Land, Citizenship, and the Political Economy of Belonging in Liberia
Ambreena Manji, Cardiff University
An important facet of what Robtel Neajai Pailey describes as Liberia’s ‘post-war crisis of citizenship’ is unequal access to land and the potential for worsening problems of land tenure. Pailey argues that although land ownership is no longer ‘a criterion for citizenship’ it nonetheless ‘defines a right to citizenship’ (p. 135). Because citizenship is a criterion for land-holding, access to land is a central dilemma of nation and state-building. It is for this reason that my review focuses on Pailey’s analysis of land, citizenship, and identity. The potential land problems she identifies include uncertainty of tenure, threats to customary land from grabbing and in particular the granting of land concessions by the elite, and weak land administration institutions. Each of these has important implications for post-war Liberians but they are also of wider interest for the study of the intertwined problems of equity and identity.
On problems of land tenure uncertainty, Pailey shows how the return of Liberians from abroad has caused conflicts with those now living (squatting) on their land. These returnees have often relinquished their citizenship and have, in so doing, given up any claims to property they might once have owned. This has led to violence between claimants, to attacks on land surveyors, and to a lively market in land sales by unscrupulous individuals taking advantage of tenure uncertainties. Pailey vividly describes how these conflicts come to be understood by her interviewees in class terms:
‘All of a sudden, you say the person came from America and want[s] to gain their land back.…Other people feel bitter, other people feel because they are not of that [high] class so other people want to override them…’ (p. 136)
A second issue facing Liberians is the land rush for customary land. As elsewhere on the continent, it is often customary land that is most prone to ‘grabbing’, the word commonly used to describe the illegal and irregular allocation of land by the state, by politicians and by well-connected individuals (Manji 2020). According to Alden Wily (2018) the community land sector is unique in being made up largely of resources that have hitherto been neglected in analyses of property relations, such as forests, rangelands and swamplands. State authorities will often seek to argue that these customary lands are in fact public property. There is therefore a strong imperative to register community land as a way to ensure that this valuable resource is protected. This is especially the case as public land becomes a scarcer resource due to land grabbing. This will increase the attractiveness and value of plentiful community land and lead to skirmishes with the state as it tries to assert that the land in question is in fact not community land but public land which it should control. Land grabs by elites have serious implications for citizens’ livelihoods. Through the exercise of what Pailey identifies as unlawful eminent domain by the government (p. 136), land concessions on a massive scale to make way for rubber, timber, and palm oil plantations pose grave dangers to stability. Moreover, a lack of consultation with affected communities undermines Liberia’s transitional justice efforts.
Third, although the Sirleaf government instituted the Land Commission in 2009 to ensure improvements in land administration, it (and its successor body the Liberia Land Authority) has been accused of ‘haphazard land management’ (p. 137). Part of the problem lies in the administration and management of land at a distance because the Liberia Land Authority is centred in the capital Monrovia. Problems relating to the grabbing of customary land through concessions, problems of taxation, and widespread evictions take place despite the creation of a new land administration body. As elsewhere (Manji 2020), underfunding of land administration bodies, especially as they are getting started, deprives them of their capacity to carry out the key supervisory tasks with which they have been entrusted. The Liberia Land Authority, like Kenya’s National Land Commission, has been deprived of staff, funding, and technical expertise, giving rise to suspicions that this is done strategically as a means of undermining a nascent independent land institution.
The passage of the 2018 Land Rights Act in Liberia has been widely hailed as an opportunity to deal with the land problems described above, which Pailey correctly identifies in her book as germinal to issues of citizenship and belonging. This new legislation recognizes the land rights of all Liberians. Most importantly, it guarantees that communities can claim customary land as their lawful property regardless of the absence of deeds. That is important because an estimated seventy per cent of the country’s land is held under customary ownership. The new law allows each community to formalize their land rights through registration and allows the issuance of a community land deed by the Liberian Land Authority. However, how this new law comes to be implemented, how the problem of land grabbing is stemmed, how land administration by an independent body will be allowed to take place (Boone et al 2019), and how customary land rights are guaranteed, are all critical issues for the future. They are central, as Pailey argues, to the political economy of belonging in Liberia.