By Tabora Bojang
The Kombo Yiriwa Kafo has petitioned President Barrow to act urgently to confront ‘lawlessness and abuse of state power’ leading to many land disputes in Kombo some of which if not handled timely and fairly could lead to a severe unrest.
According to the petition, contention over land matters has been boiling in the Kombo for a while with little or no policy decisions to resolve the situation resulting in deadly clashes with the recent events in Gunjur, Faraba Banta, Brufut, Sukuta, Yundum and Bakau among others.
“These are enough proofs of what lie ahead if no concrete actions are taken to address the growing disenchantment with the abuse of power by different public officials with little regard for sentiments on the ground.”
The petitioners further charged that the phenomenon of change of land ownership declared during the former regimes which entrusted land ownership from communities to the state is the common feature of social tensions in Kombo.
“The period has witnessed a high incidence of court cases over land between the indigenes and the satellites which have naturally been decided in favour of the indigenes due to the historical facts of original settlement and ownership. Unfortunately, the decisions of the courts have never been enforced by the government. This is now the bone of contention in Kombo. The people of Kombo seem to continually feel the bitterness of injustice despite their active role in the transition from dictatorship while filled with the aspiration for a solution to their plight by the present government. Kombo has still not found any solace to its problems except for a very loud silence and inactivity on the part of government.”
The association said it wishes to engage the president on behalf of the people of Kombo for a dialogue as they immediately demand among others the release and dropping of charges against of the Sukuta 14 who clashed with a demolition squad sent to implement physical planning order in Salagi.
“Security forces stop immediately the harassment of the affected communities on land matters throughout Kombo, government enforce all court orders and decisions on land matters in the Kombo area, government desist from allocating publicly acquired lands to private individuals, repeal of the State Lands Act 1991, stop the misnaming of traditional settlements by the Department of Lands & Surveys, and Physical Planning, revisit the opaque designation of TDA with disturbing encroachment trends and dubious allocation for non-tourism purposes, transfer of forest reserves into community management and ownership, revisit the composition of the land commission to include the voice of the traditional and general public.”
The association also called on the government to ensure that all lands illegally acquired by the former president, be immediately returned to the respective communities, as recommended by the Janneh Commission.
“As a matter of urgency we call on the president to meet the executive of Kombo Yiriwa Kafo to table the above sporadic land conflicts in Kombo.”
Read the full open letter here:
The Executive Members of Kombo Yiriwa Kafo wish to take this opportunity to wish you and your family Eid Mubarak and pray for God’s guidance in your noble efforts of national development.
Kombo Yiriwa Kafo is a registered charitable organization incorporated in June 2017 under the Companies Act 2013. Its vision is for Kombo to be recognized as a geopolitical entity in the country with the requisite resources and capability to pursue its developmental needs and aspirations for the wellbeing of all its inhabitants. In pursuit of its developmental goals, the Kafo will seek to partner with all actors including central government (and its institutions) to improve the livelihood of its inhabitants and preserve and promote the rich cultural heritage and diversity the region has been known for.
The purpose of this letter, Mr. President, is to draw your Excellency’s attention to the many land disputes in Kombo some of which if not handled timely and fairly could lead to severe unrest.
The issue of land matters has been simmering in the Kombo area for quite a while with little or no policy decision to resolve the situation. The people of Kombo have ever since been very active participants in the democratic political process of this country. With a population of almost 40% of the country, the Western Region in general, and Kombo in particular, has always been the game changer in the democratic political outcomes of The Gambia. Regrettably, it is also the region that has had the least attention from the Government in addressing the most potent challenge for any nation – land matters.
Indigenous or original settler occupation of land has existed over several hundred years.
Such land ownership can be traced from the settlement history of a village or town. In their attempt to accept and encourage new satellite settlements or newcomers amongst them, the indigenous villages encouraged and accommodated new settlers of a different origin on their occupied land on traditionally agreed terms of occupancy. Generally, these terms of occupancy have been clearly understood and accepted by both parties of the first generation of the families and have been continuously accepted by the later generations. In the Gambia, this peaceful coexistence of land use and occupation continued under this relationship and mutual understanding until the advent of the last government.
This is a universal fact of the origin of land settlements and this ownership of land had not only been accepted by both the colonial administration and the First Republic but it was also utilized as a form of decentralized administration of land. The satellite villages were required to pay property rates to Alkalolu of the indigenous villages, who were recognized as the only authorized holders of the symbol of office – the stamp of Alkaloship. This status quo is the embodiment ofour values and defines the peaceful coexistence of a people of diverse origins.
