Questioning Mandingoes Alone For National Identity Is Unfair


By Cllr. Tiawan S. Gongloe

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
May 16, 2005


Recent reports from Liberia point to the exclusion of Mandingoes from the voter registration process on grounds that they are not Liberians. According to reports, Liberians with Mandingo names are being asked to prove their Liberian identity. The underlining assumption here is that being a Mandingo raises the presumption of being a non-Liberian. The mindset is that a Mandingo is only a Liberian if he or she produces proof of national identity. The question is: what is the basis of this mindset?

Why is it that among all Liberians of the various ethnic groups only the Mandingoes always suffer this embarrassment of being singled out for proof of national identity? Is it because Mandingoes can be found in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Sierra Leone and other West African countries? If this is the basis for the suspicion over Mandingoes’ Liberian citizenship, then they are being wrongfully discriminated against because apart from, perhaps the Dei, Belleh, Gbi, Sapo and Gbandi, almost every other Liberian ethnic group is duplicated, and in some cases triplicated somewhere outside Liberia, within or without West Africa. The Mano (my ethnic group) can be found in large number in Guinea and Cote d”Iviore. Other groups such as the Dan (Gio) Krahn, Grebo, and Kru (Klao) can be found in Cote d’Ivoire and the Loma, Kpelleh and Kissi can be found in Guinea. For example, the late Gen. Robert Guei, the military leader of Cote d’Ivoire was of the Gio ethnic group, and Lansannah Beavogi, the late Vice President during the regime of the late President Sekou Toure of Guinea, was a Lorma. The Vai, Kissi, Gola and Mende can be found in Sierra Leone. The Bassa ethnic group is also found in Cameroon, Congo, Togo, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria ( Yet these other ethnic groups do not face the frequent embarrassments that the Mandingoes face.

Is there any reason why there is no report that a Mano or Loma, Bassa or Grebo, or a person with an American name - James Brown or Jane Coleman has ever been asked to prove his or her national identity before registering to vote? If this question cannot be reasonably answered then whoever is asking only Mandingoes to prove their national identity is denying the Mandingoes of their right to vote. This is unacceptable and should be stopped by the authorities of the National Elections Commission immediately. Any voter’s registrar who discriminates against a specific group of people should be removed from the process. The right to vote is one of the fundamental rights of citizens guaranteed under the Constitution of Liberia, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights as well as the African Charter on Human’s and People’s Rights and is the most powerful means of citizens’ determining the future of their country. A denial of such right must not be taken lightly at all by the NEC.

The recent denial of Mandingoes the right to voters’ registration has helped to bring the status of the Mandingo ethnic group in Liberia into focus, once more. Are Mandingoes Liberians or not? This is the question that must be squarely answered in the same way it is squarely answered for the Man, Dan, Kru (Klao), Loma, Kpelleh etc. In the same way a yes answer will readily flow for a Kpelleh, Kru (Klao), Man, Dan, Bassa other ethnic groups, the answer is an unreserved yes. The Mandingoes are Liberians just like all the other ethnic groups of Liberia. Not only is Mandingo recognized officially and legally as one of the ethnic groups of Liberia, there are historical accounts to prove that Mandingoes where geographically part of the area of West Africa that later was named the Republic of Liberia nearly hundred and sixty eight years ago. Sir Harry Johnston’s book Liberia (vol.I) published in 1906, one of the oldest accounts of Liberian history, states in great detail accounts of the presence of Mandingoes before the arrival of the American Colonization Society. According to Johnston’s account Mandingoes were not only in Liberia before the founding of Liberia, but played a prominent role in the establishment of the Liberian state. For example, Johnston in telling a story of the first encounter of the ACS, then represented in Liberia by Jehudi Ashmun said, “While Ashmun was still in the colony, a (?Mandingo) chief known on the coast as King ‘Boatswain’( said to have served in that capacity in the British ships) wished to enter into friendly relations with these American strangers. This chief or his father had established a Mandingo colony in the Kondo country at or near the site of the modern town of Boporo. The envoys of ‘King’ Boatswain made a treaty with Ashmun on March 14, 1828.” (id at. p 148). Boatswain is credited for having “built a heterogeneous confederacy of peoples in the hilly country round Boporo”. (id. at p180). Johnston also tells the story of how following the death of Boatswain, his successor, Gatumba was opposed to the ACS “because of their interference with the slave traffic” and how his walled town about twenty miles from Millsburg was completely burned down during his battle with the ACS.

