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Demand for property has led to numerous legal disputes in Lubumbashi, and allegations that judges are taking bribes to reassign property. (Photo: Luc56/Flickr)
Ownership disputes in Lubumbashi in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are frequently decided by judges taking a bribe from the highest bidder, according to local residents and officials.
The city has recently seen an influx of people returning after they were displaced by conflict in Katanga province, of which Lubumbashi is the economic and administrative centre. But when they arrive back, they often find their homes have been taken over by others who claim they have paperwork proving ownership.
Eight out of ten cases before the courts in Lubumbashi are land disputes. Lawyers and human rights organisations say judges often endorse claim to a house or land in return for money, so that the real owner – in some cases a returning refugee – is forced out or denied the right to return.
Ars Kyale, a lawyer who practices in Lubumbashi, said the illicit deals constituted an organised racket where successful claimants sometimes sold the houses on after paying magistrates to sign off on their claim.
“There is a group of people who are well-versed in the law and are profiting from the population’s ignorance in order to make money,” Kyale said.“We believe there is a network of lawyers, magistrates, and other individuals who make up this mafia. But for the moment it is proving difficult to identify them.”
In one recent case, Lubumbashi resident Justine Umba went to Katanga provincial governor Moïse Katumbi because she did not trust the courts to deal fairly with her allegation that a man called Minga Bope had tried to usurp a house she has owned since 1982.
“If I resorted to the justice system, I would have risked losing my house,” Umba told IWPR. “So I thought it best to tell the governor.”
The governor upheld Umba’s claim and had Bope arrested in late March.
A local judge, Losange Mukwala, said the governor had subverted the legal system by ordering the arrest. “If you bring someone who’s presumed innocent before the governor in handcuffs, it is a breach of the law. The judiciary is independent and cannot take orders from the executive,” he said.
Governor Katumbi countered that it was the courts that were in the wrong.
“The lady came here to file a complaint because she knew that if she’d done so in court, she would have received a biased ruling. There are magistrates who steal houses from the public,” he said.
His actions were backed by Oscar Rachidi, head of the NGO Coalition for Good Governance.
“The magistrates have nothing to teach us, as they are the ones organising the stealing of houses,” he said. “The governor is only protecting his population. When there is a problem, we always hear that people ask the political [rather than legal] authorities to intervene.”
“Judges often ask for money but the amount they ask for depends on the condition and the estimated value of the house,” said Alain Kalombo, another lawyer in Lubumbashi.
The head of the High Council of Magistrates in DRC, Jean Ubulu Pungu, acknowledged that some judges were on the take, but insisted the authorities were working hard to address the problems.
“The public is tired of seeing magistrates resorting to shameful practices like corruption,” he said.
Ubulu Pungu pointed out that DRC president Joseph Kabila sacked 165 judges in July 2009, including the head of the Supreme Court and the prosecutor general.
“You cannot say that nothing is done to fight against corruption,” Ubulu Pungu said.
The justice minister for Katanga province, Jean Marie Dikanga, has vowed to stamp out the problem.
“We are in a time of zero tolerance. No one is above the law,” he said. “We are going to punish all those who get involved in corruption in our province. As the governor has said, all those who are not doing their work properly have no place in Katanga.”
Dieu-Donné Wedi Djamba, a lawyer in Lubumbashi bar, argues that judges are only partly to blame for accepting illicit money since the government starved the justice sector of funds.
“The average income of judges in DRC varies between 100 and 200 US dollars [a month]. That kind of salary means they can’t cover their basic needs. It puts them in a position of supplicants with regard to those using the judicial system, and makes them easy targets for corruption,” Wedi Djamba said.
The deceit is made all the easier by the fact that rightful owners often have little documentary evidence to back up their case, since records are poor and few hold title deeds. DRC law requires a registration certificate to prove ownership of property, and while new buyers now try to obtain one, this has not always been the case.
“There’s a need to raise public awareness of land ownership regulations,” Kalombo said. “It’s ignorance of the law that makes all this possible. It makes things easier for those who connive with judges to get fake certificates and to seize houses from their owners without being prosecuted, because whoever has the certificate is considered to the legal owner of the house.”
Similar cases are being reported in other towns in eastern DRC, including Goma in North Kivu province, where refugees have also been returning to their home areas.
According to Tshibanda Tondoyi, the chief prosecutor in Goma, “Sometimes tenants want to misappropriate the house they are renting, and [some individuals] help them forge documents, so we get a lot of complaints.”
Tondoyi linked the problem to a booming urban population competing for limited amounts of housing, adding, “The town remains the same size; we can’t accommodate everyone.”
Héritier Maila and Godlieve Uwimana are IWPR-trained reporters in DRC.
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