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Promoting fiduciary trusteeship of Paramount chiefs to ensure transparent community land management in Sierra Leone based on the VGGT principles

By THOMAS DAVOWA

Sierra Leone as a country like most other nation states in sub Saharan Africa has been under the spot light regarding the quality of responsible land tenure governance based on the increasing realisation rooted in existing data that land management is experiencing good governance deficit. There is increasing call for the issue of land to be subjected to greater government and civil society scrutiny to not only improve governance but also address the geo-political and security risks that are associated with poor land governance.  The effort of civil society organiations and a host of international development partners has started yielding benefits and this could in part be credited to the support and intervention by Development partners leading to the introduction, education and roll out of the VGGT which has contributed to placing land governance issues high  on the development agenda of the country.

The VGGT is an internationally recognised principle which is geared towards ensuring that all activities, processes and actions within the realm of land management is based on good governance practices which ensures transparency, accountability and consensus between and among the several actors who are often parties to land issues from the household to the national and even international level (when it involves investors as part of Foreign direct investment – FDI). The VGGT also recognises the place and roles of various Stakeholders – individuals/ households; community actors; national actors and international partners, and despite the multiplicity of such actors, each one has a role to play as well as legitimate concerns which must be addressed if land management is to meet the minimum standards to qualify as good governance compliant.

The VGGT concept is underpinned by a desire to encourage Stakeholders to buy into the adoption of international best practice – ensuring responsible tenure of governance relating to land. In this sense therefore, VGGT emphases ‘voluntariness’ for its recognition, adoption and practice by Countries. Sierra Leone is one of the Country’s where the VGGT concept has been introduced and received popular support from State and non-state actors with a lot of support for institutionalisation by Development partners.

At independence Sierra Leone was bequeathed with a Local governance system which was multi-tier – Chiefdom (being the base) administrative unit; district; provinces (also commonly referred to in governance terms as Regions) and national. There are 149 Chiefdoms in Sierra Leone which are located within the 12 districts of the country. The bulk of the population (7 million +) of the country are resident in rural communities which also account for the greater majority of the Country’s available  land and  holding outside the western area which hosts the political and commercial capital of Freetown. In the Chiefdoms, unlike the western area, the land tenure system is one based on a practice and convention in which the head of the Chiefdom – Paramount Chief is recognised as one vested with the traditional and customary authority of ‘’ holding the land in trust’’ on behalf of land owning families individually and the community at large.

The traditional cum cultural practice of communities recognising Paramount chiefs as lawful holders of land in trust often renders all rural land as community land over which Paramount chiefs normally wield tremendous power and authority. This notion of possessing power and authority over land in custody of Paramount chiefs have over the years revealed a lot of issues pertaining to land management within Chiefdoms at the Community level. There have been accusations and counter accusations levied against paramount chiefs relating to high handedness, disregard for the rights of land owning families, allegations of connivance between Paramount chiefs and investors leading to ‘’ shady or dubious’’ acquisition of land without full observance of due process consistent with the principles embedded in the VGGT concept.

As expected by custom and practice, the paramount being custodian of all land (often referred) to as Community land, h/she has some form of legitimacy in decisions to dispose of such lands. The formalisation of land acquisition is incomplete without the endorsement of the paramount chief which is symbolised by appending his signature and official stamp of office on all land acquisition documentation. The intention for retaining this age-old practice is built on the understanding that the paramount chief would always defend every patch of land in the interest of land owning families and the communities. In addition, communities do not only consider land as the main source of livelihood and survival but also as symbol of identity and definition of territory and the paramount chiefs authority was dependent on the effectiveness with which the land was protected and managed, and based on his perceived traditional and civil authority,  such paramount chiefs are considered as being most suitable to not only oversee but regulate the use and appropriation of land for personal, group or community development in all of rural Sierra Leone.

There has been several cases where the traditional and customary expectations of community’s vis-à-vis holding land in Trust by paramount chiefs have also been a source of community crisis which in several instances have degenerated into tension and conflicts with huge security implications that have tended to undermine not only community but also national Peace and security. This article is presenting a position that paramount chiefs could address the challenges associated with land tenure and management, restore the community trust and confidence in paramount chiefs and promote social cohesion and peaceful cohabitation if they initiate action to understand, appreciate and buy into the internationally recognised VGGT concept.

The age-old understanding and traditional expectation of community residents and especially Land owing families relating to Paramount chiefs holding land as trusteeship for people has over the years been subject of controversy and tension in communities. There is abundant evidence in Sierra Leone, across all regions of the country that paramount chiefs have been in default of community expectations. There have been accusations of land confiscation, denial of ownership rights to vulnerable land owning families who are considered disempowered to pose any defence for unlawful dispossession and the list goes on. The question a reader of this piece may want to ask could be; what is responsible for this negative turn in the behaviours and conduct of paramount chiefs, why the seeming disappointment from custodians of community lands? There could be a host of factors but key among these could be; the lack of knowledge of Right based approaches to land management specifically and its governance generally.

