The Liberian Constitution: What We Didn’t Know

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The Honorable Speaker, House of Representatives,
Republic of Liberia

The Honorable President of the Senate,
Republic of Liberia

The Honorable Pro Tempore of the Senate,
Republic of Liberia

Distinguished Members of the Legislature:
Republic of Liberia

Greetings:

I am writing to you because the moral legitimacy of the exclusionary clause in Liberia’s Constitution regarding citizenship for “Negros only” (Originally “persons of color”) has been debated since 1847. On this subject, I have recently written an open letter to His Excellency, the President, that the “Constitution is not Racist.”

The President is the captain and visionary, and he stands at the helm. You all represent the moral conscience of the republic—for what is in its best interest. I pray the Good Lord will grant you wisdom in the discharge of your noble duties and good health and prosperity in the private domains of your family life.

I felt it befitting to engage you as well, as I further expand on this topic that the exclusionary clause in the Constitution of Liberia does not violate any international human rights laws. Rather, the premise of the exclusionary clause is supported by the premise of all United Nations (UN) Conventions on human rights, as well as civil rights and affirmative action laws that swept through the United States of America and Europe since the 1960s. Therefore, the purpose of this letter is to show that by inserting that clause into Liberia’s body politic, the framers of the Constitution made our world a better place and we didn’t know it. We must acknowledge this historic milestone as heroic that Liberia played such a key role in the global arena.

A First-Class Constitution 

The London Time, an influential British paper in the 1800s lauded Liberia’s Constitution as “First-Class.” The African Repository and Colonial Journal quoted the paper’s editorial on Liberia as follows:

“Africa now contains, at any rate, a free and independent state, inhabited by blacks, well organized; not unwisely governed, and exhibiting … all the external features of a first-class constitution.”

As constitution of the first African Negro state, it stands on its own rights as the indelible profile of the Negro Race. That message was understood and respected by all civilized nations of the world then and now. It reigned unsubdued for nearly a century before the birth of the United Nations and it stirred up the discussion of racial equality that undergirds all UN Conventions on human rights. Judged from that perspective, yes indeed, Liberia has a “First-Class” Constitution as we shall discover below.

The Exclusionary Clause

The Journal of the Early Republic quoted one paper on December 24, 1847 as follows: “The constitution of the New Republic of Liberia declares that no white man shall be a voter in that Republic.” Since then, suspicion about the exclusionary clause has dogged the Republic. Critics today argue from their understanding of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, weighed against the UN Conventions, Liberia’s Constitution stands vindicated. Here’s how:

First, Liberia’s Constitution was in force 98 years before the United Nations came into existence on October 24, 1945. Liberia is signatory to the charter that created the United Nations.

Second, prior to Liberia’s Constitution there were no international laws respecting human rights and race equality, except, according to the 2010 International Journal on Minority and Groups Rights, there were isolated treaties protecting indigenous people.

Third, the United Nations adopted a premise very similar to the premise of Liberia’s exclusionary clause as basis for its human rights stipulations.

Here is the premise that runs through all UN Conventions on human rights.

People who were oppressed and marginalized, in order to secure their enjoyment, cultural values, dignity, and advancement, have the rights to special protections, and preferential treatments and they should be respected as equals.

Those were the same principles that triggered the exclusionary clause in Liberia’s Constitution 98 years earlier: To protect the oppressed and marginalized, to ensure they are respected and treated as equals, ensure their dignity, and protect their pathways to advancement.

That new concept of race equality presented on the world stage by Liberia on the continent where virtually every other Negro province was colonized and enslaved really baffled the East and West. Further, critics at home and abroad argue that the exclusionary clause has outlived its usefulness and is no longer necessary. The United Nations argues otherwise as shown below.

Does the UN Support Liberia’s Exclusionary Clause?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) was augmented by the International Covenant of Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966); the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD, 1969); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1976), etc. Liberia was signatory/party to each.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) denounced all forms of racial discriminations. The Convention however affirmed that the rules of non-discrimination do not apply when a government makes distinctions that favor its citizens over non-citizens.

Article 1 paragraph 2 of the convention reads: “This Convention shall not apply to distinctions, exclusions, restrictions or preferences made by a State Party to this Convention between citizens and non-citizens.”

The Convention further reiterates that its rules on non-discrimination should not be interpreted as affecting the laws of a country regarding citizenship, nationality, and naturalization.

