While the world is busy getting through the pandemic, this happened in Freetown

The world is seeing unprecedented events during the global pandemic, as the hunt for COVID-19 treatment and vaccines continues. While Sierra Leone, which was adversely affected by the Ebola epidemic in 2014, now struggles to protect people and prevent the coronavirus from spreading, there's fear and anxiety regarding personal security. Read today's blog written by Tracey Marke. 

We were told that this new direction with the lands ministry would be a force for good— make things better. But instead, it appears that the lands ministry is a law unto themselves, seizing and molesting, disadvantaging and dispossessing and downright stealing lands from communities who have legal title to private land.

Time and time again we have watched as people with legal long-held title have been targeted, bullied and harassed and yet we have seen no change or halt to the lands department's modus operandi of pouncing on people’s legally held land.  In November I became one such a target. 

I decided to wait this out to see how it unfolds even though I felt violated and humiliated.  In the meantime, I gave a heads-up to a senior official and kept them posted as to the political interference and encroachment of my rights to make sure the government was aware and all bases were covered.

A few months previous I learned that Prince and Anne Marie Harding had an understanding with my caretaker to allow them to traverse my sister's and my land as an access road.  They apparently had decided they no longer wanted to use the access road they had been using to access their land from down below and instead decided our land looked better and started to traverse ours instead. 

As a background, my grandfather who was a prominent lawyer in Sierra Leone had property in Hamilton and my father who worked hard as a self-employed businessman became the biggest landholder in Hamilton in the 1960s.  In fact, he was the only person who had built in this area under question which was then in the middle of the bush hence the name he gave his house “Bush House”.  This now belongs to the Christian brothers.  

Down below near where Prince Harding and others have their land was community land called “Portoh” that used to be accessed by foot and was a swamp.  This has now been grabbed and sold off to the newer political elite like a lot of private land in Hamilton. In effect, the lands ministry, past and now, have allowed this sale of community land that is preventing the self-sufficiency of villagers by depriving them of valuable food planting land. 

My father an avid farmer planted a substantial palm plantation that is still standing. (See above) As a farmer, he planted rice, kept pigs and animals in this area that created employment for the village.

However, I digress — so back to my story. 

After learning about how Mr. Prince Harding and his wife had been trespassing, and knowing just how bold politically-connected people can be, I determined to take action and fence family land for protection.  (As an aside let’s not forget that Freetown is the only place I can own land unlike Mr. Prince Harding who is spoilt for choice).

I, therefore, requested a fence to be erected quickly to protect the land.  When Prince Harding and his wife realised what was happening they went to my caretakers with thugs to threaten and abuse and stated that they were going to access from another angle threatening to break down Josephine Soya-Bongay’s substantial cement block fence in an area that was not being worked on at the time.  I wasn’t too worried about this threat as it would be impossible to traverse land belonging to Josephine to get to mine without either destroying her fence or gates.

This to me sounded more brazen a prospect than even the worst crop of politicians has ever considered: to break down an area was that had been gated and fenced for years.  I, therefore, felt fairly confident that because of Josephine’s fence they wouldn’t be able to access my land that had been pillared for over twenty years and had mature boundary trees planted over thirty years ago by my parents. These trees are prominently standing to show the history of time in a clear demarcation as a boundary to my land that has never been in dispute.

However as a preventive again I was forced to go to the expense of asking a contractor to start a foundation between the pillars that had been in existence since after the war. 

During the foundation building, Prince Harding and his wife again came out threatening, saying my land is their access road and they decided to bring officials from the lands ministry who stopped our work, issuing paperwork stating the minister required us to submit to the lands ministry.  The irony about this is that the Lands Ministry has ignored all the land grabs surrounding my property to target a person with the clear legally held title.

On receipt of the paperwork, I noted we were given five days notice to attend.  Being in England at the time I sent a letter to the Lands Minister stating apologies due to the short time frame and notified the minister that I would inform when I would be available as I was away and had not yet fixed a date to come to Sierra Leone.  Josephine was away as well and could not attend.  We heard no further from the lands ministry nor any more threats from the Harding’s.  Last week, Thursday 19th March, I was informed that some sort of activity was happening on Josephine’s and my land.  

When I called to find out what had been happening I was told that Mrs. Anne Marie Harding in conjunction with Mr. James Massaquoi, who is also apparently building near the Hardings; plus two members of the lands ministry to include a Mr. Salifu and Mrs. Harding’s OSD had trespassed and illegally entered our land. 

They had brought in a bulldozer (watch video) and destroyed both of Josephine's substantial gates (that were keeping tippers out from traversing to illegally collect sand on the beach) and my pillars and foundations, mature rare trees, flowers and bushes that are boundaries to my land.  The bulldozer had knocked down pillars and trees and scraped all the vegetation flattening out my yard to make a large access road right through my land.

Mrs. Harding claimed it was her right as they were now in power.  This to me is a clear case of abuse of power by the Harding’s and the Ministry of Lands and a Mr. James Massaquoi who had no business working in unison to illegally access our lands. 

All this after the lands ministry themselves had stopped work on our site.  This smacks of the usual form of harassment and terrorism that is meted out by those afforded untrammelled power over the people of Salone, who are there to utilise public institutions to wield and leverage power to dispossess rightful owners.

