Written by Wonderr K. Freeman
The colors of the flag of the Republic of Liberia are red, white and blue. Yet, on the question of citizenship, the colors of red, white and blue are meaningless. On citizenship, Liberians see only in terms of black and white – as in black is good and white is bad, and anything that is a mix of black and white is treated with a heavy dose of suspicion. This has been the case since the founding of the Republic in 1847.
Given Liberia, historical roots – the founding of a republic in Africa – by freed slaves from America, there are some historical dimensions to this status quo. The founding fathers of the Republic may have been embittered by their personal experiences of slavery, and the subsequent discrimination upon being freed, and with a streak of vengeance or desire for isolation, or perhaps in order to exercise exclusivity in their new domain, inserted into the constitution of 1847, section 13th, which read thus:
The greatest object of forming these Colonies, being to provide a home for the dispersed and oppressed children of Africa, and to regenerate and enlighten this benighted continent, none but Negroes or persons of Negro descent shall be eligible to citizenship in this Republic
With this section (13) of the 1847 constitution, the fate of non-Negroes persons was sealed. This section has to be read, though, in conjunction with section (12) which forbids the ownership of real estate by persons who are not citizens of Liberia. The question of citizenship has been perpetually tied to the issue of land ownership, and has proved, over time, to be quite resistant to change.
This article is not to argue with history. The founding fathers of 1847 may have had their reasons; however, as times evolve, new realities emerge. It serves no purpose to continuously live in the past. However, the Liberia of today continues to conjure up new reasons to put hurdles in the way of citizenship for all persons regardless of race or other nationality. For example, in the current constitution, apparently, since the  Constitution Committee could not cite the same logic provided by the 1847 writers [seemingly outdated], the Committee created its own justification, howbeit farcical. On citizenship, the 1986 Committee writes:
[Article 27] In order to preserve, foster and maintain the positive Liberian culture, values and character, only persons who are Negroes or of Negro descent shall qualify or by naturalization to be citizens of Liberia. [Article 28] Any person, at least one of whose parents was a citizen of Liberia at the time of the person’s birth, shall be a citizen of Liberia; provided that any such person shall upon reaching maturity renounce any other citizenship acquired by virtue of one parent being a citizen of another country.
One can clearly observe the shifting justifications for citizenship exclusivity on the basis of race. The first group, the founding fathers of (1847), claimed they were oppressed and wanted to regenerate the Negro race in purity. The contemporary group, the 1986 framers, now cites the positive Liberian culture, values, character and attributes, which must not be diluted by allowing non-Negro citizenship. This whole justification is suspect because even a cursory reading of Liberia history shows a culture of oppression, suppression, discrimination and outright depravity in the socio-economic and political governance landscape, which led to the 1989-2003 fratricidal civil war that Liberia is yet to recover from.
At the onset of the Liberian republic, there was discrimination perpetrated by the mix-race lighter-skinned Liberians against the darker-skinned Liberians. So the likes of Joseph Jenkins Roberts and his mulatoes (mestizos) were the first-class citizens and therefore allowed to be leaders, followed by the darker skinned Americo-Liberians, who were the second class citizens and allowed to live in Liberia. The third class citizens were of course the recaptured slaves, who had never experience slavery – the Congoes.
And of course the least were the indigenous, who occupied the land and offered sanctuary to the first three classes. The indigenous had only conditional citizenship – after they accept Christianity and adopted the ways of the “civilized “classes”. There are many historical incidences to show the depravity of this level of discrimination and its capacity for self-destruction. In Liberian history, there was the assassination of EJ Roye (1871), the first blacked-skinned President, by those who didn’t like the idea of a black-skinned President even in a “black African republic”.
There was also the 1930 Fernadopo slavery issue, which was, by far, the most condemnable account of depravity in the Liberian society. This was when the League of Nations had to intervene to stop this nation, Liberia, founded by former slaves, from engaging in slave trade and trading in forced labor.
Ultimately, this infamy ended with President CDB King and his deputy (Allen Yancy) resignations (ref: the Fernadopo scandal and the Christy Report). Cutting a long story short, this continuous discrimination and socio-economic and political exclusion by one group over the others led us to the 1989 civil war, from which this nation is yet to recover. This historical reality puts to shreds the justification of constitutional exclusivity to citizenship based on race or on positive Liberian culture, as proffered by the 1847/1986 framers of our constitutions.
