LIBERIA: Refugee returns creating ethnic “time bomb”

Friday, February 9, 2007
Mounting ethnic tension in Liberia’s eastern Nimba County could spark a new round of fighting as members of the minority Mandingo ethnic group claim to be struggling to recover their lands and properties upon return from refugee camps in Guinea, Liberian analysts warn.

Some of the thousands of former refugees who have returned there from Guinea over the last two years said to IRIN that they were encountering problems reclaiming land and buildings seized by members of the larger Gio and Mano ethnic groups during and after the Liberian civil war.

"I just returned from Guinea during the Christmas season and I am intending to stay in Ganta, but all of the three houses I inherited from my father after he died in a refugee camp are now being occupied by some brothers and sisters of the Mano tribe,” said Sidiki Donzo.“They are refusing to leave, demanding that I should present valid documentation proving ownership."

Tension over land ownership among the three ethnic groups led to riots in Ganta, a bustling commercial town, mid-last year and forced hundreds of civilians to again flee into the forest, locals say.

Refoulement alleged

The Nimba region in eastern Liberia on the border with Guinea’s Forest Region saw some the heaviest fighting during Liberia’s 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. Tens of thousands of people fled from the county into neighbouring Guinea seeking refuge.

Many were members of the minority Mandingo group which had backed former Liberian President Samuel Doe. The Mandingos said they were being targeted by the Gios and Manos who had backed former rebel leader and President Charles Taylor.

In early 2005, three quarters of the Liberians remaining in Guinea came from the Mandingo ethnic group, claiming that they were still unwelcome at home.

When the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) started repatriation operations from Guinea to Nimba in 2005, UN staff interviewed in Guinea agreed many Guineans were still reluctant to go home, but that the decision to close the camps came from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The International Crisis Group concluded in a report in June 2005 that the returns “amount to a subtle form of refoulement”.

Nbeye Mbaye, head of the UNHCR sub-office in Nimba, told IRIN in February 2007 that many of the claims of well-founded fears expressed by Liberians in Guinea were a “pretext to remain in Guinea”.

Mbaye said UNHCR worked with 25 refugees to settle outstanding land issues before they left the camps in Guinea, and that none of the other 60,000 returnees had notified UNHCR of any problem.

“If anyone has a problem they should come and see me in my office and I will take their issue up for them,” she said.

Deeper issues

Liberians are worried the spats over land reform could be symptomatic of a deeper discontent brewing between the Mandingo, Gio and Mano groups.

Jerry Dupue, a Gio, told IRIN he was expressing the popular view in the region that the Mandingo were never legitimate landholders, and that the time has come to “get back our land”.

"The Mandingo people, especially their grandfathers that migrated from Guinea to Liberia in the 1800s, are not original inhabitants of Nimba. They were occupiers and now we are getting back the lands they took away from our forefathers," Dupoe said.

He warned the land dispute could easily threaten peace in the area.

"Any attempt to forcibly take any land from the Gio or Mano, the Mandingo will meet with a stiff resistance and could degenerate into a serious tribal feud that could last for generations," he said.

Time bomb

That dire warning has already reached the capital, Monrovia.

Neidoteh Torbor, leader of the Movement for Peace and Reconciliation in Liberia, a peace advocacy group, agreed that the land dispute risks flaring into a wider conflict.

"This situation of the land dispute has placed Nimba County on a time bomb that could explode at any time,” he said. “The dispute is intensifying on a daily basis and if nothing tangible is done to address the situation amicably it could eventually lead to ethnic war in the county.”

The most senior Nimba County parliamentarian, former rebel leader Prince Johnson, has added his voice to the call for land disputes to be resolved.

"There must be peace in Nimba and we are completely turning our backs from the dark days. Those who are illegally occupying the properties of Mandingos should vacate them. We all know the Mandingos have properties in Nimba," said Senator Johnson, a Gio.

After the Ganta land dispute riots last year, Liberia's president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf created a 17-member special committee headed by Internal Affairs Minister Ambulai Johnson to investigate the incident, but the committee is yet to make its findings and recommendations public.

Meanwhile, Mandingos say they will not give up their efforts to reclaim the land they say is theirs.

“We are demanding our rights of property,” said Amara Sarnor, a Mandingo.

"There can not be peace without justice.”
Author: IRIN
Source: IRIN
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