The existing reality is that very few if any chiefdom currently has a data bank on total land holding – land in use for agriculture and other livelihood considerations, land for community infrastructure and facilities and land that have been disposed of or could be candidates for promoting investment with a view of encouraging growth and development. In such situation, paramount chiefs have often been accused of ‘’dishing out lands’’ with little or no focus on reserves for farming and community development. There are also incidences of external pressures, often including political pressure for paramount chiefs to cede land for investment without reference to land owing families and relevant community actors.

The majority of the paramount chiefs have not had any formal orientation and or capacity building around the principles of the VGGT with some focus on the issues of informed prior consent of all parties, the issue of consensus and full disclosure of all pertinent information pertaining to any request for land acquisition ( especially with an investment) rationale. On the basis of the content of the VGGT and its insistence of transparency and accountability, this piece again posits that Paramount chiefs would be in a position to perform their fiduciary land management roles and responsibilities consistent with fairness and mutual accountability in all dealings with subjects, State actors and investors on land management issues.

The VGGT will also not only promote transparency and accountability in land management but will also support the decision making of paramount chiefs in all dealings related to land within their chiefdoms, therefore VGGT shall indirectly also contribute to improving Right based governance within the Chiefdoms as well as forestall tension and conflicts.  If the paramount chiefs were to be schooled on the VGGT concept and they willingly buy into adopt it, there will be improvement in the socio-cultural relations as the allegations of connivance and suspicion will be minimised and community members will have open and better understanding about the processes associated with appropriation, acquisition and management of land at community level which will invariably lead to an upward surge in land management transparency across Sierra Leone.

Paramount chiefs across the Country have had an opportunity to be schooled on the VGGT concept by CSOs with leadership from an alliance of CSOs known as (ALLAT) and an environmental focussed CSO (Green scenery ). This in essence has provided all participating paramount chiefs with an insight into VGGT. In addition, there have been programmes of community engagement being a programmatic approach to roll out the VGGT and all of these interventions have created opportunities for paramount chiefs to gain knowledge and be in a position to adopt the best practices that are being promoted. There however still remains a huge challenge which is that of behavioural change, shifting from the existing ways of doing business to the newer and internationally acceptable mode based on popular will and respect for ownership rights and consent in cases of disposal. There is also the issue of the voluntary nature of the VGGT which calls for personal conviction and commitment for its adoption and this therefore makes it as of now an issue of choice for adoption. The positive dividend of adopting the VGGT being far more than that of the loss, it is expected that progressive and forward looking paramount chiefs will strive to enquire about, gain improved and detailed understanding of and leverage its benefits in order to not only improve tenure of land governance but also the leadership of such paramount chiefs and contribute to the overall improvement in National governance in Sierra Leone.

There are likely to be pundits who will pose the question, what benefits (if any) will accrue from paramount chief’s adopting the VGGT Concept to support and guide them in the Tenure and land governance within their respective Chiefdoms.  On balance, the VGGT has both strength and weaknesses but for the purposes of this piece, evidence has been presented mostly in support of the positives and benefits which VGGT will avail paramount chiefs. The main strength and benefit will be; creating a climate for land tenure governance to be regulated leading to provision of requisite information pertaining to land deals, making transparency and openness a critical attribute of land management .

There have often and in recent times been challenges to the ‘’ age-old’’ practice of recognising paramount chiefs as custodians of family and community lands in all of rural Sierra Leone. The challenges are often in reaction to lack of transparency and suspicion of impropriety exhibited by paramount chiefs in handling lands placed in their custody. The adoption of VGGT and its popularisation by paramount chiefs is likely to address concerns over absence of transparency and accountability and allegations of complicity  of paramount chiefs in suspected ‘’ shady land deals’’.  There is an opportunity for the platform of paramount chiefs- National council of paramount chiefs (NCPC) to interrogate, understand and possibly take on board and encourage paramount chiefs to buy into and base their respective fiduciary land responsibility to be exercised within the framework of VGGT.

There is need for CSO outfits such as ALLAT and Green scenery to continue working in close collaboration with partner agencies from among both national and international agencies to further educate about, roll out and institutionalise the VGGT concept in Sierra Leone. In the Sierra Leonean governance experience, the degree of citizen’s and MDAs compliance with Policies is still considered far from being remarkable. On the basis of the country’s immediate experiences of poor compliance with State or national policy, and given the positive attributes of the VGGT concept, the CSOs and development partners working on VGGT roll out should make bold and mount advocacy with Government of Sierra Leone to go beyond voluntary use to mainstream into governance by writing it into policy or guidelines on land tenure in the country with a view of improving the national governance indices on transparency, accountability and respect for right to property ownership and use. This has the potential of rebranding the country and restoring its negative  image due to existing reports in both national and international fora highlighting poor land governance often dubbed ‘’ land grab’’ in Sierra Leone.

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