By Abu Bakarr Sulaiman Tarawally
The Minister of lands housing and the environment says President Julius Maada Bio’s led government is re-writing the narrative with regards land administration and governance in the country. “Under the New Direction, my focus here is to bring complete sanity into the system of land administration and governance for the good of all Sierra Leoneans; to protect investors and keep the country’s image on a sound path.”
Dr. Denis Sandy was speaking in a topical interview with SierraleoNews.com at the weekend. He said the ministry is aware of the fact that the land situation in the country is very chaotic and it has been the case for a very long time now in the country.
“What we have done here, we have reviewed the processes and procedures governing the acquisition of state lands in the Western Area and of course the country at large. Secondly, we have restructured the ministry so that we can work with competent staff and staff with credibility. Thirdly, we have held discussions with the communities and informed them about the purpose of the new direction regarding land administration and again, I have held discussions with even the lands owning families telling them about the next step of the ministry but more importantly, what we have done is to implement the laws of the country related to the Surveys Act and then all the legal instruments that borders on the operations of this ministry.”
Dr. Sandy said he is taking steps ahead of the criminals as the moratorium he puts in place against signing new land documents or dealing with lands documents approved by the previous administration is a strategy to nip in the bud what used to obtain in the ministry, thereby making it impossible for staff to collude with criminals outside to grab state land.
He said land grabbing has been a menace in Sierra Leone. “What we have done is to indicate in no uncertain terms based on the evidence we have, where state lands are, and then pursue land grabbers to reclaim those lands for the good of the country.” He stated.
The lands minister reported significant progress in reclaiming state land. “We have made extensive gains at Aberdeen creek areas, we have reclaimed lands along Bohboh, Sussex, Mongegba, Mosimbo and even along the Waterloo axis.”
He called on the local authorities, the Western Area Rural District Council, the various Local Council structures, headmen on the ground and the media for support in that direction and the latter for providing the ministry with relevant information.
On the areas of making spurious claims on pieces of land, Dr. Sandy said those days are over now.
“Since I entered this ministry, on May 29th, 2018, I have not witnessed a situation, under my own administration where in two- or three-persons are laying claims on a certain piece of land. I want to announce that it is now a thing of the past in this country, because of the processes and procedures we have refined to meet the dictates of the 21st century.” He stated.
Dr. Sandy said he had introduced a unique and robust method of issuing land documents with seals and features that are securitised.
“This is why, before I give any government land to people, we go to the area, do a proper layout, we make the roads as we are doing at Mongegba, and then we start issuing out letters of offer. In fact, we have developed a system wherein we will be asking people to come for interviews and if the demands really outstrip the supply, what we intend to do is to conduct a lottery system of all the applicants, so if there are five lots available, we open the bag and I ask five people to dip their hands and come out with offers that are available. With that you would see the extent of transparency in the whole process.” Dr. Sandy explained.
On the question of what he intends doing to fight corruption which is synonymous to his ministry, he said he is going to use the law. He went further to explain this:
“Anybody caught in any act of corruption would face the full force of the law. For example, two months ago, we were able to nab somebody who tried to forge the signature of the current Acting Director of Surveys and Lands; of course, that is brought to the attention of the police. The matter was swiftly investigated and charged to court and the individual is currently languishing in jail. That might set a clear message to those who may want to attempt doing same.
Again, we took the bold step to discuss the matter of back dated documents, which has been a thorny issue even though they knew it was a problem. So, what we did, we stopped signing all land documents pending in the last administration for developed land and proposed layouts until we are able to ascertain authenticity of those documents allegedly signed by those past ministers and directors. That has brought sanity in the process and the authenticity of the new documents is not in any doubt for now, because, I could easily identify my signature and seals. I made it clear that I will not accept back-dated documents or documents signed by the past administration for areas that I know the ministers were not here and the criminals were signing as if it was the ministers who were signing. So, my brother, the days of backdating documents are over, I can tell you for sure. My own letter now is highly securitised.”
The minister recently undertook an investigation into land status, acquisition and ownership in the country. Asked what he wants to achieve in doing such. He said: “What I want to achieve is a system that would bring a complete stop to the prevailing circumstances in the past wherein two or three persons would lay claims on a piece of land. So, if you have your conveyance, bring it here at the ministry, it would be signed and a document would be issued to you to show or indicate that the land belongs to you for a life time.”