Article 1 Paragraph 3 reads:

“Nothing in this Convention may be interpreted as affecting in any way the legal provisions of states parties concerning nationality, citizenship, or naturalization…”

The Convention clarified in Article 1 Paragraph 4 that special measures taken by a state to protect its citizens’ interest are not racial discrimination so long the measures do not lead to genocide, defamation, or abuse of non-citizens.

Recommendation 14 paragraph 2 further explained that it is not discrimination when citizens are treated with preference over non-citizens:

“… A differential of treatment will not constitute discrimination if the criteria for such differentiation, judged against the objectives and purposes of the Convention, are legitimate or fall within the scope of Article 1 Paragraph 4.”

Special Rule for Developing Countries

By inserting the exclusionary clause into its constitution, Liberia was advocating that developing countries like herself, in order to compete and succeed, need constitutional protection. The United Nations agreed. In 1966 the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) created a special rule for Developing Countries empowering their governments to protect their citizens in ways that prevent any possibility of future political or economic subjugation. They may determine which and how much rights to offer non-citizens.

Article 2 Paragraph 3 of that Covenant states:

“Developing countries, with due regard to human rights and their national economy, may determine to what extent they would guarantee the economic rights recognized in the present covenant to non-nationals.”

That stipulation comes right out of Liberia’s playbook. Except for Ethiopia and Egypt, Liberia being the only independent Sub-Saharan state at the founding of the United Nations, it should not be surprising that her advocacy could have inspired the backdrop of that stipulation.

Here are examples of countries that implemented that stipulation:

Ghana

In late 1960s the government of Prime Minister Kofi Busia claimed that foreigners dominated their economy and put Ghanaians out of business. The government issued its Aliens Compliance Order and expelled over 500,000 non-Ghanaians within two weeks. In June 1970 they passed the Ghanaian Business Promotion Act to prevent non-citizens from owning small businesses. The new law gave foreigners 8 weeks to sell their businesses to Ghanaians. Johnson O. Aremu and Adeyinka T. Ajayi of Ekiti State University, Nigeria, wrote, “The Act prohibits aliens from trading in any market or to engage in petty trading.” That could be one reason Liberian refugees found it difficult to get jobs and do business in Ghana.

Ivory Coast

President Felix Houphouet-Boigny allowed other West Africans living in Ivory Coast to have almost identical rights as citizens. After his death in 1993 things changed. Ivorians complained that foreigners dominated their economy and were infiltrating their political system at an alarming rate. In December 1998 Parliament passed the Rural Land Law act that allowed only Ivorian citizens to own land. Lands previously purchased and owned by foreigners were converted to lease or turned over to government.

Nigeria

Nigeria’s complex citizenship laws favor people of Negro descent whose parents or grandparents were in the country before independence on October 1, 1960. In 1983 Nigeria used its Alien Expulsion Act to expel over 1,000,000 foreigners to protect citizens’ economic interest.

Kenya

A Kenyan high court ruled that equal rights regarding land ownership and economic interest apply to citizens only, not to non-citizens (see Struggles for Citizenship in Africa by Bronwen Manby). In 1967 the government put limits on what kind of businesses non-citizens should do.

According to Comparative Politics (Vol 48), several African countries including Angola, Gabon, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, have exercised exclusionary policies as well.

United States

Industrialized nations used similar exclusionary policy to protect their citizens’ economic interest. For example, on May 9, 1913 Japan accused the United States of America of racial discrimination when the United States limited land occupation privileges of Japanese in California. To that the US Secretary of State replied:

“All nations recognize this fact, and it is for this reason that each nation is permitted to determine who shall and who shall not be permitted to settle in its dominions and become a part of the body politic, to the end that it may preserve internal peace and avoid the contentions which are so likely to disturb the harmony of international relations.”

In the 1970s the US government gave American Indians certain self-governing rights to protect their culture on Indian Reservations. Under that policy non-Indians may not own land on Indian reservations.

Kwame Nkrumah’s Warning

The renowned African statesman warned of a new wave of colonialism creeping upon African countries under the pretense of investment and development partnerships. The price, he said, in the long run will be too painful to pay. In his book Neo-Colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism, he wrote: “A state in the grip of neo-colonialism is not master of its own destiny.” The warning sign is when investors demand citizenship and ownership in the land they had offered to help. But Prime Minister Nkrumah’s warning came 118 years too late in 1965. That warning was already enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia since 1847.

Conclusion

Liberia’s exclusionary clause impacted the world for the better. It inspired the self-esteem of the Negro to realize his capacity to self-govern; it renounced colonialism that subjugated the entire Negro Race, and it enlightened the benighted continent into an oasis of independent states that we have today.