Since the destruction and trespass, Mr. Massaquoi has trespassed again on two occasions.  He has attempted to mount a pole on my land and entered in another instance to instruct his worker to demolish my pillars and plants.  Mrs. Harding, on the other hand, has been back on Saturday with her brother to state they are going to knock down Josephine’s fence and demolish my remaining pillars and mature boundary trees. As I write today Monday 23rd March I hear that Mr. Prince Harding has trespassed again to issue threats to my caretakers and has gone to instruct the destruction of the remaining pillars, Josephine’s fence, and trees.

This boldfaced theft of my land is being done in conjunction with officials from the ministry and when Josephine contacted the Minister he stated although all was done in his name, he had no knowledge of this.   This is a clear case of abuse of power on the part of all involved including the Harding’s and the lands ministry who have no right to enter my land and demolish my pillars, foundations, mature exotic trees and rare palms that were planted by my parents over thirty years ago.  

I was asked to submit and wrote to the lands minister in November to state I will comply when I get to Freetown, as I had no fear as I am the legal owner.  Yet we have heard nothing from them until this act of aggression and violation. 

These are the sorts of humiliations and wrongs that people suffer that make some of us feel more welcome in foreign lands and that are totally unacceptable to us the people who will not be intimidated but will stand our ground as they need to be stamped out for good of each and every one of us and country.

Is this the sort of welcome we get to Sierra Leone? And I have only been back for two weeks.

Terrible and unjust things are happening in Sierra Leone and unless one is ready to stand up for one's rights vociferously, leverage political pressure or spend significantly, time and resources — you are left at sea as in — buff case.  No questions asked in a country where there are no properly functioning courts to address the issues expeditiously and appropriately and without political interference. We are truly in a mess.

When are we going to learn that this is hurting the people and the nation? What are we achieving by creating a country where the most hazardous place for Sierra Leoneans is in their own country  — where its own people fear to tread?  How can we ever think this is progressive in attracting people home?  Or, it will pull in large scale investors who do swot analysis? That will make them think twice about investing in a nation where rights and recourse are so uncertain.

As a seasoned activist, I have avidly participated in commenting on issues pertaining to Sierra Leone, long before the social media explosion.  I did this as I am passionate about my country and hoped that we could learn from our history and dysfunction, strengthen the organs of governance, rights, democracy and the rule of law.

However, it appears that for all my twenty plus years as an original listserv warrior nothing has changed in the improvement of the structures, checks, and balances that could make for a functioning organised and fairer society.  

Instead, we are becoming more corrupt and lawless as we are plummeting to new depths of low in the deliberate dismantling of structures in a quest to offer an advantage to the ruling classes or their cronies.  All this being done at the expense of the rights of the individual and certain sections of the community who are targeted with precision.

Just when we thought we couldn’t surpass ourselves in reaching a new low it was decided that the Lands Ministry would be the new arbitrators with regards to titles and rights to lands.  This we were told was because the courts had ground to a halt as a result of interference from successive regimes and the lack of oversight that had created an institution that is deemed unfit and an untrustworthy
purveyor of the law.  In fact, the courts in most instances are now places one goes to register concerns, settle minor issues or to rubber stamp things as most things have ground to a halt due to its over politicisation that has made it difficult for them to perform their true purpose of being the unbiased and fair arbitrators of the land.

This breakdown has led to their demise as the rightful purveyors of the laws and has allowed for outsourcing and yet further dismantling.  It has allowed politicians to bypass and usurp.  Giving themselves powers to become the unqualified adjudicators who determine matters based on politics or on a whim that suits their purpose.

My hope has always been that we could learn from our dysfunction and our long war to create a more equitable and prosperous nation where everyone counts.  A different approach in governance is needed moving away from the untrammelled power model, which is still in existence. 

Only when we recognise this will we have a country that is predictable, safe, fair and credible and only at that time will we become productive and progressive not only for ourselves but to the outside world. No amount of air miles will cover this.

This you would think is a no brainer as it would be a win-win on all accounts as it would draw people home and would prove attractive to investors who would be confident to invest where there are laws, checks and balances, predictability and recourse.

However, it appears that these are all pipe dreams as over the tens of years I have been engaging nothing ever seems to change when it comes to making improvements in the structures that work.  Instead, with each successive regime, we plummet to greater depths in the deliberate dismantling of structures to create an unfair advantage.  And what makes it even more damaging is that this is done by the ruling parties of the day in their quest to create a mere advantage for themselves and their cronies at the expense of the entire nation who then believe this is the only way.  They then follow in their footsteps in a country with gaping gaps of no common rules or laws.

Our invidious new low is the untrammelled powers afforded to the Lands Ministry who are our new arbitrators.  Who arbitrarily decide on a whim whether they will allow you to hold your long-held legal title. 

This power has given them the ability to wield the sword in any which way they feel and can at a whim decide on any invasion without notice, cherry-picking along the way, giving away or even confiscation.  This they can do as they are the new direction, the new rule of law, usurpers of our courts and arbitrators who can determine like King Solomon at a swoop of the sword what they want for their political or self-advantage.  

This new way of handling legal matters we are told is because our courts are so ineffective and inefficient — bogged down in a morass that has grounded them into mere existence.  Wake up judiciary.


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