ECOWAS Court affirms its jurisdiction in a suit filed by a Limited Liability Company against the Republic of Sierra Leone

The ECOWAS Court of Justice on Thursday, 8th July 2021 ruled that it has jurisdiction to hear a suit filed by a limited liability company in Sierra Leone alleging the violation of its right to property by the Republic of Sierra Leone over a property to which it has a 21 year leasehold issued by the government.

Ruling in the suit filed by Miles Investments (S.L) Ltd. Et al, the Court dismissed the grounds of the preliminary objection of the Republic of Sierra Leone in which it raised objection to the jurisdiction of the Court in entertaining the present suit against it for contractual property rights to Sierra Leone State Land entered into between the 1st Applicant and the Respondent and urged the Court to dismiss same.

The government also contended that the second Applicant is not a proper and necessary party before the ECOWAS Court and lacks locus standi and that the cause of action arose over three (3) years ago and therefore statute barred pursuant to Article 9 (3) of the protocol of the Court;

But the panel of three judges of the Court in the suit led by Hon. Justice Edward Amoako Asante dismissed the argument of the State on the ground that the initiating application showed that the subject matter is the violation of property rights though predicated on the breach of contractual property right by the first applicant which is entirely different from such contractual right

It held that the purpose of approaching the Court was well articulated by the Applicants in paragraph 4 (4) of the initiating application where they pleaded in the following words:

“In this Application, the Applicants seek to determine if the assignment of Miles Investments’ contractual property right to Sierra Leone State Land it leased from the Sierra Leone Government, along with its ice factory to Basseem Mohamed (Competitor in the ice business in Sierra Leone) in Sierra Leone High Court Case No. CC281/08 the Court’s Master-and Register without any legal service-of-process, no court hearing, trials or court judgment issued, constitute violation of Articles 1, 3, 7.1(c) and 14 of the African Charter”.

Judging from this plea, the Court said it has no difficulty in adjudging that the Applicant is asking it to determine the issue of alleged property rights violation arising from the property contract the first Applicant had with the Respondent contrary to the “erroneous position held by the Respondent that the suit concerns breach of contractual obligation simpliciter and same is outside the purview of the jurisdiction of the Court.

“The Human rights jurisdiction of this Court is clearly circumscribed in Article 9 (4) of the 2005 Protocol on the Court which states that “The Court has jurisdiction to determine cases of violation of human rights that occur in any Member State”. Also, in BAKARE SARRE V MALI (2011) CCJELR pg. 57, the Court stressed that “Once human rights violations which involves international or community obligations of a member state is alleged, it will exercise its jurisdiction over the case”.

“On the strength of the above provision of the Protocol on the Court as has been reiterated in its jurisprudence, the subject matter of the instant suit which is on violation of property rights and other rights provided for within the African Charter, falls within the jurisdiction of the Court and the Court so holds that it is vested with the powers to entertain this suit.

It therefore gave the Defendants 14 days within which to file its response.

The Plaintiff is a limited liability company incorporated under the laws of the Republic of Sierra Leone with Directors who have dual citizenship of ECOWAS and the United States of America.

The first Defendant is the Republic of Sierra Leone and a Member State of ECOWAS. The second Defendant is a Community citizen of ECOWAS while the third and fourth Defendants are agents of the first Defendant.

In suit no.ECW/CCJ /APP/10/19, filed on the 26th February 2019, the plaintiff sought the enforcement of the company’s rights and the payment of reparation for the violations of its right to property, unequal treatment before the law and right to fair hearing occasioned by the Defendants refusal to honour their agreement on a property to which it holds a 21 year leasehold issued by the government.

The Plaintiff averred that following an advertisement in the official Gazette of the Republic of Sierra Leone by the State declaring a beach land in Tokeh village as Government property, the Applicant applied and was granted a 21 year lease effective May 1, 2008 until till April 30, 2029 which it used for an ice cube production business.

The Applicant submitted that the 2.8 Acres beach land in Tokeh Village, located in the Peninsula of Sierra Leone was leased in Accordance with Sierra Leone State Land Act No. 19, for the period with an option of another 21 years to produce ice to support the artisanal fishing activities in the Peninsula.

The Plaintiff stated that after it completed the construction of the ice production factory with funds borrowed from the United States, the ice was only produced and distributed for 114 days.

He further alleged that the second defendants, Basseem Mohamed and the Estate of Jamil Sahid Mohamed, owners of the only ice production company in Sierra Leone before 2008 in Sierra Leone used the country’s High Court to stop all activities on the leased property on the pretext that the beach belongs to the Estate of Jamil Sahid Mohamed and not the government.

He also alleged that the domestic Court of Sierra Leone neither followed due process nor invite them to any hearing before issuing a writ of possession in favour of the second defendants who subsequently connived with agents of the state to forcefully take over their property contrary to Sierra Leone High Court Rule No. 46.

The Plaintiff further stated that as the Lessor of the land, the Respondent State deliberately neither appeared in Court to defend the Plaintiffs nor protect the company’s interest after the second defendants obtained unlawful access to its factory on June 20, 2011 which was the vandalized on October 4, 2011, before transferring the plaintiffs ice producing systems to their Sierra Fishing Company at Kissy Dockyard where they are being used for profit.

The plaintiffs therefore urged the Court to declare that the characterization of their land as the property of the State and its transfer along with its’ ice factory to a competitor through a suit that did not follow due process constituted the violation of Articles 1, 3, 7.1(c) and 14 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The Plaintiff therefore urged the Court to compel the Respondent State to grant Miles Investments, Ltd compensation for damages in accordance with the country’s laws that are consistent with international laws in the minimum sum of $ 2,259,902 US dollars as well as the payment of punitive damage by Basseem Mohamed and Estate of Jamil Sahid Mohamed to the company in the sum of  U.S.$2,259,902, if they fail to present a Title of Ownership that prevails over that of the Sierra Leone State for the 2.8 Acres beach in question among others.

Also on panel in the suit are Justices Gberi-be Ouattara and Dupe Atoki.