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Briefing paper

BP72: Land disputes in Liberia: Disputes from below, 2008

Afrobarometer Briefing Paper No. 72
2 Oct 2009 Liberia
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The protracted civil war that ravaged Liberia between 1989 and 2003 forced many Liberians to seek refuge in other countries. When the war eventually ended in 2003 and democratic rule was subsequently established in 2005, many of the refugees returned to Liberia, mostly facilitated by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Unfortunately, immediately after the war, there was a mad rush for land. Frequent disputes over ownership were exacerbated by the loss of legal documents and a total breakdown of the legal system. Taking advantage of the high demand for land, some Liberians devised means of disposing of almost any available land that had no visible ownership or that was not under immediate supervision. Many returnees therefore encountered problems reclaiming or accessing their land, buildings and other assets that survived the war. In many cases those assets have been taken over by people who are not willing to relinquish their claims. These illegal occupants usually demand that the claimants provide valid documentation to support their claims of ownership, documentation which often no longer exists.

As a result, struggles for land and other assets have generated tensions and violent conflicts throughout the country, conflict that often takes on an ethnic dimension. This has resulted in the destruction of lives and property, and forced many residents to flee from some of the main towns. Thus, even though Liberia has stabilized remarkably since 2005, land disputes have emerged as a major threat to peace. The Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission warned of a strong likelihood of Liberia’s return to violence if the land issue was not adequately addressed.

An Afrobarometer survey was conducted for the first time in Liberia in 2008. The findings enable us to assess popular opinions on land disputes and the likely consequences for peace and stability in Liberia. Specifically, we track the following:

1. What is the relative role of land disputes in generating violent conflicts in Liberia, and what is the spatial distribution of these conflicts?

2. How often and where do land disputes occur in Liberia?

3. What are the public’s preferred approaches to resolving land distribution disputes?