In the Second Republic, an executive order declared that land belonged to no particular town or village. The consequence of this was an exponential upsurge of land disputes, as recorded in land cases brought before the law courts. The satellite villages began to lay claim to lands belonging to the indigenous settlers. The matter was exacerbated by the allocation of a stamp of authority to these satellite villages which implicitly endorsed their power to allocate land that never belonged to them. The blatant disregard of the age-old tradition of land ownership has thus created an atmosphere of intense animosity that has boiled over into the Third Republic with tragic and disastrous consequences of the Gunjur / Berending incident. Prior to this executive declaration of the Second Republic, land disputes in Kombo were very rare. Both the traditional land owners and satellite villagers honoured and respected the established relationship in the administration and ownership of land.
This phenomenon of the change of land ownership relationship is the common feature of social tensions in Kombo. The period has witnessed a high incidence of court cases over land between the indigenes and the satellites which have naturally been decided in favour of the indigenes due to the historical facts of original settlement and ownership.
Unfortunately, the decisions of the courts have never been enforced by the government. This is now the bone of contention in Kombo. The people of Kombo seem to continually feel the bitterness of injustice despite their active role in the transition from dictatorship whilst filled with the aspiration for a solution to their plight by the present government. Kombo has still not found any solace to their problems except for a very loud silence and inactivity on the part of Government.
Your Excellency recent events in various parts of Kombo, namely; Brufut, Gunjur, Sukuta and earlier on in Faraba Banta and Bakau among others are enough proof of what lies ahead if no concrete actions are taken to address the growing disenchantment with the abuse of power by different public officials with little regard for sentiments on the ground. While the issues of land use, tenure and management are at the heart of these problems, matters incidental to land including destruction of coastal ecosystems, environmental degradation caused by irresponsible sand mining and socioeconomic effects of Chinese fish meal plants remain unaddressed. Illegal black sand mining in Sanyang continues to benefit some dubious operators who do not give back to the community that is suffering from the effects of the unregulated mining activity with active Government backing.
You will recall the incident in Faraba Banta in the Kombo East in which community land was mortgaged to a private businessman whose intent was centered on money making at the detriment of the environment and agriculture (rice fields) and the overall livelihood of the community. As a result three young lives were lost. There was the case of land dispute between Gunjur and Berending in Kombo South. Again life was lost. The perpetrator is under police custody for months and the final outcome is yet to be decided. Justice delayed is justice denied. The people of Brufut and New Yundum have been plying between Banjul (office of Minister of lands and Local government) and their respective villages for so long to the detriment of their meagre earning without any end to their plight in sight. Recently, there was confrontation between the New Yundum community and the Police Intervention Unit. Only time will tell when the incident will explode since the truth about how the state acquired the land is not transparent. The people of Bakau have had their land taken to be given to Banjulians whose compounds were taken for port expansion but following massive monetary compensation. Where is the justice? Take from somebody without any compensation to give to another who already got compensation
Another recent incident in Salagi is a case in point. Despite the declared government authority to acquire land, such acquisition must and is only necessary for public purposes, such as schools, medical facilities, graveyard, markets and other communal social facilities. The acquisition requires a defined consultative process that is recognized by law and the payment of compensation as an uncompromised legal requirement. This governance framework of land acquisition for a public purpose is confirmed as a standard requirement for all development projects that are funded by development partners, such as the case of the solar energy project at Jambur, amongst many others.
This is a moment of urgent action to confront lawlessness and abuse of state power. The fact that traditional communities are becoming more and more powerless in the face of brazen state effrontery speaks volumes about the rapid loss of confidence between them and the Government. We have seen how the state machinery would demarcate large chunks of land purportedly for state use but only to be marked for residential purposes and worst still given to people who already have homes in the same GBA. The Government should not be there to satisfy the insatiable appetite of some individuals for land and wealth at the detriment of the indigenous owners whose parents cleared the virgin land for their livelihood. Their offspring should not be denied the right to inherit that wealth just as applies to the heir of an urban businessman to his bank account and other physical properties. The long systemic indifference has led to self-help by traditional owners who want to develop their lands to prevent reckless preying by state officials, or by outright sale to private buyers before the State authorities appropriate them under superior statutory framework, namely, the State Lands Act, 1991, the State Lands (Designation) Order 1994, State Reservations, Community Forests, Wetlands, and the Tourism Development Area purportedly secured under a Lease with Kombo District Authorities in 1977.
The heightened sense of insecurity among traditional and customary owners has reached an unacceptable level leading to inevitable tensions because land is a finite resource which is irreplaceable. The uncanny scheming of insensitive public officers has led to deep anxiety for mainly peri-urban poor communities competing for arable lands as well as land for housing a growing population. A third force is the growing number of unregulated Real Estate agents taking advantage of the high demand for affordable land for private housing.