Another evidence of Mandingo prominence at the founding of the Liberian state can be traced to the designing of the Liberian flag and the seal. One suggestion was that the color of the Liberian flag should be stripes of black, golden yellow, one white stripe in the middle, and in the left-hand corner a white state on a green ground, with black representing “the predominating Negro type in the state, the yellow representing African races which have mingled anciently with the Caucasians-Mandingoes and Fulas”, the white representing white America and the green representing the forest land. (id at pp220-221). A suggested emblem of Liberia had representation of three principal populations: “Christian Negro, Muhammadan Mandingo and Fula. The suggested seal like the flag had the colors - green, black and golden yellow with the portraits of a Mandingo man, a Fula man and a “Christian Negro” with the motto: The Love of liberty brought us here written under the portraits. (id at. pp221-222) This shows that even in thinking of symbolic representation of Liberia, Mandingo was the only ethnic group amongst the current officially recognized ethnic groups that was selected.

Is it not true that the Mandingo ethnic group was the only group given prominence, even by the True Whig Party Government in naming streets and state institutions? Front Street was renamed King Sao Boso Street, there is also Boatswain High School named after the same king (called Boatswain because he had earlier worked as a boatswain on a British ship) and the headquarters military clinic of Liberia was named Soko Sackor Clinic after the late Soko Sackor of Nimba County who, according to family sources, was a medic for the Liberian Frontier Force. Even the great D. Twe was honored only after the April 12, 1980 coup, by the renaming of William R. Tolbert High School, D. Twe High School. Given this historic recognition of the Mandingos, is it justifiable to question the citizenship of anyone in Liberia only because he is called Sekou or Mamadee? Why is Kollie, Saye, or Nagbe not asked to prove their Liberianship? Why will Kou, Tete and Sarah be allowed to registrar while Fanta is prevented from registering until she proves that she is a Liberian citizen? It is not wrong to ask potential voters to prove their Liberian citizenship. But it is wrong to ask one group of people to meet such requirement instead asking everyone who wants to register to prove his or her citizenship. Selective application of a law or rule undermines its credibility and legitimacy. Those negatively affected by such a selective process are right to claim that they are discriminated against. Asking Mandingoes alone to prove that they are Liberians violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution of Liberia, amongst other provisions.

Many times doubts over the citizenship of Mandingos have been justified by the argument that Mandingoes do not occupy any defined geographic areas in Liberia. This argument is not true. Besides Bopolu, Mandingoes occupied large land areas in what was considered Liberia in the 1800s. Had it not been for the strong-arm tactics of the French, Liberia would have had a huge Mandingo country up to “Mousardou” and “Naalah”. Nonetheless, based on a boundary treaty concluded with the French on December 8, 1892 the Mandingo towns of “Bamaquilla” and “Mahomodou” (Johnston’s spellings) in northern Liberia fell in Liberia’s territory (id. at p284).

Sometimes the doubt raised over Mandingo Liberian citizenship is extended to the Islamic religion. Very often some Liberians like to refer to Liberia as a Christian country. The basis of this conclusion is wanting in law and historical fact. The Constitution of Liberia does not recognize a state religion. It recognizes the existence of God. That is all! Liberia was therefore meant by its founders to be a secular state. Perhaps, it would have been reasonable to make this conclusion, if Liberia had had a predominantly Christian population, at its founding. But that was not the case. For instance, this is what Sir. Harry Johnston said in his book written in 1906, “There are Muhammadan mosques at Vanswa (Brewerville), and of course in the far interior Mandingo towns.

