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The challenges of urban land in Freetown

In this video Dr. Victor Kabba and Dr. Alphajor Cham present the challenges of accessing urban land in Freetown. land tenure
The management of land, as far as Freetown is concerned, has to do, or is based on, a colonial legacy in which all land in the western area belongs to the state. The state’s land actually is made available to the private citizens when you apply for a leasehold. The state is not actually in control of much of the land because of the absence of total cadastral information, in which case people will just go and occupy a particular plot, and they consider it to be their own. It’s only when later on they discover that the person cannot even make a claim because there is no documentation to it.
However, when the state decides to allocate land, sometimes they leave particular areas for services, for example, to build a school or to build a hospital, or what have you. But then, because there is no demarcation of that portion of land, because there is no indication saying, or a signboard, to indicate that this land is state land and should not be occupied, people around that area will just say, ok, you know what? Let’s occupy this, or let’s consider this land to be a community land.
First you have to apply for a leasehold through the minister. So you are expected to maybe go through an interview. They will call you, they will go through interview. Thereafter, they have to issue you a licence– sorry, a letter, that you have been allocated this plot of land in this particular location on a leasehold. After maybe say three years, you have already developed it, you can apply for a freehold. But then you have to pay money every year for that leasehold.
We don’t have what is called title, land title, in Sierra Leone. We have not come to that. You just register a conveyance to the registrar general’s office and the ministry of lands. So I would demand for that document, cross-check with the registrar’s office to see whether indeed that individual recorded that parcel of land in his name, meaning it belongs to him. Then I would also crosscheck with the ministry of lands, country planning and the environment, to see whether they have it in their their own database. Once that is established, I would then finalise the payment, in which case, I would turn in a receipt and I would take it to my own lawyer.
Then I would provide my own conveyance, and the site plan, or say, the survey plan, then I would now go and register it at the registrar’s office.
The first challenge is a lack of tenure security in the land sector. Why is that? That’s because of our system of registration. And so that leads to – because of the type of system of registration – leads to so many conflicts. And that creates so much uncertainty within the market, and so makes people very apprehensive. And even when they have the resources to even want to involve in any land transaction. 60% to 70% of land cases are land – I mean of court cases are land related. So that’s a huge, huge, challenge in the land sector. And that inhibits even access to that land. So that’s one. Number two is the cost of land transactions.
It’s really high because, in my view, it’s not regulated. The market is actually not regulated. Everybody sells land parcels at will. When for example, the community has expanded and they want to have a school, or hospital, there’s no more land. So for the state to go and retrieve such plots becomes a challenge. The fact that it takes a longer time for most of the transactions, makes it also a challenge. It takes people two or three years to even get all the papers together. So that makes it very difficult for people. Those are issues we try to address in the new national land policy we’ve developed. I applied for land, for example, in 2011.
Until now, I can tell you I have not been able to get my own plot. Why? Because of bureaucracy. Because of influence. You have to have influence to access such plots. The cost of registration is high. It costs about 40% of the cost of land – the processing of the transaction itself takes about 40% of the cost of the land, that’s just approximately. The lack of coordination and collaboration among these players, that’s a huge challenge. We do not have the infrastructure that brings these players together to address certain issues. And where there is cooperation, it is very, very, weak.
If someone that has a plot of land and sells it to three or more people, the ministry of lands has got the rights, they are under obligation, or has the obligation, to sign each of those plans, irrespective of whether it is actually in their database because maybe they will think that those plans have already crossed, or that parcel has already crossed hands, from one person to another. Not thinking that it’s the same plot that is being sold to more than one person. And also because a shortage in supply of land, what has happened, if you go to certain areas, as I say, waterways, they make do forfeit, kind of land reclamation.
You go to mangrove areas, you see that they have already reclaimed those areas, just to have residential. The poor cannot go to the private owners to buy land, because it’s expensive and the possibility of you, when you have bought a particular plot of land or paid for a plot of land, only for you to identify that it was sold to two or more other people. And the end of the day, what do you do? You just have to give up because you cannot go through the court system. Its clear we do not have any land courts in Sierra Leone, as of now.
So if you sue the owner, and the owner maybe has got the upper hand more than you, there is no way you can continue with the case. You just have to drop it, and say, let me leave everything to destiny. So at the end of the day, the poor go without land.
Well, for me, the first thing I would say, this is my view, that the first is to recognise the rights of informal settlements.
And that we have been able to do in the new national land policy. It recognises informal settlements.
So that’s the first thing, recognising and then, of course, protect those rights. And where possible you promote these rights. So that’s one [option] - providing legitimacy.

In this video Dr. Victor Kabba and Dr. Alphajor Cham present the challenges of accessing land in Freetown.

Urban land in Freetown is managed by a wide range of ministries and other government actors but coordination is lacking, meaning that one ministry may authorise a development over an area protected by another ministry.

Getting access to land by applying to the government is a lengthy and complex process that takes many years. Buying land privately is very costly and risky due to the lack of land titles in Sierra Leone and thus the possibility for a landowner to sell the same piece of land multiple times. In such cases, it is difficult to recover the money through courts which are already overloaded with land cases – 60-70% of all court cases in the city according to Dr Cham.

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