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. Continue reading