Julius Davies recounted watching bulldozers destroy his family’s small home on 24th Street in Liberia’s capital Monrovia.
“People came from the government and said this place was government property,” he said, looking over the empty concrete expanse where his neighbourhood stood just two days earlier. “Right away, they started beating people. They beat someone for asking why they had to leave this way.”
According to Davies, the demolitions happened so fast that many people were forced to go without their belongings. “There was no time,” he emphasised.
A mechanic, Davies lost all of his tools and spare parts. One of his neighbours, Anthony Sunday, said that he was able to pack some things, but had to leave behind his family’s only mattress. Nancy King, a mother of five, said that during the commotion she was focussing on by her children and lost everything in the rush.
“All of my things – all of my life – was in that place,” she lamented.
All the while, the Mayor of Monrovia watched from the sidelines. For Mary Broh, it was another successful day in her campaign to clean up Liberia's capital city.
In a subsequent interview at City Hall, Broh noted that such squatter settlements – slums, as they are commonly referred to – are occupied illegally, meaning the government has every right to send in bulldozers. That is technically correct. Former residents of the 24th Street settlement conceded that they did not hold titles for that land. But many people in Monrovia lack the proper paperwork for the property on which they live.
Larger informal settlements such as West Point and Peace Island – where residents number in the tens of thousands – seem to be given a pass. But smaller communities such as 24th Street, the abandoned Ducor Hotel, and ‘Old Government Hospital’, have found themselves on City Hall’s evictions list.
The Mayor's Office calls this progress. But critics describe what is happening as “development-induced displacement”. They maintain that informal settlements should be dealt with in a more humane manner, with compensation programmes and relocation assistance.
In Liberia, Monrovia especially, property is a complicated issue, noted Bestman Toe, president of the Slum Dwellers Association of Liberia.
“The smaller slums are due to the war,” he explained. “People came to the city thinking that it would be a safe haven for them. But then the war reached here and you had to find smaller places and so people started creating these smaller and smaller slums.”
Monrovia’s population is estimated to have grown from 600,000 at the time of the war’s onset in 1989 to more than one million by the time the conflict ended in 2003.
“It was rapid urbanisation,” Toe said. “And then the repatriations [to rural areas] were never effective.”
The violence complicated matters of housing and property rights in several ways. “People were running, leaving their homes in a rush. Guns were firing all over, so people would forget their important documents. They just ran.”
According to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council which has worked on land and property issues in Liberia since 2003, “most residents of Monrovia are slum dwellers.”
The May 2011 document explains, “Residents of informal settlements throughout Monrovia currently enjoy little security of tenure and remain vulnerable to development-induced displacement”. Those circumstances are especially true for people displaced by Liberia’s civil wars. It goes on, “For those choosing local integration in Monrovia…insecurity of tenure is the rule rather than the exception”.
Mayor Broh acknowledged that Monrovia is a unique capital city in that a significant number of its residents do not hold deeds for the property on which they reside. She insisted that she is handling issues of informal settlements as a pragmatist.
“If you are a squatter, be a clean squatter. Keep your area clean, and I will not bother you,” she explained.
There are also guidelines people must follow, Broh continued. “You cannot build a shack on somebody’s fence. You also cannot build in an alleyway. So these are the sorts of things that we are looking at. We don’t just go around demolishing and moving people out.”
The 24th Street settlement was a different matter, she maintained.
“That place had all the drug addicts, criminals, prostitutes – that place was a wasteland, a toilet,” Broh stated bluntly. “It was a very bad situation and so we had to demolish it.”
The mayor pointed to other informal settlements – Ducor Hotel and Old Government Hospital – as more typical examples of her office’s relations with the city’s squatters.
At Old Government Hospital, children ran playfully through the halls, oblivious to the dangers of rickety staircases that shook beneath their feet. Overhead, sections of the ceiling looked ready to fall through.
Several families interviewed said they had lived in the abandoned hospital since the early 1970s, and now had three generations there with them.
Edward Blamo, the neighbourhood’s chairperson, said that it has been decades since there was running water or functioning sanitation services for the building. Yet today, it serves as home to 137 families.
The government is forcing all of those people to relocate. On March 12, Blamo received a letter from the county stating that Old Government Hospital is scheduled for demolition.
Josephine Nimely, a mother of nine, said that she accepts that the building has fallen into disrepair but still does not want to go.
“My grandparents brought me into this building,” she recounted. “I’m feeling bad to leave because I grew up in this place and had all of my children here.”
The authorities have promised a one-time compensation payment to each family that vacates the building. But Nimely argued that the amounts being discussed are far too low.
“With $350 or even the $500 we can do nothing,” she said. “If the government gives us $350, it means they are putting us on the street.”
Cecil Brandy, chairperson for the Land Commission of Liberia, expressed sympathy for such situations.
“How do you ensure some sort of security of tenure for these communities, while at the same time, ensuring that the rule of law is respected?” he asked, “This is the dilemma we face.”
Brandy said that his office is crafting a policy that will address issues of squatters and squatter settlements in Monrovia but stressed that there are “absolutely no easy answers”.
“There is a huge problem we have of individuals who cannot show records because such papers were lost in the war,” Brandy explained. “So much was destroyed. The archive itself was destroyed.”
Nearly a decade has passed since the 14 years of wars that devastated Liberia came to an end. Yet housing and property rights remain significant challenges of post-conflict development. Brandy revealed that the government is only now beginning to build official property inventories for the country.
“We will go into a community and register everything,” Brandy said. “And we are not just going to register deeds but claims as well. That will be the first step in making a broad profile of who has records for what and who owns what.”
The project is scheduled to enter a pilot phase in the coming months. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Liberians are living in homes they claim as theirs, but for which they do not hold the papers to make it official. And, like the residents of 24th street, this puts them in danger of being uprooted and displaced.
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