Liberian President signs land-reform law

epa06484432 Liberian President George Weah speaks to legislators during his State of the Nation address at the joint chambers of the National Legislators in Monrovia, Liberia, 29 January 2018. The State of the Nation address is Weah's first since he was sworn in as Liberia's president. In his address, Weah announced he will cut down his salary by 25 percent. EPA/AHMED JALLANZ

Liberia’s President George Weah, who took office in January, has signed a land reform law that gives local communities greater rights over “customary land” and lets foreigners and charities own property.

First drafted in 2014, the Land Right Act has nonetheless been criticized by some who say it weakens the rights of Liberians who live in rural areas, notably women.

Previously, the government could grant private companies long-term leases on non-titled lands that cover most of the west African country settled by former slaves from the United States and Caribbean.

Land and labour are intertwined; one cannot be without the other.

If you have land and there is no labour, you have a problem because land is an asset.

“Land and labour are intertwined; one cannot be without the other. If you have land and there is no labour, you have a problem because land is an asset,” Weah commented as he signed the act late Wednesday.

Local communities can now claim ownership of customary land based on oral testimonies of community members, maps, signed agreements between neighboring communities and other documents.

A nationwide survey is to be carried out within two years to confirm which customary lands are and which are privately held.

Up to 10 percent of the former is now to be allocated as public land available for lease to private companies.

The law allows foreigners, missionaries, educational and charitable organisations to own land as long as it is used for the purpose given at the time of purchase.

Previously, the Liberian constitution provides that only “people of colour” can become Liberian and only Liberians can own property.

Weah, in January described these clauses as ‘unnecessary, racist and inappropriate for the 21st century’, pledging to push for all races to apply for Liberian citizenship and for foreigners to be allowed to own property.

Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, was established by freed slaves from the United States and declared independent in 1847.

In addition, farmers who occupy unclaimed land for 15 years will become its legal owner.

Land issues have fueled deadly conflict in Liberia, pitting urban elites against rural populations, often women, who practice subsistence farming on non-titled croplands.

A civil war that claimed 250,000 lives between 1989 and 2003 was in large part caused by disputes over land and natural resources.

“With this act, our parents will have the opportunity of claiming what belongs to them,” Liberian national Terrence Gibson said.

Safeguards were needed to prevent the validation of tribal certificates and other pre-existing property documents from being used for “bad faith transactions,” the Women Land Rights taskforce said in a statement released in March.

Hauwa Mustapha