individuals to forum-shop increases as one gets closer to official cities in Lofa County. One means to secure contentious claims is through formal land title, which cannot necessarily be acquired in all parts of Lofa County. As one travels further away from the cities, customary authorities appear to command a stronger control over local communities’ land practices and relationships.
Therefore, in the areas closer to the cities, it appears that more potentially incompatible systems come into play, and it is rare for a single system to have the monopoly over the use of force. As a result, there is an imperative to achieve an outcome through which disputing parties will all come away satisfied with the final result – for the sake of peace. This imperative is due to a convergence of war-fatigue, localised norms which attempt to suppress open displays of conflict and significant pressure (and support) to reach a peaceful outcome from the Liberian government, NGOs and UNMIL.
However, the NRC report argues that this emphasis on a short-term peaceful outcome is steadily undermining the symbols and systems that secure long-term claims to land. Individuals who may not necessarily want to relinquish their land claims (which may be viewed as financial investments or as symbolically significant) may now be compelled by these systems to acquiesce. Also, due to the apparent lack of punitive measures or deterrents for perceived encroachment on land, the problem of encroachment (and therefore disputes over land) seems to be quickly growing as the informal mediations can tend to reward to the alleged encroacher.
One of the particularly striking aspects of the Liberian land crisis is the fact that not only are customary claims to land are threatened. Even the power of the formal title deeds is being undermined through this process. While such deeds are generally viewed as the most secure form of individual claim, encroachment on titled lands is becoming a venue for individuals to acquire undeveloped land in valuable areas, such as plots located close to roads and/or markets. As this encroachment often comes in the form of illicit construction, encroachers employ a discourse of development, claiming that they have improved the area and have brought development to the community. Social pressures (and a very real fear of open conflict) combined with the ability to play off the various authorities adjudicating the dispute are tactics used to legitimise this approach, further weakening the security of title.
Equally problematic is the increasing acquisition of formal titles to secure claims by communities. While customary authorities often discourage individual formal titles within their areas of jurisdiction, they have spearheaded efforts to acquire collective titles. By applying for a formal title deed for collective lands strengthens communities’ claims to areas that are disputed with neighbours and provides greater negotiating power vis-a-vis the state regarding control over natural resources. By recognising and adopting the survey and the title deed, they add additional tools to the customary arsenal for making claims and now have the force of law to secure their claims.
However, just as the formal title deed can be a tool for encroachment at the individual level, there is now evidence that encroachment is also occurring now at the intra-community level. By having better finances and political connections, some communities are now using title deeds to extend their ‘traditionally’ defined boundaries into areas claimed by their neighbours, who have no recourse within the formal judicial system. This potentially sets the stage for another series of confrontations. In addition, these localised conflicts are easily co-opted by destabilising political interests to pursue national political objectives.
This report ultimately asks us to question the commonly held assumption within our discipline that localised informal/customary institutions have the capacity or more importantly the legitimacy to resolve localised disputes over land. Until these crises of legitimacy are resolved and the boundaries of authority between different systems of tenure are affirmed, the situation appears unlikely to stabilise. More specifically, there needs to be a stronger distinction in terms of scale when developing tools for resolving localised conflicts. Using the same tools and institutions for ‘communities’ as those for individuals at the local level has proven to be problematic and destabilising on a broader level.