Responding to the question of having the required technology to handle statistical data of all landed property in the country including the cadastral mapping layout, he said the ICF project was designed to handle that aspect of lands registration until it became a white elephant. “The ICF should have been the right project to handle this but it developed problems along the line and the people that were here before us did not have the country at heart. The ICF project was never implemented for its rightful purpose.”
As I’m talking to you right now, he said, “I have received proposals from well-meaning Sierra Leoneans to handle that aspect and soon it would be a thing of the past.” “At the moment,” he went on, “we are making use of the available technology and I can tell you that we have a very advance charting room for current designs and layouts. That is the place all plans are honestly going through before they are signed by the Director of Survey and Plans after my verification.” He stated.
“What is done here is simple.” he said. “A site plan like this (demonstrating) is taken to the charting room and placed in the cadastral where the GPS falls is where the land is. It tells us exactly the description of the land in question whether or not it falls on our forest reserve areas, or bellow a cliff or someone has bought that piece of land before, it will be clearly seen.” Dr. Sandy explained with clarity.
Asked what line of action under his leadership he would put in place against unscrupulous officials working in league with criminals to grab lands. This is what he stated. “When we came in, we informed all those who think they could have a field day to stop such degrading acts. We made it clear that if anyone is caught what would follow would be punitive action. We would send you on leave and communicate with the HRMO to take the necessary action, which means either you are suspended or your salary seized. But to be honest, since I came, I have not had that situation, those were complaints brought to the past administration. I will do everything possible to instill discipline in the ministry so as not to be in such a position to be in conflict with my staff and the general public. So, by now, they know that any land official caught conniving with individuals outside to grab land would be dealt with and handed over to the Anti-Corruption Commission for probing and possibly dismissed from the civil service without benefit.”
Dr Sandy said what used to be described as double sale tragedy -a situation in which two or three individuals are laying claims on a parcel of land, sell to different prospective buyers using forged documents albeit back door arrangements with alleged ministry of lands officials that are backdating people’s documents should now be a thing of the past.
“For now, what we are doing is that we have improved on our collaboration with the judiciary; and again, we have held discussions with the office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice; and we are working together with the Law Officers Department. We are working on the kind of modalities that would enhance this kind of system. For now, all I can say is that the courts are still doing what they can do, but we have a long way to go to bring land administration under control.” He stated this while responding to a question as to what he would do in the case of different persons laying claims on the same piece of land with the same title deeds and survey numbers but with diverse dates?
Also, the question premised the instances of cases of inheritances, which sometimes come with judicial deadlocks when it comes to verifying documents like the Probates and the Last Will and Testaments.
SierraleoNews.com: Recently, you recalled the Inspectorate Division of the ministry from New England Ville to Youyi building. This was an issue -given the accommodation constraints at the ministry for the staff in question, what was the rationale behind that decision?
Dr. Sandy: “Is to send a very strong and clear message that who so ever is caught in nefarious practices, the law would take its full course. We don’t have sacred cows; or we don’t have anyone to protect when it comes to issues of such nature. Whosoever is caught on the contrary side of things, they know what would follow. The law must take its full course, and that is clear.”
The minister implied that from all indications and what obtains in the past going through the records, the Ministry of Lands, especially the Lands Directorate and Surveys divisions were complicit in land deals.
Now, he said, the lenses of the ministry have been refocused to ensure that individuals and lands officials play by the rules obtained at the ministry.
Asked what his intentions are to work with relevant line institutions such as the Criminal Investigations Department and the Administrator General and Registrar’s office for proper information coordination regarding the authenticity of lands documentations and possibly nabbing criminals operating in the cabal of land grabbers.
His response: “we are working together. In fact, there are Anti-Land Grabbing Units at the various Police Station. I’m working with AIG Lahai at Lumley, there is a Land Grabbing Unit headed by Mr Bangura; I’m working with the Akon Police station headed by Mr. Dassama and his men; I’m working again with the Ross Road Police Station; the New England Police station, all the police stations because we have a common understanding and that is, we strive very hard to reduce the spate of land grabbing in the Western Area and then to ensure that in terms of equity, the land is distributed for the benefit of all Sierra Leoneans.”
