What happened to the Biometric Property Registration Agreement?

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Minister of Lands, Housing and Country Planning, Dr. Turad Senesie addressing MPs after the approval of the Biometric Property Registration in 2021. Photo credit: Politico Newspaper

By Alfred Koroma

While debating the Petroleum Agreement for the refurbishment of the Kissy Storage Tank in Freetown, the longest serving MP in the present Parliament, Hon Veronica Kadie Sesay deplored a difficult problem in Sierra Leone’s governance system. I recall the MP saying: in Sierra Leone, we build structures, but we lack maintenance culture; we enact laws, approve agreements but implementation is a problem. This was during a plenary sitting in November 2020.

The following year, in December 2021, one of the agreements MPs unanimously ratified was the Landdreg SL Limited agreement with the Government of Sierra Leone to commence biometric registration of lands and housing properties across the country.

Ownership of lands and houses in Sierra Leone are recorded manually, laced with considerable corrupt practices, often perpetuated through forgery, multiple sale of a plot to more than one buyer, grabbing and other forms of land racketeering.

Approving the Biometric Property Registration Agreement, the Minister of Lands, Housing and Country Planning, Dr. Turad Senesieand both ruling party and opposition MPs crowed it as one that is going to bring sanity into land and housing management and also generate funds for the state.

“Over 60 percent of cases in court are land related.  “So when once we introduce the property registration, it is going to be biometric. We are going to reduce the conflict over the ownership of land drastically to over 80 percent,” the Minister told journalists in Parliament just after the Agreement was approved.

Yet, it has been nearly four years, the Agreement between Government of Sierra Leone and Landdreg SL Limited has not been implemented, or put bluntly, biometric property registration has not commenced in the country.

Implementation of legal instruments is a challenge in Sierra Leone as Hon. Veronica once put it. Parliament approves loans, ratifies agreements, at the end of the day, nothing changes.

At the time the Agreement was approved, it became one of over 100 loans and agreements the legislative house had approved within three years of its inception, but how some of them practically benefited the public remain unclear.

Concord Times could not access the Minister of Lands to talk on the progress of the Landdreg SL agreement. However, his Public Relations Officer, Abdul Karim Fonti Kabia managed to say the Ministry is having administrative challenges in introducing the registration system.

Land disputes

Lands in Sierra Leone are administered through a dual land tenure system – the English Tenure applied in the Western Area through State bodies and the customary tenure system involving traditional authorities. The land tenure system originated from the British Colonization in which the country was administered under two division, the Western Area (British Colony) and Protectorate, places outside the Western Area.

The system has faced unending disputes, involving land owning families, traditional authorities and state bodies largely caused by corruption and improper documentation of properties and record keeping by the Lands Ministry.

The Lands Minister presenting Land Dispute Resolution Committee Report to President Bio at State House in October 2021

In March 2021, a Land Dispute Resolution Committee set up by government to investigate land conflicts and complaints within the Western Area, for the period April 2018 to January 2021 reported high risk of loss of documents at the Ministry of Lands and Housing.

According to the Committee report, a large number of files and ledgers, which are supposed to be properly stacked on shelves were found lying on the floors of some of the offices at the Ministry. And in the Charting office, the Committee found a box containing volumes of survey documents which had not been entered into the ledger.

“There is therefore high risk of loss of documents, the Committee says in its report, recommending that the Lands Ministry invests more on IT and enforce minimising manual record keeping.

Biometric Property Registration

Following the launch of the report, the Lands Minister ran to Parliament to get MPs to approve the Landreg SL Agreement to introduce biometric lands and housing registration. Biometric captures individuals by using their biological and physiological characteristics such as fingerprints, hand vein patterns, facial features to establish their identity, according to UN

When implemented, experts believe the registration system minimises manual record keeping and enhances security, accuracy in property records.

Biometric registration

 “It’s a more secure and trustworthy property registration system that ensures better record keeping and reduces fraudulent activities such as identity theft or illegal land transfers. It guarantees a reliable data ownership,” says Samuel Thullah, Lecturer of Microsoft package, Database management, introduction to computer at Sierra Leone’s American College of Science and Technology.

Accurate data, facilitated by biometric registration can aid in effective urban planning, infrastructure development, and resource allocation based on reliable information about property ownership and land usage, he added. “It’s a tool for improving land and housing management.”

Although Mr. Thullah raises concern about data security of biometric systems, he said the implementation of such a registration system in the land and housing sector is essential and should not face delays.

But where there is a delay, he said government should consider providing a clear communication to the public about the reasons for the delay and the steps being taken to address the issues.

“That is also another thing, such a system should be introduced along with public awareness and involvement in the implementation process. It is essential for transparency and acceptance of the  technology, if it’s ever introduced.”

While many property owners have zero knowledge about the Landdreg SL Agreement or government’s plans to introduce biometric property registration, some of those who spoke to Concord Times welcome the idea of having such a system in the land sector, but express lack of trust in the political will and ability of the technology to end the entrenched corruption in the land sector.

For Tabara Koroma, a property developer in Freetown, corruption, using political influence will still let people beat the System and get away with properties that do not belong to them.

“Biometric will not work in Sierra Leone, because politics has destroyed everything. People use politics to disadvantage others, she said. “Without a proof of document, someone can claim your property and get away with it using political connection.”

Tabara, a US based Sierra Leonean has spent the last two years in Sierra Leone battling litigations to save her properties from being taken over by one of her tenants who later became a girlfriend to her late husband.

She has a grim lack of trust in the Biometric Property Registration, because she believes it will aid corruption in the lands and housing management system.

Before introducing biometric registration system, she suggest the country must first stop corruption, fearing biometric would worsen stealing of properties.

“Someone will just come bribe someone to remove your name from your property. Biometric is very easy to pervert, because the very people in charge are those who will finger the system.”

This report was produced under the DPI Africa Journalism Fellowship Programme, organized by the Media Foundation for West Africa with support from Co-Develop.

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