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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Manduar village incident – An episode of land disputes

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It is becoming too common that any incident between communities is spontaneously labelled as political or tribal or both as an easy but dangerous classification of the episode that strikes at the heart of our social cohesiveness and tolerance.

The underlying case of Manduar lies in the fears of the indigenous village or settlers of the insidious transfer or sharing from them of the authority to administer customarily owned lands to the satellite settlement. It goes beyond politics or ethnic conflict.

The primary cause of the disputes between town settlements and satellite villages is one of land ownership and administration which mostly emanates from a more recent allocation of the stamp of alkaloship to a satellite community. The stamp of authority has been used since colonial days mainly as a symbol of authority for the administration of customary land (which includes allocation). 

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The villages in such disputes may be classified into two main types – the indigenous settlements and the satellite settlements or communities. The former dates back centuries as the original settlers of the area. The latter satellite communities arise from three main comparatively recent settlement formations.

The first of this group of such recent settlements may be called the religious satellite communities. It is not uncommon that marabouts or religious heads have been inspired to look for an area for secluded worshipping or are religiously directed to settle in some other region other than theirs. They would migrate with their extended family, and most times, with talibehs and would naturally require having a sustained source of livelihood from farming. Generally, this group settles in an area of a different ethnic background from the indigenous community that they approach for an allocation of land for housing and agricultural use. Such communities are found in the North Bank Region such as the Baddibus, eastern and western Kiang, Foni Jarrol and Bondali and the Kombos, to name a few.

The second group is the one that migrates and looks for land for the grazing of cattle or agricultural land, mainly triggered by the effects of desertification and the severe effects of persistent drought in their areas of origin. Such a group is found in similar indigenous areas as the first group. The third group is mainly migrants from a conflict area or region of severe governance system – one that is communal (say from Mali,) or countrywide (such as Guinea Bissau).  This group is mainly found in Kombo East, South and North.

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The common features of all three groups are that land has voluntarily been allocated to them by the forefathers of the indigenous communities for use (user or usufructuary rights) for habitat and sustenance and not for ownership as understood in the Western concept. Thus the authority to allocate and assign land always remained with the indigenous community.

It is important to further clarify the ownership of land by the indigenes. The head of such a village, the alkalo, does not own the lands of the village. Such lands belong to various families comprising that village, the various kabilolu. Thus the role of the alkalo, is to coordinate the administration of land and thus possess a stamp of authority to authenticate ownership in the cases of any land transaction.

By extension, the satellite community that does not own land cannot authenticate its allocation nor can it allocate it. As the saying goes, nemo dat quod non habet (no one gives what they do not have). There are instances in those days when the allocation to the satellite community was renewed on an annual basis. 

The characteristic difference between the two types of settlements is that the settlements of the indigenous villages extend over a much longer period and are the first settlers of the area whilw the satellite community is relative more recent and were given land by the indigenes that they found in the area. This relationship was mutually understood by the forefathers and the first generation settlers of both groups.

The relationship was also underscored by the administration of customary lands and the tax collection system during the eras of the colonial rule and the First Republic; the property rates of satellite settlements were collected or paid to the alkalo of the indigenous villages.

However, the memory of these unwritten agreements naturally fades with time and the challenges become compounded by the population growth which makes the security of tenure for the satellite communities increasingly tenuous and thus become a source of conflict.  The situation becomes compounded by the declaration of the executive of the last regime that land belongs to no particular village or kabilo, particularly in the Kombos. By extension, the satellite villages started claiming and were allocated authority to hold the office of alkalo with its concomitant possession of the symbol of office – the alkalo’s stamp. 

With the implementation of this executive order, the age old traditional system of customary land administration became fundamentally altered and it has become rancorous. The disputes became politically exploited and thus became more acrimonious and sentimental with the use of emotive analysis that is based on ethnic relationships since, in most cases, the two groups are of a different ethnic background.  In fact, statistics from the district authorities indicate that there has been a dramatic and exponential increase in land disputes that emanate from the implementation of this executive order, the tremors of which are still felt.

The more specific sources of dispute between the two groups are an instance where the satellite village, having possession of the symbol of authority to administer land (the alkalo’s stamp), ventures into allocating land that was originally given as a user right, while in the case of the indigenous group, after exhausting the allocation of the land of the kabilo, it begins to encroach upon the original farmland areas of the satellite community.  In both cases the land allocation activity is largely due to population growth and the monetisation of land.

It is, therefore, important to understand the origin and the history of the settlements from which derives the customary tenure system among villages in order to reduce and minimise the confusion that has arisen from the executive order that was then given. The history of the villages will assist in identifying the original kabilo ownership of such lands. Although traditional historical accounts may not be totally flawless, they can, nonetheless, be helpful in establishing who the first settlers are and from whom other settlements derived their rights. It may be generally stated that there is virtually no land existing from the past 300 years without an owner.   

There must be a deliberate effort on the part of government to resolve this potentially explosive situation that has already claimed lives and has generated an acrimonious relationship between neighbors who were hitherto living peacefully.  It is one major issue that cannot be brushed under the carpet of indecisiveness, deafening silence and political exploitation.

It may be suggested that a comprehensive approach requires the setting up of some form of commission (call it the “Village Identification and Designation Commission” or whatever).  Its task should be to document the settlements in, say the Kombos, with the view to establishing and protecting the rights of both the indigenous and satellite communities.  The rights of the original settlers should be recognised in the context of customary land ownership and administration whilst the satellites will be protected for their right to permanent occupation and livelihood area. 

In the meantime, until the finalisation and implementation of the study and recommendations of such a commission, it may be prudent to withdraw all symbols of land administration stamp from the alkalolu of the satellites villages while leaving them to maintain the headship of their respective villages per se, that is, they remain only as heads of their respective satellite villages and perform all functions of an alkalo except for the administration of land.  In the same token, the indigenes must be barred from allocating lands of livelihood of the satellite, where they do exist and must be barred from claiming ownership of the habitat of satellite villages.   There is currently a case where a satellite village has been ordered – though as yet implemented – to evacuate after generations of families lived in that village!

In other, words, the indigenous settlers must be protected by maintaining their authority to administer customary lands but correspondingly provide the requisite security of tenure for the satellite communities. There have been temptations to get rid of the customary system of land administration and to replace it with that of the West. That is a debate that Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and others have gone past by incorporating the customary land tenure system in their legal books and is beyond the consideration of this article.

The traditional approach of arbitration should be relied upon to settle disputes rather than adjudication in the law courts which can have unpleasant outcomes as shown by the example quoted above of the eviction notice of generations of settlers. As a nation with such a small population and territorial base, the impact of an ethnic conflict must be seen as abhorrent. The Manduar village incident is an episode of land disputes that has been simmering and needs to be resolved urgently. Just thinking aloud.

Lamino Lang Comma is a former senior civil servant in the First Republic and now works as a consultant.

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