New Lands Minister on the Rampage in Sierra Leone

By Theophilus Sahr Gbenda

Sierra Leone’s new Minister of Lands, Dr. Dennis Sandy  is on the rampage in Sierra Leone as he reclaims, what he refers to as, “state land” in the Mothaim and Mongegba communities along the Regent-Grafton axis of Freetown.

This move was first ignited by previous Minister of Lands Diana Finda Konomanyi of the All People’s Congress (APC)  who in 2017 stormed the area and forcefully took over private lands from ordinary people claiming that the said lands belong to the state. Scores of people were dispossessed of lands they had legally acquired with the relevant supporting documents. The minister disregarded these ownership documents and proceeded to demolish a great number of buildings without court order.

Madam Diana Konomanyi in numerous press interviews and statements stressed that her office was on a mission to reclaim all state lands across the stretch of the western area that had been allegedly occupied by illegal squatters. She gave no justification whatsoever as to how lands previously thought to be private lands suddenly became state lands overnight.

The affected communities and the landowners staged several demonstrations and protests against the action of Madam Konomanyi, whom they say was on a mission to illegally grab their lands, using the backing of the state and her own absolute ministerial  authority.

With the coming in of a new government in March 2018 and the appointment of Dr. Dennis Sandy as the new lands minister, it was the expectation of the affected communities that their matter would be looked into and the injustice of the previous administration will be addressed.

   The vandalized structure

Sadly, things have changed for the worse. The current Lands Minister, Dr. Dennis Sandy is now acting in a manner that endorses the actions of his predecessor, Diana Konomanyi. Over the past couple of weeks, Minister Sandy has frequently stormed the Mothaim and Mongegba communities in a rebel like fashion, bulldozing houses and dispossessing more people of their legitimately owned lands. One such victim of his arbitrary action is a lady named Elizabeth Squire, who acquired a total of four plots of land since 2012 for the construction of a modern, state of the art primary and secondary school complex. The school, when completed, will benefit thousands of children of school going age in one of the most developmentally deprived communities in Freetown.

It was former Lands Minister Diana Konomanyi who took the first moves in early 2017 to disposes Elizabeth Squire of her legally acquired land on grounds that the land has been withdrawn from her and now allocated to a Christian mission for the construction of a church.

This happened at a time when the construction of the school was already in full gear. Accordingly, the primary school was supposed to have been completed in December 2017, and would have been made fully operational at the start of the 2018-2019 academic year.

With Julius Maada Bio’s  new government’s much-talked about prioritization of education, it was expected that Dr. Dennis Sandy, who is himself  an academic and long-term lecturer at Fourah Bay College (FBC), would have seen the importance of addressing the issue: whether a whole school project at a remote and badly deprived community should be sacrificed for a church?

Despite the fact that Miss Elizabeth Squire has duly submitted her documents in relation to her ownership of the land under review, Dr. Dennis Sandy appears poised to support the construction of a church on the said land as against a school, whose proprietor has genuinely presented documents showing her legal ownership of the said land now in dispute. The new lands minister has vehemently refused to recognize the authenticity of the land documents presented by Madam Squire. To make matters worse, persons acting on the instructions of the new lands minister recently stormed the site without a court order, and vandalized structures associated with the school project. They also during the process allegedly attacked the caretakers on the site, beating and wounding them. The attackers, assisted by some community stakeholders, then broke into the storage area and stole some of the construction materials worth several millions of Leones.

  Attackers carting away the construction materials from the school site

Aggrieved by this, Miss Squire reported the matter to the South Ridge Police Station at Hill Station, and then filed court action against the headman of Mongegba village and others who were involved in the trespass on the land and theft of the construction materials, and the violence against the caretakers. In a further effort to deprive Madam Squire of her rights, Lands Minister Dr. Sandy demonstrated extra-ordinary interests in the legal matter. Reports say he personally visited the South Ridge Police Station, and demanded the immediate release of all suspects arrested in connection with the matter. He also addressed a letter to the Chief Justice of the Judiciary of Sierra Leone on August 2, 2018 directing that the court matter filed by Miss Squire be dismissed, stressing that his ministry is now looking into the matter, and therefore the court should put a hold on the proceedings. A letter signed by Israel B.K. Jigba, the current Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Lands states that the minister is requesting the court to “stay action on this matter since it is a state land matter currently being handled by the Police and the Ministry.”

