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Christian Kabulele and his younger brothers, Trésors Kabulele and Giresse Kabulele, tend to his plot of land in Motumbe, a neighborhood in the major DRC city of Kisangani. The land was once up for dispute and construction had halted. But Kabulele won the title and returned to maintain his plot. Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC
Legal Rights

One Piece of Land. Two Families Claiming Ownership. In DRC, Resolving the Case Isn’t So Simple.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Local land disputes are becoming more common in Kisangani, a major city in Democratic Republic of Congo. But between inconsistent regulation and high levels of corruption, resolving cases is not always a clear-cut process.

KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Thierry Ambule is a land “crook.”

At least, that’s what he says the land records office of Kisangani took him for. He went there in January to get an official title for a small plot of land that he purchased in the Makiso commune of Kisangani, 8 kilometers (about 5 miles) from the center of this major DRC city.

Ambule says he paid a man 1,154,713 Congolese francs (about $700) for the plot. In return, the man gave him a receipt of payment and instructions to register the land. But to get the registration process started, Ambule needed to go to the bank for a referral to the land records office.

And after handing over the money to the initial seller, Ambule didn’t have the 164,878 Congolese francs (about $100) needed to pay the application dossier.

When he went to pay that fee a month later, he found that someone else had claimed the same land. They, too, had a receipt of payment from that seller.

“The case is currently in the hands of the land records and property titles office,” says Ambule. “But the seller has vanished into thin air.”

Over the last several years, unregulated land sales have increased in Kisangani. Reports of fatal fights between people who say that they own the same land circulate through the area. Often, the disputes involve two families clashing over a piece of land that both of them claim to have paid for.

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Kahindo Pascal, an engineer, stands in a house under construction in Kisangani’s Motumbe neighborhood. A building permit was granted for the property.

Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC

When a land dispute is first lodged, the land records office is charged with determining the true owner, usually through the seller’s testimony. But when the seller disappears, it becomes more complicated. When that happens, cases are referred to the public prosecution body. Even then, it’s hard to reach a resolution; often, people will bribe the prosecutor with money or goats to be declared the owner.

More than 60 land disputes are currently pending, according to Moise Bondo Mumba, litigation officer at the city’s land records office.

“The trouble is, people don’t consult with us before purchasing plots of land,” he says. “They prefer to do it under the cover to avoid further costs. And that’s how conflicts come into being.”

Mumba says 40 land dispute cases were referred by the land records office to the prosecution department. The office has determined the owners in 20 of them since December 2018.

David Okeke’s case has been pending since then.

“I purchased a plot of land from someone who provided me with an acknowledgment letter for receipt of payment,” he says, referring to the small plot of land he bought in the Motumbe District of Kisangani’s Makiso commune. “I’ve already started building on it, but today, someone else is telling me that the plot belongs to him.”

The person who opened the case against Okeke stopped showing up to claim the land, he says. But because the case is still under review, he is unable to continue with construction on the house he is building.

Christian Kabulele, on the other hand, had already started construction on land that he purchased when another person came forward claiming ownership of the property. He spent seven months getting the official title to the plot, purchased from a seller claiming to be the rightful owner.

“To avoid land disputes in the city, people must open their eyes before buying plots of land,” says Florent Pago Maduali Binzaka, head of division and registrar of property titles. “Only the urban planning department and land records and property titles offices are empowered to validate such a transaction.”

But with land in high demand, the desire for ownership can outweigh protocol.

Ambule, whose land dispute is still pending, says he purchased the land to ensure a better life for his two children. And he’s not letting it go.

“Not a single end of week goes by that I don’t come here to check on my plot, making sure no one is constructing on it,” he says. “I live under threat by an unknown person who comes here, and says this plot belongs to him.”

Ndahayo Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.

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