In Freetown, on the 21st October 2021, the Minister of Land Housing and Country Planning, Dr. Turad Senesie was permitted by the Speaker of the Sierra Leone Parliament to introduce two bills titled “Customary Land Right Act 2021” and “National Land Commission Act 2021”. The Land for Life Initiative Sierra Leone Secretariat was in parliament to grace this occasion.
Emotional, eager, excited but filled with anxiety, the team and other non-members of parliament, took either back seat on the ground floor of the Well or were seated in the upper chamber, overlooking the oval-shaped bottom of the Well where the parliamentarians seat in the circle, debating, objecting, lamenting or concurring. The team perceived the event as both refreshing but full of some hysteria. The Parliament is a highly political platform, where, most times, politicians debate largely based on political sentiments and not necessarily based on the common goal of the State. Already, the Bill development process was both interesting and as well confrontational at times. The most crucial provision in the colonial land ordinance (CAP122) that puts the paramount chiefs as custodians of all customary lands, is proposed to be expunged. These paramount chiefs who are vehemently opposed to this new provision, have their sons and daughters or other relatives in the Well. Even before the laws were introduced, side talks suggested that the legislative process was not going to be an easy sail. There was therefore concern that those sensitive contents in the bills, even before reading them, would be raised.
Time was also a concern. The parliament had just resumed after a month-long recess. There were many issues to start with, and one was the Parliamentary Endorsement of members of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, which is aimed to strengthen Sierra Leone’s democracy. There were also other laws to be read for the first time, including the most anticipated “Gender Empowerment Act, 2021” and the “Sierra Leone Students’ Loan Scheme Act”.
When the morning session finished, the parliament went on a temporary recess and returned in the afternoon for the second session.
Observing that the process was becoming tiring and demanding, the Land for Life National Convener Abu Brima, while strolling down the stairs, turned round to his team to give them some words of courage:
“Look, we are here for a fulfilling moment. The benefits that will come will by far exceed the delays and procastications when these laws are passed, fully implemented and complied. They will become the legal reference points of our advocacy for the long-desiring change. We will popularize them, educate our people on them and effectively monitor to see that they bring those changes that we have long waited for.”
Abu Brima, the Land for Life National Convener.
Introducing the two bills in parliament, the Leader of Government Business, Honourable Mathew Nyuma, said the laws will address the perennial problems marring the land sector and are proof of the government’s continuous commitment to making Sierra Leone’s land administration inclusive, effective, people-centered, and right-based.
In their comments, several members of the opposition parties opted that the laws are not introduced that day until a pre-legislative session was held for parliamentarians to understand the core contents. Honorable Daniel Brima Koroma of Constituency 046, Koinadugu district, particularly emphasized that parliament had a pre-legislative engagement on laws before they are introduced. He acknowledged that the legislative procedure prescribed in section 47 of the Standing Order of Parliament (SO47) does not compel for pre-legislative engagement on laws before they are introduced for the first time in parliament. However, given the sensitive nature of particularly the “Customary Land Right” and the “Gender Empowerment” laws, he would encourage the speaker to put a hold on the legislative process until the members of parliament are pre-engaged to understand what is proposed. He referred to the first reading of the laws as the official legislative process, which he said, could hardly be reversed. This opinion was supported by the National Grand Coalition (NGC) leader of parliament, Honourable Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella, who further expressed that he had received several calls from chiefs and other authorities, urging him to take caution with some of the provisions in the proposed law.
These remarks already indicated that some of the contentious provisions of the new law particularly chapter 122 of the 1927 Protectorate Land Ordinance which places all customary lands entirely in the custody of the chiefdom council will be challenged. The new law proposes that the chiefdom council become ordinary supervisors over chiefdom land committees, restoring the full right of ownership of all family land into the members of the respective families. Decisions on community land will be conducted in an inclusive chiefdom and community land committee.
The bills were however legally introduced for the first reading, with an undertaking by the leader of government business that pre-legislative sessions will be organized before the second reading. There are further steps ahead including, after pre-legislative discussion, second reading, committee stage engagement, third reading, plenary debate, parliamentary approval, and finally the presidential ascension.
Cross-section of officials of the Ministry of Land and CSOs on the VGGT Technical Working Group, after the laying ceremony (Representatives from Ministry of Lands, NAMATTI and The Land for Life Initiative Secretariat)
Background on Land Legal Systems in Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone’s land is currently governed by two separate legal systems. Land within the city is all owned by the State and can be privatized through due processes by any citizen. Land outside Freetown is owned by families and communities, under diverse customary laws, but under the custodianship of the chiefdom councils, it cannot be owned privately. Some of these customary laws are widely criticized for being discriminatory against certain groups of people, as for example the Creoles in Freetown, women, and youth. Additionally, they do not guarantee inclusive administration of land.
With the introduction of the UNCFS VGGT principles by the FAO in 2012, Sierra Leone has made significant progress towards a legislative reform in the land sector. A comprehensive National Land Policy was formulated and approved by the cabinet in 2015. The ambition was to transform some of the key policy provisions into law. Thus, towards 2018, public engagement started for the legislation of two laws. The first one is to recognize customary land rights, promote tenure security, and support access to land without any form of tribal, religion, gender, or other forms of discrimination. The second law will establish a National Land Commission, a policy implementation body that will decentralize inclusive land administration through local offices at the chiefdom, district, and regional levels.