Since the dispatch of the said letter, the accused persons refused to appear in court, ultimately causing  the Presiding Magistrate, Santigie Bangura to issue a bench warrant for their arrest. When the junior police decided to act on the court’s warrant, Minister Denis Sandy then reportedly instructed senior officers in the police hierarchy to reprimand the three police officers who had gone to execute the bench warrant issued by the magistrate.

The three police officers in question, Sergeant 9095 Fofanah, Police Constable 14898 Dumbuya, and Police Constable 15146 Turay, are all attached to the Legal and Justice Department of the Sierra Leone Police.  The three officers were openly molested by community youths when they went to effect the warrant and were rescued from possible lynching by military officers who suddenly appeared on the scene of the confrontation. The three officers are now currently facing disciplinary investigation by the Complaints, Discipline, and Internal Investigations Department (CDIID) of the Sierra Leone Police, for carrying out a lawful order that has now become something else at the behest of Minister Sandy.

Ibrahim Y. Bah, the chairman of the Charlotte community that stretches up to Mothaim expressed serious disappointment over the attitude of Minister Sandy, pointing out that they voted overwhelmingly for the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and President Julius Maada Bio in the last general elections in anticipation that the suppression and injustice they suffered under the APC over their land will come to an end.

“Unfortunately, we are now experiencing worse treatments under the SLPP,” Bah said, adding that, “our only hope now is for President Bio to personally intervene and help resolve this injustice.”

Chief Adekalie Mansaray, the Deputy Section Chief of Mothaim/Mongegba community insists that the lands in questions are private lands, and the controversy is caused by the state wanting to grab their own land.

“As far as we know, our land is a private land and not a state land,” he said.

The Headman for Charlotte, Mothaim and Madina community, Pa Alhaji Usman Turay also noted that they have resided on the said land since 1945 and that it was a surprise to them when in 2017 the previous Minister of Lands, Madam Diana Konomanyi arrived in  their community to announce that the entire stretch of the land in those communities belongs to the state and that all trespassers would have their houses demolished.

“We challenged her to prove to us how our land became a state land and even produced our master plan, but the minister told us categorically that it was a government decision and that we can go to court if we so chose,” Pa Alhaji Usman Turay said, adding that, “our hopes have been dashed because we were expecting the new minister to help us out, but now he has proven to be much more determined to grab our land than the previous minister.”

Efforts by community stakeholders, including Councilor Madusa Kamara and some senior officials in government to persuade the minister to pursue a humane approach in handling the matter, have all proved futile, they say.

Dr. Dennis Sandy, the new lands minister

Reports are that Minister Sandy has gone ahead and singlehandedly declared Mongegba as an exclusive dwelling area, and has not only terminated all land leases previously approved by his predecessor Diana Konomanyi, but also stopped all ongoing construction work in the area “until further notice.” A number of police and military personnel are now deployed in the areas to supposedly keep indigenes at bay and to ensure that no “unapproved construction takes place.”

This desperation by Minister Sandy to take over lands in the far outskirts of Freetown cannot be unconnected with the fact that there are practically no more state lands left for development and other purposes. Many community residents are now very bitter against Minister Sandy and the indications are that the current situation may result into violent outcomes if the concerns of the affected persons are left unaddressed. The people are particularly displeased that Minister Sandy has posed undue obstacles to the construction of what would have been the only school facility in their locality.

Theophilus Sahr Gbenda is a journalist based in Freetown, Sierra Leone and a presenter of the popular radio talk show, Burning Issues.

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