The actions of a national bank and an influential politician — in alienating a small community from their land — amounts to corruption, says Transparency International Sierra Leone. The fallout includes five community members imprisoned for murder and scores of residents forced to flee their impoverished community.

In the Western Urban District of Sierra Leone, land has become a powerful catalyst for violent disputes and corruption that undermines the land rights of poor communities while enriching developers, corporations and politicians. The people of Metchem, in the neighborhood of Goderich, have been particularly badly affected.

In 2000, the Metchem Bao construction company seized control of 45 acres of communal land — used for subsistence farming and the community’s cemetery — during the development of the Goderich Peninsular Highway. The company was granted permission to store heavy machinery on the site by the central government. Community representatives, however, say they were not consulted on the use of their land or informed about the contractual arrangements which, in the fullness of time, would have such a devastating impact on this poor community on the urban fringes of the capital Freetown.  When the company finally vacated the site, almost ten years later, no compensation was paid to the people or reimbursement for the losses they suffered. As the construction crews departed, the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank began to remove the heavy machinery left behind. Nobody thought to question why the bank — not the construction company — came to remove the assets.

Gradually, the people began to work the land again and revisit the gravesides of their ancestors. Life in Metchem returned to normal until, one day, representatives from the bank returned with news that left the community reeling and eventually led to the death of one man and the arrest of six local residents for murder.

Recognising land corruption

The phenomenon known as ‘land corruption’ is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain within land administration and management. It is prevalent across the world — impacting every fifth citizen — but it is particularly severe in Africa where studies by Transparency International show it affects one in every two citizens. Land corruption is a critical issue in Sierra Leone where the acute shortage of land, overlapping tenure arrangements, the incapacity of public institutions, and a lack of protection against commercial land grabbing; all create fertile ground for corrupt practices to take root.

The exclusion of communities from participating in land deals between private investors and authorities is an example of land corruption. When people are evicted from their land, unfairly compensated for their losses, excluded from participating in decision-making, and denied access to relevant information; it is land corruption.

The consequences of land corruption in Sierra Leone include food insecurity, widening inequality, an increased risk of conflict and threats to traditional ways of life. Furthermore, land corruption undermines women’s rights and impedes progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. It is a most urgent issue for the nation’s politicians, institutions and civil society to address.

The bank, the politician and the land grab

In late 2013, personnel from Sierra Leone Commercial Bank met with the community’s leader, Chief Mohamed Turay, to inform him that they were seizing property belonging to Metchem Bao Construction. The company had defaulted on a loan, they said, and the bank was intending to recover its losses. “The bank collected all the vehicles and other machinery belonging to the company”, says Turay, “then, after a few months, they returned to say our land had been sold to Sanusi Bruski.”

Sanusi Bruski Kargbo is a prominent and controversial figure in Freetown. The owner of a large construction company, Bruski Kargbo once served as executive member of the All Peoples Congress (the ruling party until April 2018) and chairman of the Eastern Lions football team. He was the frontrunner in an election for the president of the Sierra Leone Football Association in 2017 until FIFA — football’s international governing body — intervened to conduct ‘integrity checks’. Bruski Kargbo is widely associated with gangs of football hooligans in Freetown and has been accused of assaulting a journalist covering the presidential runoff in March.

“We were surprised that our land was being sold without our consent”, recalls Turay, adding that Bruski Kargbo immediately ordered the community to vacate the site. “One morning, Bruski [Kargbo] came with a group of young men to secure the land and, a few days later, he returned with three trucks filled with officers from the OSD”.

Armed police bring violence to Metchem

The OSD (Operations Support Division) is the paramilitary wing of the Sierra Leone Police, which the human rights watchdog Amnesty International condemned for “frequently used excessive force to disperse spontaneous protests, with at least nine protesters killed and more 80 injured” in a report earlier this year that recommended banning the OSD from participation in United Nations’ peacekeeping missions. According to residents of Medchem, the OSD paramilitary police first came to their community on 14 April 2016 and immediately began demolishing their houses, marketplace, church and school.

On 9 April 2017, a violent conflict between local residents and Bruski Kargbo’s private security team broke out. One of the security guards, a man named Mohamed Kabba Kargbo, was severely beaten and died from his injuries at a local hospital soon after. Four men (Sylvester Fonnie, Alusine Koroma, David Ashinie Cole and Sheik Mohamed Koroma) and one woman (Lovetta Maxuela Cole) were arrested and later charged with murder and conspiracy to murder.

According to locals, the accused are innocent and were arrested simply because they were at the scene when the police arrived. The six accused remain in custody — on remand — at the Pademba Road Correctional Centre in Freetown; without legal representation or a court date. Maxuela Cole, who was pregnant at the time of her arrest, delivered her baby in the female wing of the prison.

The OSD returned to Medchem on 13 January 2018 to continue the destruction of the Neufville Christian Academy School and Life Church Ministries Church, clearing the way for Bruski Kargbo’s construction company. Over 600 residents have been forced to relocate from their homes and 400 children have been left without a school. As the local teacher Patrick Sorie Sherry-Mayleor, puts it: “We are merely surviving by the grace of God. Our people are suffering, but we have no alternative since we were forced out by Bruski and his men.”

Sanusi Bruski Kargbo could not be reached for his comment. Head of the Corporate Affairs Department at Sierra Leone Commercial Bank, Mohamed Kamara, refused to comment on the bank’s role in alienating the people of Medchem from their land. In a short statement, Kamara confirmed that: ‘’I have informed my authorities about your concerns”.

This article was produced by Transparency International Sierra Leone, as part of the Land and Corruption in Sub-Saharan Africa Programme. For more information, please visit tisierraleone.org

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