By R. Joyclyn Wea and Anthony Stephens with New Narratives
MONROVIA-It has been four years since a gas station and minimart owned by George Kailondo, the businessman and politician with the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change political party, were constructed on SKD Boulevard in Paynesville.
The building, constructed on wetlands protected by the Liberian government under an international agreement to help save an important and fragile ecosystem, was deemed illegal from the outset by the country’s Environmental Protection Agency.
And yet four years later it continues to do a brisk business unbothered by authorities, even has dozens of structures around it have been demolished.
In 2018, Kailando and the EPA announced the demolition had been delayed while the Supreme Court sorted out Kailando’s dispute of the order. But an investigation by New Narratives reporters has found no evidence the case was filed as it should have been in the Liberian court system. Nor have the courts provided satisfactory evidence the case exists.
Under Liberia’s legal system, a challenge to an EPA destruction order by Kailondo, or any other aggrieved person in Paynesville would to be filed in the Magistrate’s Court in Paynesville. The clerk at the court has been unable to find any evidence of the case or that it was filed there.
In order for a case to reach the Supreme Court, the magistrate’s court, (in this case between Kailond and the EPA) would need to pass a ruling that was then appealed to the Civil Law Court and then Supreme Court. The clerk at the Supreme Court was unable to locate any file either. After repeated visits from reporters and an interview with EPA chief Wilson Tarpeh, the clerk showed a print out of what he claimed was the first page of the case but would not provide the full case by press time despite repeated promises to do so.
In an angry phone call Kailando, himself a lawyer and who is in court this month in a $US3 million dispute with GT Bank, claimed a case existed in the Supreme Court but refused to show it to reporters. He disputed that the station is on the wetland.
“I built on the dry land, not a wetland. Do they have flooding around there?” he asked. “I expect you to be an investigative journalist, so once it’s the rainy season you can go there and see.”
The station has continued to operate for four years while many structures around it have been demolished by the EPA. This has caused resentment in the community that say it shows there is one rule for the rich and one for the poor. There is a strong belief that Kailando has either paid or used his influence to stop the EPA from enforcing their own ban.
In an interview, EPA Chief Tarpeh said the case is proceeding in the Supreme Court. Tarpeh, who came into office after the EPA action was launched in 2018, was also unable to produce a copy of the case file or give any details about the case or how it got to the Supreme Court.
But after reporters’ inquiries into the case, he insisted the EPA would now move to demolish the station.
“We were slow in certain things because we wanted to observe the procedure,” said Tarpeh. “But we can assure them, as in the institution for which I speak now, there will be no bias in the situation. We will go after the property. It’s a violation of the law. You cannot violate the wetlands and be there. I can understand how they [the poor people on the wetlands] think. If I were them I would probably think the same thing. But you can assure them, this EPA management will go into this case and we’ll resolve it.”
He promised immediate action.
“Going forward, notices will go out, reminding him [Kailando] what has happened and what he needs to do to comply with the law. The important thing is we are taking steps to observe what the Court has asked to do, although we are not in full agreement, fortunately, is a step that we are familiar with, but the important thing is that that property will to be removed.”
This case has raised questions about political manipulation in the judicial process. The Liberian judicial system has been plagued by claims of corruption. Reports by the US State Department have often highlighted the susceptibility of the Liberian judiciary to corruption and political manipulation. Civil society organizations are calling for greater transparency.
“Once you have a case in court, then, there should be proper documentation,” said Timothy Kpeh, Coordinator of CSOs Committee on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, WASH and Climate Change. “Civil society and the media should have access to that information. It makes people think that something is going wrong because you can’t have a case in court, and you don’t have documentation. So, I want to encourage the courts to make available documentation and speed up the investigation. We are experiencing the issue of climate change, the issue of floods, which has resulted in the pollution of drinking water sources. So, these are issues that we all need to get involved to ensure that our environment is protected.”
Kpeh urged the courts to play their moral duty to society.
“The court is that place, where we have to find redress and solution. So, when the investigation of that nature is being taken at that level, then, the court needs to be very, very keen to provide all necessary information to the public, not to give the impression that something went wrong, or something is going wrong at that level.”
As Kailondo’s properties remain untouched, residents and business people whose properties were demolished by the EPA are angry. Nigerian national, Ociwuche Daniel claimed he legitimately bought the parcel of land, where his brick workshop was stationed, until it was demolished by the EPA in February 2021.
“Demolishing the structure is not anything to Daniel because they are doing their job and I don’t have money to fight the government, but what is frustrating is leaving the controversial George Kailando gas station whereas it is believed that they both constructed their properties in the wetland.”
An EPA notice that is posted around the area reads: “I present my compliments and draw your attention to the wanton destruction and degradation of the mangroves wetland around the Police Academy Junction area in Paynesville City, Montserrado County, Liberia. It furthers: “report findings, complaints and attention reaching the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) point to activities that are compromising the ecological integrity of the Montserrado wetland.”
But Daniel claimed he was given no prior notice before his property was demolished.
Daniel’s demolished workshop
“There was a time the EPA cited us to the town hall, we went to the court and they kept postponing the case, only to find out, while the matter was being undetermined, the EPA came one morning and demolished our areas on grounds that they have the right to do so,” Daniel said.
He insisted he violated no environmental law.
“We are even far from the drainage; we are about 45 to 50 feet from the drainage, so we are not contributing to flooding. Even when the EPA people came they investigated, they saw the place. We are not doing any illegal thing here. We bought this place in 2005 and built our store and block factory here. Surprisingly, the EPA came with a notice less than a day, they came and broke the area down; we did expect to be compensated, but again this was not done.”
James K. Sumo, 46, who has lived here since 1998, has also accused the EPA of bias.
“We know that they have the right, once someone constructs something on the land, they have the right to remove them,” he said. “But then, it should be done at an equal level. To be honest with you, one way, or the other, they are biased. Because if you feel that this is good for John, it should be good for Paul. But if you feel that this is not good for John, it should not also be good for Paul”.
The community will be watching closely now to see if the EPA does as Professor Tarpeh has promised and demolishes the station. It seems unlikely that the EPA will be able to protect the wetlands from the construction as long as the community believes there is no fairness in its enforcement.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Climate and Environment Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the American Jewish World Service. The funders had no say in the story’s content.