SierraleoNews.com: “There is a serious problem with planning, especially the capital Freetown. Houses are clogged with no clear streets identifications and access roads are not clearly demarcated. Some fences encroached into the right of ways, is there a room for re-designing of structures?”
Dr. Sandy: “Yes, this is why some of us are so aggressive and adamant. For newly identified areas like Mongegba. Mongegba is going to be designed as a purely residential area. As I’m talking to you, we have gone there and construct roads, I’ve also written a letter to my colleague minister of energy to commence the erection of electric poles there; and again, I have taken my colleague minister of works to see what could be done to actually expand the roads. So, we want to have areas we could be really proud of that is why for me Mongegba is really a pet project. Like you said, planning is a problem. People are taking more than the required piece of land indicated in their site plans. That is the problem. They are blocking access roads here and there. This issue of blocking access roads is something we cannot condone because you are actually preventing others from using that access road by breaking access to them. So, what we are saying here please, go according to what you have in your site plan. If you have two town lot make sure it is two town lot. Don’t extend by coming closer to the road. This is where we are so forceful to implement the Freetown Improvements Act and the Town and Country Planning Acts, because these are the legal instruments for planning. A case in point is my brother Philip Neville, he is constructing a house at Signal Hill Road that is entirely across the right of way and that is entirely against environmental designs and he knows clearly that he is not supposed to build a splendid house or massive house there. Again, worse of that is that he has taken more than his required site plan. For now, we need to enforce those laws and give a shocking wave in the spines of Sierra Leoneans.”
Asked whether or not the minister’s recent action my lead to another round of demolition exercise of housing structures. He denied this in no uncertain terms. “No, no, no! in-fact we have had for the very first time a state of art excavator machine donated by a Sierra Leonean to enhance our operations. And since we started, we have not even knock down rickety structures (pan-body). Our focus is to enhance the roads and we are focused on recovery. This means, if we get to a state land whatever we met: houses or what have you -whatever you do with those is left with you. But still, we are not demolishing structures. In fact, what we are focusing on at the moment is regularisation. What it means is that, if you knew you built on a state land, go and apply for it now to the minister so that we can give the relevant state documents. That way, we are moving away from converting properties into state lands. We are not here to demolish anybody’s structure, rather we are here to make sure that everybody does the right thing and that the days of land grabbing are over.”
SierraleoNews.com: “Do you intend to have a nationwide open land documentations verification exercise, which would see the ministry put out a public service announcement for all in the country with claims and proofs of documents to come forward to surrender those documents.”
Dr. Sandy: “Yes, because we have been to Bo, Kenema, Makeni, Magboraka and Kono. We have been to different parts of the country. We have offices all over the country. We are working with the Paramount Chiefs and Local Council structures to get things right there. We have just held discussions in Bo, Kenema and Makeni with land owning families to pay them their lease rents over the time. Their amounts have been calculated and payment would made to them in the next two weeks. So, you see, this is a wonderful stride we are making again to reduce encroachment on government lands in those areas and even the airfields.
SierraleoNews.com: “Given the challenges, strategies to surmount those and going forward, what is your action plan and the future looks like for land governance in Sierra Leone?”
Dr. Sandy: “For me the future looks bright with the kind of achievement over the time and with the kind of improvements I’m making with the necessary reforms and control measure we have put in place to make sure that land grabbing becomes a thing of the past. Now, land grabbing has been reduced drastically; no more backdating of documents, the processes and procedure to take leased rent and applications for land have been redefined. What used to happen here is that anybody with a letter of offer can just dash to the bank and make payment, now you come to the ministry, we give you verification letter and a slip. You take it to the bank to make payment. Without that slip you won’t be able to make payment. In ding so, people will no longer be able to grab land and backdate documents to lay claims on state lands any longer. We have cut down all of those loopholes. Finally, my brother, we are focused, we are determined because we know what we are doing is for the betterment of the country. We need to get things right, otherwise the future generations would not be responsible for the mess we have created out of land governance.”