Unfortunately, the citizenship deprivation does not only stop at non-Negroes. This depraved logic now extends to Negroes also (i.e. Liberians) who have the “audacity” to take on other citizenship. Discrimination is a slippery slope, once it is allowed to fester; it is difficult to know where it’s likely to end. Liberia’s Alien and Nationality Law (1973) is the statutory extension of the constitutional ban on eligibility for Liberian citizenship, and, amongst other things, it provides for:
- Loss of citizenship for Liberians (i.e., Negroes) upon the taking up of another citizenship (forbidding dual citizenship);
- Serving in the armed forces of another state;
- Voting in the election of another state;
- Not residing in Liberia before age of majority (for persons born of Liberian father but born outside of Liberia, and not pledging allegiance to Liberia before age 23).
There are even those who believe that the clamor for the recognition for dual citizenship is just, but that the same “right” does not and must not apply to non-Negroes. After all, persons of Middle-eastern and Asian origins, who have resided in Liberia for ages, and who have had children born in Liberia and/or by Liberia mothers and fathers have no right to Liberian citizenship. How far lower can we go on this citizenship debacle? This situation is so absurd that one has to wonder, if there is any such thing as common sense anymore in this matter?
More recently, those who support the continuation of the discrimination under our laws cite more economic and social reasons for continuing the discrimination. Some of the contemporary justifications that I have heard include:
- If white people are allowed to be citizens, they will take all our land, because, you know, they have more money.
- If white people are allowed to be citizens they will marry all the beautiful women, and we will be left with only the ugly women.
- If dual citizenship is permitted, people (dual citizens) will commit crimes and run away to America and other places, where they are equally citizens.
- If dual citizenship is permitted, people (dual citizens) will dominate our body politics, economics and everything in Liberia will be run from abroad.
There are just samples of the contemporary illogical justifications that are uttered to justify denial of citizenship for non-negroes or dual nationals. However, the longer we Liberians continue such laws on our books, the more we demonstrate to the world how backward we are in our thinking.
The argument for dual citizenship or non-Negro citizenship is not to say that Liberia should not have restrictions on citizenship, only that same must not be based on race or other spurious reasons. For example, as regards land ownership, there is always the option of putting a lawful restriction on how much land any single citizens can own , whether in his/her individual capacity or as a group or as other legal entity. This can happen by a simple statute on land ownership. One does not need a constitutional ban to achieve this objective.
Similarly, there are laws on mutual legal assistance and extradition for persons who commit crimes and flee to other countries where they have nationality. And on the dominance of our body politics and economy by non-Negroes or dual citizens, we can structure our laws and economic policies to ensure that all Liberians have equal opportunities for personal advancement – whether in sports, economic, politics or other aspects of social life.
If we so desire, we can also (via legislation) put limits on the political rights of dual citizens or non-Negroes – just as have been done by the Code of Conduct law in regards to political appointees resigning a few years prior to election. The Supreme Court has said this is perfectly legal. Our nationality law can also be perfectly justified in denying citizenship to foreign convicted criminals, fugitives or terrorists, etc. As for foreigners marrying all the beautiful women, we don’t have a choice in that. Only the beautiful women of Liberia have the right to decide whom they want for husbands or boyfriends.
What is clearly unacceptable is the current situation of an outright constitutional and statutory ban on dual citizenship and non-negro citizenship. This is morally wrong. It is also politically and economically backward. We don’t seem to have a problem being educated in “non-Negro” countries.
In fact, we take an unusual degree of pride in being educated abroad (at Harvard, OxBridge, Princeton, etc). We also don’t seem to have a problem in begging “non-Negros” for financial assistance and for just about any other form of assistance. In fact, for the many years now that Liberia has had peace, whatever modicum of development we’ve had, has been on the back of either (1) remittances from Liberians who have taken up citizenship of other countries or (2) on the back of “non-Negro” countries’ development aid.
Our internal resources continue are being gobbled up in graft (talk of positive Liberian culture?), while the GOL shows absolutely no interest in bringing the culprits to justice. We prefer to finance our national development via China-AID, India-AID, US-AID, Aussie-AID, Russia-AID, Swiss-AID, EU-AID, etc. Yet we continue to provide justification for denial of citizenship on race and on dual nationality.
Look, Liberia is a poor country. This is an undisputed fact. To develop, we need more talented people, more industrious people and more people with the capacity and desire to invest and develop Liberia. The sooner we scrapped all these citizenship bans, and replace them with sensible pro-business laws, the better we will all be. That’s why I’m in favor of changing our laws to permit both dual citizenship and non-negroes citizenship. As Liberians, we have a clear choice, we can continue with the status quo that was started in 1847 and provide all sorts of silly justifications therefor, or we can move over to the 21st century – this modern ERA where talent, education, industry and investments count far more than the color or ones skin or one’s dual-nationality status.
April 25, 2017
Wonderr K. Freeman
Attorney, Monrovia, Liberia