Of the approximate 2,000,000 of the population, about 40,000 are Christians, about 300,000 Muhammadans, and the remainder Pagans (African Religions).” (id. at. p376). This shows that there were more Moslems than Christians and those who did not believe in Islam or Christianity were in the majority. This over-all picture has not been reversed by subsequent census or population estimates. There are more non-Christians and non-Moslems in Liberia then the both religions combined. In any case those who make the loudest noise about either of the two religions are the worst pretenders in the practice of these religions. Some have opportunistically used their religious affiliations as means of satisfying one political objective or the other. Even today some candidates in the up-coming elections use the name of God more than a dozen times whenever they speak to the electorates. Some have even said it was God who told them to run while others have said that their vision for Liberia is “God’s vision”.

Besides all the historical arguments against the unjustifiable doubt over the citizenship of Mandingos in Liberia, it is important that the matter of citizenship be handled with care to avoid the persecution of Mandingos on the basis of their ethnicity. No group of people can easily accept the condition of statelessness. When a group of people suffer without redress from state persecution or state-backed persecution of one group of citizens by other citizens, the result is chaos. The examples are many in Africa, from Sudan to Rwanda and other areas in the Great Lakes region. Next door from Liberia, in Cote d’Ivoire, it is the exclusion of a large segment of the population on grounds of their failure to satisfy a condition of the purity of their citizenship that led to their taking of arms against their government. Liberians must learn lessons from others that the search for purity of national or ethnic identity leads to ethnic cleansing, genocidal and other kinds of conflicts.

Liberia has nothing to gain by emphasizing the purity of Liberianness. The attempt to prove “Ivoriété” in Cote d’Ivoire has brought nothing to that country but sorrow. Liberia needs not to have that other experience. The people of Liberia have had enough. The Transitional Government and the National Elections Commission must take concrete actions to put a stop to the unjustifiable discrimination of the Mandingoes in Liberia. The transitional government can begin with making the result of the Pajibo Commission on the October 2004 upsurge in violence public and to take actions based on its recommendations. The NEC can take immediate administrative actions against its registrars who are guilty of singling out Mandingoes on the question of citizenship. Taking actions now will deny another evil-minded Liberians an opportunity to have justification for leading another criminal gang like the previous ones.

It is important to understand that the objective of this article is not to prevent any Mandingo from being questioned about his or her citizenship, but that such a question be asked everyone who comes before the registrars for registration. Even if that is done, it should be done by an immigration officer assigned at each registration center, not the registrar. To leave such an important question to the intuition or discretion of a registrar is dangerous, to say the least. Why should Mandingoes alone, after the civil conflict, be asked to produce documents to prove their citizenship when everyone suffered from loss of documents as a result of the civil war? Even before the civil war all Liberians were not documented and only a small portion of the population had any form of photo identification. Let the authorities act to stop the trend of anti-Mandingo actions that is evolving as a result of official non-action or silence.

The discrimination of Mandingoes on the basis of their names is a matter that should claim the attention of all peace-loving Liberians. Mandingoes are Liberians. Some of their kind have made major contributions to the progress of Liberia just as some have contributed to the destruction of Liberia, like other ethnic groups of Liberia. They have been a part of the struggle for democracy in Liberia. For example, there were Mandingo leaders in the democratic struggle in the early 1950s led by D. Twe. Mandingoes, therefore, should not by any means be denied participation in the democratic process. Peace in Liberia will come and will last if the rights of all Liberians are respected without regards to ethnic origin, belief, look, education, class or sex. The challenge of this generation of Liberians is to transform Liberia into what it was meant to be-the land of liberty under the rule of law and the place where all who seek asylum from oppression can find a home. Liberia must cease from being a refugee producing country and become a place of asylum and a human rights paradise. This is the way forward for Liberia to lasting peace.

About the Author: Cllr. Tiawan Saye Gongloe is a Liberian human rights lawyer. Presently, Cllr. Gongloe resides in Boston, Massachusetts, and can be contacted at