This free for all scheming has aggravated tensions between speculators and customary owners who remain unprotected by their onslaught, again by a Government which has become more alienated from the weak and the poor natives of Kombo. Further troubling developments are evident from the rate of dissipation of the so- called public reserved lands in old settlements by the Ministry of Lands and its two main Departments, the Department of Lands and Surveys, and the Department of Physical Planning and Housing.
The growing sense of helplessness and frustration among these traditional communities has reached a breaking point. As expected, the people of Kombo are more convinced now than ever that those they are expected to rely on for the protection of their last economic lifelines have become their tormentors and predators. This is disheartening. The current rate of destruction of woodlands, forest reserves, coastal artisanal fishery, and threat to women farmers are essentially part of a silent conspiracy to impoverish and push generations into cyclical poverty, destitution and physical annihilation. The unfortunate power dynamics have created a state capture and social inequality which will soon become irreversible, if not addressed by responsible public policy reforms and deliberate action to address the tension between urban peasantry and new power class bent on displacing them from their most valued possession, land and natural resources.
The most predictable scenario and outcome of these cumulative and unmitigated problems include passive to moderate and inevitably violent militancy if the situation continues to deteriorate further. Resentment is a potential source of inter-communal tension due to the growing perception of unfair treatment, imbalanced power relationship and financial disparities between customary and traditional landowners on the one hand, and the new settlers especially those who are visibly aided and abetted by State actors at the highest levels.
Your Excellency, for the above reasons, the leadership of Kombo Yiriwa Kafo, on behalf of the citizens of Kombo, wishes to engage your Government and all other stakeholders for a meaningful dialogue and immediately demand the following:
1. The unconditional release of the Sukuta Youths arrested and detained at the Brusubi Police Station and to drop all charges preferred against them
2. The security forces stop immediately the harassment of the affected communities on land matters throughout Kombo. We consider the so called press release from Physical Planning
Department very provocative and the officials of the department must stop immediately the demolition of structures in their so called layouts.
3. Government should enforce all court orders and decisions on land matters in the Kombo area, such as Gunjur-Berending and other examples. There should be due consultation with the people or villages affected, adequate and fair compensation should be paid for any lands acquired and the use and allocation of such lands should be transparent and used for the intended public purpose.
4. Government should desist from allocating such publicly acquired lands to private individuals in the name of a State allocation or a change of use. The composition of the Land Commission should be revisited and expanded to include the voice of the traditional and general public that has knowledge of the history of village settlements and land ownerships. Technical competence should be blended with local expertise for an efficient and equitable outcome of land matters.
5. Repeal of the State Lands Act, 1991, which has been a source of Ministerial abuse especially following its limited extension to Kombo North, Kombo South and Kombo Central in early 1994.
6. The State Lands Act and the 1994 Designation Order remain highly controversial and discriminatory and unconstitutional because no other part of The Gambia has been designated and hence remains a source of abuse.
7. The National Land Commission set up in 2018 remains a façade with its key Members being part of the systemic abuse of the Kombo customary and communal lands since 1994.
8. Stop the misnaming of traditional settlements by the Department of Lands & Surveys, and Physical Planning & Housing leading to inter-communal tensions.
9. Revisit the growing absence of legally identifiable lands in conjunction with traditional owners of future public demands for essential social amenities like schools, markets, public parks, agricultural reservations, cemeteries, ecological and recreational lands.
10. Revisit the opaque designation of TDA with disturbing encroachment trends and dubious allocation for non-tourism purposes, or for speculative purposes by beneficiaries who convert them into choice real estate beach front properties overtime
11. Transfer of Forest reserves into community management and ownership in parity with other rural areas which enjoy an unfair advantage than the Kombo native forests and ecological environmental reservations. Forest Parks within Kombo (Nyambai, Kabafita and Salagie), which have come to being as a result of the toil of their neighboring communities and on their communal lands, be fully restored, in order to continue providing the invaluable ecosystem balance that they have been intended for
12. Require Government to setup a mechanism for engaging customary stakeholders on consultative rather than imposition of paternalistic land use policies which do not augur for peaceful coexistence, national cohesion and social harmony.
13. Gazette Government designated layouts only after appropriate consultation and widest publicity to ensure that public land officials and their Line Ministries do not engage in ad-hoc and unilateral expansion of fully allocated Layouts in the guise of Layout Extensions. This has been a convenient conduit of corruption and abuse of planning authority.
14. All lands illegally acquired by the former Head of state, be immediately returned to the respective communities, as recommended by the Janneh Commission.
15. As a matter of urgency we call on the President to meet the Executive
of Kombo Yiriwa Kafo to table the above sporadic land conflicts in Kombo
Whilst we assure you of our highest esteem, we look forward to your judicious and positive reaction to the demands outlined in this letter.