Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest nations where over 70% of its six million people live below the national poverty line of $2 a day. The promotion of large-scale foreign investment in the agricultural sector has been made a priority by consecutive governments in the country, in the hope that increased agricultural production may lead to a decrease in poverty. It is in this perspective that SOCFIN Agricultural Company Sierra Leone Ltd (SAC) arrived in Malen Chiefdom located in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone in 2011 as part of a large-scale investment in palm oil. As a reminder, SOCFIN is a multinational agribusiness company controlled by a Belgian businessman (Hubert Fabri) and the French group Bolloré, whose business empire touches many parts of Africa and Asia.
It is shocking to see how a government betrays and sells its own people: at first, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security (MAFFS) of Sierra Leone signed a lease of over 6,500 hectares of land in the Malen Chiefdom with Paramount Chief (BVS Kebbie) and 28 landowners for a period of 50 years, renewable for an additional 25 years. On the same day, the land was sub-let by the Ministry to SOCFIN Agricultural Company Sierra Leone Ltd. (SAC). The portion of land acquired at the beginning went increasing every year from the 6,500 hectares; and in December 2017, SOCFIN claimed to hold 18,473 hectares of land in concession in Sierra Leone. Projections made by SOCFIN in 2010 on the basis of the 2004 national census estimated that approximately 28,135 people in the chiefdoms of Malen, Bum, Lugbu and Bagbo would be affected by the project.
From the outset, local communities denounced the lease agreement as illegitimate. Organizing themselves into the Malen Affected Land Owners and Land Users Association (MALOA), they detailed their concerns in a letter to the Pujehun District Authorities on 2 October 2011. Their grievances included: A lack of consultation with landowners prior to the agreement of the land lease; Pressure, intimidation and threats aimed at coercing landowners to sign off their land; lack of transparency and high levels of corruption in the land acquisition process; Inadequate compensation and the non-payment of compensation; the failure of SOCFIN to mark boundaries of family land before its clearing; extremely poor working conditions on the SOCFIN plantation; the destruction of the livelihood of landowners in the area; impact on the right to adequate food; the destruction of the area’s ecosystems and the negative impact on its biodiversity.
Recently, the conflict in Malen escalated to new levels following violent incidents that took place between 16 and 25 January 2019. On January 21st, following a skirmish between community people and the police and the military protecting the assets of SOCFIN, two people were shot dead. Shortly after, police and military raids were carried out in the surrounding villages.
Many people are believed to have sustained injuries from the actions of the security forces. During the night of 23 January, three other MALOA members were arrested by both police and military personnel in the company of people who are perceived to be supporters of Paramount Chief Kebbie. They were taken to Malen court, where they were beaten and later detained in a police cell.
The police arrested 15 other people (most of them MALOA members), including the honorable Shiaka Sama; an independent candidate from the affected zone who won the Parliamentary elections in 2018 in constituency 104. He is particularly accused by Paramount Chief Kebbie of: incitement; the murder of the two persons who were killed; obstruction of SOCFIN’s operations. This was added to a long list of arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial harassment committed against land rights activists of the community based organisation MALOA. It is reported that the police and the military made excessive use of violence: people were beaten, houses were vandalised and properties were looted and hundreds of people fled their homes for fear of violence. About eighty persons including women and children fleeing their villages were sighted in Kassey village. The besieged villages of the Malen chiefdom are now under a 6 pm to 6 am curfew since January 21, 2019 likely restricting the freedoms of the citizens.
The scale of state security brutality can be aptly described as unprecedented in the chiefdom since beginning of the land conflict, following the arrival of SOCFIN Agricultural Company (SAC) spanning from lower Malen to Bendu and Nganyahun Malen in Upper Malen. Eyewitnesses identified a SOCFIN security vehicle conveying state security personnel during the raids. These events were denounced by national and international civil society. It is reported that during these events, SOCFIN held meetings with the security forces and chiefdom authorities to discuss the management of the crisis, and that SOCFIN’s vehicles were made available to the police and military. Human rights defenders organizations in Sierra Leone reiterate MALOA’s demands, and call on the government of Sierra Leone to open an inquiry into the actions of the security forces, SOCFIN and other actors involved in the January 2019 incidents in the Chiefdom of Malen; immediately put an end to all forms of criminalization of land rights activists and MALOA members; and to facilitate a long-lasting peaceful resolution of the land conflict in Malen.
These grave events occurred as communities affected by the land conflict in Malen saw a possible solution following the election promises made by the new President Maada Bio to resolve the conflict and the Government’s dialogue efforts in recent months. The complicity of the government with SOCFIN in the land lease has not only betrayed the community’s confidence in their authorities but also jeopardized their lives.
A new report on this case has been published by Fian Belgium and it gives a good documentation of the misery endured by Malen community since the arrival of SOCFIN until March 2019. AEFJN in collaboration with the other Civil Society Organisations in Belgium will continue to provide support for this community.
 Sierra Leone ranks 179th out of 185 countries in a recent human development index. UNDP. 2016 Human Development Index. p. 204. Available at: hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/2016_human_develop- ment_report.pdf
 22 Head Lease Agreement (Zone A) between the Government of Sierra Leone and the Malen Chiefdom authorities. 15 October 2012. Available at: www.fian.be/IMG/pdf/2012-communities-sl_headlease_15oct2012-zone_a_completed.pdf
 MALOA. Grievances of land owners in Malen Chiefdom. 2 October 2011. Letter to Pujehun District Officer. Available at: www.fian.be/IMG/pdf/maloa_grievances_of_land_owners_october_2011.pdf
 SiLNoRF, Green Scenery et al. “In Sierra Leone, Land rights defenders under attack”. Press Statement. 23 January 2019. Freetown. Available at: www.fian.be/IMG/pdf/malen_incident_press_release.pdf
 “Land Grabbing for Palm Oil in Sierra Leone: Analysis of the SOCFIN Case from a Human Rights Perspective“. Available at https://www.fian.be/Land-Grabbing-for-Palm-Oil-in-Sierra-Leone?lang=fr