The Citizenship Debate: Land Matters

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Chapter 22 of the Liberian Constitution restricts the ownership of land to Liberian citizens. It reads thus: "Every person shall have the right to own property alone as well as in association with others; provided that only Liberian citizens shall have the right to own real property within the Republic."

In 1822, as the pioneers were fleeing the White supremacist system in the United States, their fear was that if they allowed it, White folk would follow them to Liberia and buy up the land, leaving them landless.

That was the fear 160+ years ago. Is that fear still valid today, in the 21st Century? And is it good public policy to retain that restriction? The evidence is that it is not. All around us, countries which have a colonial history and which have had independence for a much period than ourselves, allow non-citizens to own land, and those non-citizens have not bought up all the land in their country.

Right now the 3.9 million souls living in Liberia, including foreigners, are only inhabiting 4% of the country's land mass. It would therefore require a huge land grab for non-citizens to buy up the remaining 96% of the land and leave us citizens landless. Indeed, when you fly over Liberia, one the most noticeable things is how little human habitation is visible on the ground. From the air, all you see are trees and forest, with the occasional small settlement in between.

And the City of Monrovia can probably best be described as an overgrown village. With the exception of the new Central Bank building, the Royal Grand Hotel and a few embassies, there is precious little of aesthetic, architectural merit here. Accra and Abidjan leave us in the dust. And the reason is not hard to fathom.

We complain about the Lebanese and Indians putting up sub-standard buildings. But if I were them, I would do the same. Would any of us, citizens, invest millions of dollars in real estate in a country where we could not own the land that we have built on, and, moreover, have residence and work permits that have a life span of only 12 months?

The fear some have that allowing foreigners to own land would disenfranchise citizens is unwarranted. With the possible exception of the Duke of Westminster's family (the Grosvenors) whose ownership of large swathes of the West End in London can be traced back to the arrival on English soil in 1066 of William the Conqueror, in most cities around the world, it is institutions (banks, insurance companies, real estate trusts) that own and develop real estate in urban areas. The reason is simple: The development of real estate requires large amounts of capital.

Allowing, as we do, families whose ancestors were adept at "chunking the rock" to pass on land within city limits from generation to generation without developing the land is not good public policy. It does not benefit them; it does not benefit society as a whole. The best way to avoid this happening is for the government to impose swingeing taxes on undeveloped land within city limits.

Now let us explore the alternative, allowing foreigners to own land. I know of one prominent foreign family that has been trading in Liberia for at least 40 years. They do not have a stick in the ground. Recently, they went to another African country, which is not even English-speaking, and have invested $40 million in real estate there. I asked them why. Simple: even though they are not citizens of that country, they are allowed to own land and have security of residency.

I will use a personal example to illustrate the point. While in the United States I bought 3 houses: one for my residence, the other two to put on rent. I was not an American citizen. In Liberia, we say, "Land carry house". In America, the reverse is true. "House carry land". So, when I bought these houses, the land automatically became mine. Again, I was not an American citizen, yet I was able to acquire land.

Next week we will see how real estate transactions can have a multiplier effect on an economy, creating jobs and income for many people and institutions along the food chain.           

The writer is a businessman. He can be reached at ([email protected]).

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