Citizenship Debate: Who Can Become A Liberian?
By: Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh
Omari Jackson

Liberia is currently caught in the throes of a renewed debate on who should become a citizen. The issue centers on whether non-Negroids should own property and become citizen of Liberia. The debate has gotten national attention and is being considered by the Liberian Legislature.

Liberians, understandably so are divided on this thorny issue. Some see it as a matter of pride, and wants the law that doesn't grant non-Negroid foreign nationals Liberian citizenship remained as is. Others see it as morally wrong and discriminatory, and argued that it makes economic sense to grant Liberian citizenship to those law-abiding non-negroid Liberian nationals who are desirous of becoming Liberian citizens. Supporters for citizenship of non-negroids argued also that the law is outdated and has outlived its usefulness.

As divisive and embarrassing as this issue may seem, it demands sobering consideration, not emotional outbursts from supporters who might consider themselves die-hard patriots than those against it.

The Liberian Constitution of the First Republic which was adopted at a special election held on September 27, 1847, was ambiguous when it stated from the beginning that "only persons of color were eligible for Liberian Citizenship." The Third Amendment of the same constitution, with much clarity provided that only "Negroes or persons of Negro descent would be eligible for Liberian Citizenship."

Hence, one of the basic questions to consider is why did those who founded Liberia promulgated in the constitution that only people of African descent can become citizens and perhaps own property(ies) in Liberia?

Emancipated from dehumanizing years of slavery in the United States, our liberated brothers and sisters, realizing the cunning and overwhelming negative inclinations of non-Africans, concluded that it would serve the interest of Africans better if exclusive provisions were made to protect the future of the nation. Also considered was economic power as it related to political power. The founders couldn't imagine later that Liberians would be dependent and subjected to institutional and psychological slavery.

President William V. S. Tubman's Open Door Policy of the 60's encouraged and invited negroid and non-negroid nationals to roam Liberia in search of business opportunities without preconditions.

While Tubman's Open Door Policy targeted negroids and non-negroids to emigrate to Liberia and do business, there was never an Open Door Policy for Liberians - a policy that would have provided incentives and created business opportunities for prospective Liberian businesses to compete in a free-market economy.

As a result, non-negroid emigrants dominated, and have been in total control of the Liberian economy. A study done in the mid-70s gave credence to that notion. According to the non-profit Susukuu Development Inc., for every 7 businesses registered in Liberia at that time, 5 was foreign-owned.

In an attempt to level the playing field so that ordinary Liberians would have access to loans and get seriously involved in business ventures, President William R. Tolbert, Jr. launched his famous, but short-lived Liberianization policy, mixed with what he termed Humanistic Capitalism (whatever that is).

Flagship Companies like the Mesurado Group of Companies and Auriole Enterprises, Parker Paints, etc., all of which benefited the Tolberts, Weeks and other politically connected families.

Following recommendations from the defunct Peoples Redemption Council (PRC), in April 1984, and in December, 1985, from the Interim National Assembly, President Samuel K. Doe approved a decree that would have granted non-Negroid nationals the right to own property in Liberia.

In that decree Doe states, "We believe that this action gives meaning and content to a real open door policy and if our economy is to improve and provide employment, we must be prepared to face the future with courage. As we traveled abroad over the years and held discussions, a cross-section of investors who showed interest in business opportunities here, had referred to the restrictions on land ownership as a major obstacle.

We also urge and encourage businessmen and investors including Lebanese, Americans and all other nationalities to come and invest here as we stand ready to protect their investments."

The modern history of Liberia points out defiantly the enormous contributions of non-African minority groups. For many years the Lebanese, Syrians, Pakistanis, Indians, Americans and others have been a mainstay of the Liberian economy.

The Lebanese, for example, without any challenge controlled a greater percentage of trading in suburban Monrovia and other cities and towns, while the Europeans and Americans have concentrated significantly in minerals explorations, agriculture and manufacturing, the Lebanese and their Indian counterparts held the trading pulse of the country concentrating in the retail and service sectors.

Just like his predecessor Samuel Doe, President Charles Taylor is aware of the flaws in this policy of exclusion. Realizing the devastating impact it has on Liberia's image as one of the few countries left in the world with such restriction enshrined in its constitution, stirred a national debate when he suggested that non-Negroid nationals be granted Liberian Citizenship.

So with their ever-present nationalistic overtones, opponents of the effort to grant citizenship or property rights status to non-negroids have been xenophobic in their arguments and have resulted into scare tactics to put down that attempt.

But what opponents of this effort failed to realize is that foreign nationals, especially those that are engaged in lucrative business ventures are a major boost to any nation's economy. If those law-abiding non-negroid foreign nationals were granted citizenship or legal resident status, they could contribute significantly by reinvesting their profits back into the Liberian economy. Moreover, they would also take their civic responsibilities seriously.

With strong, unaltered and enforceable laws in place, the new Liberian citizens would be persecuted just like any other Liberian. But when a non-Negroid foreign national is allowed to live in Liberia for an unlimited time, exploit the financial and natural resources of the country, knowing that he/she is not a citizen or a legal permanent resident, and cannot own any property either, that individual with no emotional ties to Liberia will leave after making his/her money, and live elsewhere. Because wherever his/her money is where his/her heart will always be.

Though constitutional prohibitions made non-negroid unable to own properties in Liberia, there are a good number of them who indirectly own a fairly large number of real estate rental properties around the country. Their indirect control of these real estate properties has made it extremely difficult for an average Liberian citizen or anyone to secure affordable housing.

But generally, there have been honest non-negroids whose only desire is to live comfortably in their adopted home. Many have Liberian women, and children by these women. So what will become of these children from these relationships? By denying non-negroid nationals Liberian citizenship, we are also denying their children by Liberian women their birth rights.

The best security that will ensure fair treatment for all is the application and enforcement of the laws on the book. If we fail to accord non-negroid Liberian citizenship/permanent residence status or the right to own property, it will be hypocritical for those countless Liberians across this multicultural world who are wishing to be legal residents or citizens of other countries. It will be hypocritical indeed.