By Willard Russell
The framers of our Constitution knew that time could blind us to certain truths and later generations can see laws once thought necessary, can only serve to oppress. It is the case with the ‘Nationality Clause’ in the Liberian Constitution, the 6,000-pound elephant in the room. Liberia’s Nationality Laws, based on its original 1847 Constitution and included in subsequent revisions, are profoundly discriminatory, which requires being black as the only prerequisite for becoming a citizen. Nationality is conferred solely based on race. Under the current constitution, only persons of Negroid origins can obtain citizenship. It is wrong! It is archaic! It is hypocritical, especially when Liberians are in the US, Canada, and other majority-white countries demanding and gaining citizenship in those countries.
One of the great intellectual and moral epiphanies of the modern era is the realization that human racial diversity is a tremendous asset. It has become conventional wisdom that being around those unlike ourselves makes us better people, and more productive people. Social scientists have long shown that diversity in the workplace can increase creative thinking and improve performance. Meanwhile, excessive homogeneity can lead to stagnation and poor problem-solving.
Amending the discriminatory ‘Nationality Clause’ in the constitution would encourage greater investments in the country at a time when Liberia’s economy is in tatters, with one of the highest unemployment rates in Africa. As a founding member of the United Nations and signatory to many international treaties including the “International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,” Liberia cannot cherry-pick which world order it supports when dealing with human dignity. The issue of racial prejudice in Liberia is a worrying concern for many non-black investors. Liberia can enact laws to protect local small business owners from wealthy foreign investors, but a constitutionally endorsed discrimination against whites, Asians, and other non-black groups is not a wise public policy.
In Nigeria, where I worked for two years, there are many issues, prominent of which are tribalism, sectarianism, and regionalism, but state endorsed racial discrimination is not one. People of various ethnic orientations are active both in the formal and informal economic sectors. My boss was a white Nigerian; yes, they do exist, and are visible throughout the country. I had the opportunity of interviewing and hiring a Pakistani Nigerian engineer to design solar systems for health facilities in northern Nigeria. Unfortunately, Liberia, which turned 170 years-old last month has a dearth of professionals in the public sector who are of different races because the country’s constitution bars non-Negroes from becoming citizens. The government even excommunicates Liberians who acquire citizenship in other countries. Liberia has stopped short in both the understanding and appreciation of human diversity — the variety of nationalities — and that problem is taking a significant toll on productivity at home and the nation’s image abroad.
I was ashamed to read an article in the New York Times recently about a prominent Harvard-trained medical practitioner, Dr. Raj Panjabi, who was born in Liberia but denied citizenship. Dr. Panjabi and two other civil war victims founded Last Mile Health, which is headquartered in Zwedru with offices in Boston and New York City, and works in the neglected southeast to train community health workers. Last Mile Health has won many international awards and high praises for its work in training frontline health workers in hard-to-reach communities. Dr. Panjabi didn’t start an organization in India, the birthplace of his parents, but in Liberia where he was born. But, the country has turned its back on him. Sadly, he is not alone. There are countless people born in Liberia to parents of different races, including some who are of mixed race, who are denied citizenship. A Guinean American colleague once asked me, “what’s wrong with you Liberians? Why don’t you support dual citizenship?” I was surprised at how well known and silly our dual citizenship debate has become. I said it didn’t make sense to me either. “What is the situation in Guinea,” I asked? He pulled out his American passport and his Guinean passport. Guinea accepts dual and non-negro citizenship, so does most every country in Africa, except Liberia.
Repealing the nationality law will confer rights and duties and put non-black immigrants on an equal footing with native-born citizens. Naturalized immigrants will vote in elections; protected from deportation; travel with a Liberian passport; buy land; and invest their money in the country instead of taking away. The sense of security that comes with citizenship and a commitment to one’s adopted country can lead to increased economic development and long-term investments, such as buying property or opening a business. What many Liberians don’t understand is that diversity doesn’t just sound nice, it has tangible benefits. Many research studies show that homogeneous groups (racial or tribal) like the cabinet can be less creative and insightful than diverse ones. They are more prone to group-think and less likely to question faulty assumptions. Being racially mixed makes it harder to fall back on the tribal identities that have guided so much of Liberia’s history and politics, and has unfortunately re-emerged in this election cycle with some political parties dangerously pushing their so-called “Indigenous Ticket.”
The point is that diversity of groups of people solving problems and creating jobs is linked to economic prosperity. Changing the racist nationality law would also allow Liberia to benefit from the skills, education, and expertise of second generation Indians, Lebanese, Syrians, and Europeans to contribute to the development of the country. Nations and cities that are more diverse are prosperous than the ones that are not, and that often means higher wages for ‘native-born’ citizens. The perception that “whites or Lebanese” gain at “natives’” expense persists, which is folly. Liberians need to quit scapegoating the Lebanese and embrace them, many of whom have a deep devotion to the country and have been in Liberia for generations and know no other homeland.
But, let me be the first to acknowledge that diversity isn’t easy. It is uncomfortable. It can make people feel threatened, but it is necessary and leads to productivity. Most Liberians cling to discriminatory racial views even when exposed to mountains of evidence contrasting those views. But an optimistic interpretation is that when Liberia’s racial makeup moves beyond a certain threshold – when dark-skinned Liberians stop being the majority, for example, and a significant percentage of the population is mixed – racial stereotyping may be harder to do. Maybe.