Furthermore, Liberia’s claim to statehood and her demand for equal rights and protection helped to stimulate discussions on racial equality, protection of minorities, and international human rights laws that we have today. What the exclusionary clause in Liberia’s constitution has always advocated, which the United Nations Conventions have always affirmed is not only equal rights for all people, but also the acknowledgement that it is most imperative for developing countries to economically empower their own citizens rather than look to non-citizens for sustenance.

Liberia gets no credits for all that, though the facts, when analyzed, point in her favor. It was not till 1909 that the American Journal of International Law, published by Cambridge University Press, having analyzed all the facts, admitted that Liberia was indeed a demonstration of the ability of the Negro to “carry on a modern civilized government.” The journal concluded that:

“Truly it may be said that the fate of Liberia means more than the fate of a nation, it may presage the destiny of a race.” 

Yours respectfully,

Rev. Dr. Samuel E. Vansiea 

Rev. Dr. Samuel E. Vansiea

Dr. Samuel E. Vansiea is a minister. He graduated from the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary, CWA Junior College, Mano River Union Telecommunications Institute in Sierra Leone, and St. Patrick’s High School, Newport Junior High, and G. W. Gibson in Monrovia. He earned his graduate and post graduate degrees from Central Baptist Theological Seminary and Bethel University in Minnesota USA. He was Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church on Tubman Blvd, Monrovia. He is currently Senior Pastor of Joy World Universal Church in Minnesota, USA. He is married and has four children. Email: [email protected]

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16 COMMENTS

  1. Well written article. But all the issues raised in defense of Liberia’s Non-Negro Clause are not compatible with today’s globalization movement inspired by internet and social media (Facebook) which has now united the world as a family. All the countries cited in the article have either amended their laws or opened their borders to accommodate foreigners fleeing wars and poverty. In so doing, they grant citizenship and allow them not only to own property but also to compete for jobs and public positions. Moreover, through Internet and Facebook, interracial dating and marriages around the globe, breaking down the barriers that created the so-called Non-Negro clause and ushering in a new community integration policy called “Dual Citizenship” which is now a part and parcel of the laws of Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and other states in Africa. Globalization is now the means by which human rights and government powers are monitored and kept in check. Global community spirit is also the means by which help for conflicts and disease outbreak has reached the countries with the so-called Non-Negro laws. Therefore, if nations of the global community have adjusted their laws to cope with the global realities, Liberia must also adjust its laws to cope with present-day realities. Good article, Reverend, but you only look at history, not today’s realities and the future to come. Lets look for common ground.

    • Thanks Mr. Dennis. Well noted, and I agree with your concept of “Today’s realities.” However globalization and ”Dual Citizenship” I believe are two very different “animals” in many respects.
      One of the things which I hope I showed in the article was the United Nations’ caution to developing nations
      to be careful how they navigate into “today’s global realities” without getting lost in the “crowd.”

      If you have not read it, I invite to you read my previous article in this same paper last February. It is “Mr. President, the Constitution is not Racist.”

  2. With all due respect, you are blatantly wrong, Rev. Vansiea. That “negro” clause in the constitution is institutional racism, and you should know that. Your morality is highly questionable when you defend a law that discriminates against other human beings on the basis of race, not of their character. Dr. Martin Luther King would also disagree with you because you are promoting racism which he preached against. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  3. I highly doubt you could defend your racist thesis at any international forum without serious condemnation. Your views on race are shortsighted and immoral. You can only preach that garbage in your church in Liberia because congregations elsewhere will walk out and you will be left with empty pews.

    • Couple of things Mr. George:
      1) I believe in free speech. However in academia we keep it civil, academic and factual. I have waited few days to see if you could offer any fact current that makes mine look obsolete. None so far.
      2) I weighed the Liberian constitution against United Nations stipulations. Did you fact-check that? If so are there current UN stipulations that I overlooked. Please state for our reading audience, and I could amend future articles.
      3) In that article I was not offering my view on race. I presented facts to show that the same concerns that caused the UN to craft its conventions and covenants were similar to the concerns Liberia had in crafting its constitution and the backdrop of all of that.
      4) I invite you to read my previous article in this same paper last February. It was, “Mr. President, the Constitution is not Racist.”

      • You’re quite the self-promoter. Your current article is poorly researched, poorly argued, and poorly written. Yet you keep inviting others to read your other article. Subdue your ego, as it is mixed with your ignorance and the two does not fair you well.

  4. This article is written by an educated but ignorant fool who masquerates as a man of God but is void of the tenents of Christ–do unto others as you’d want done until you. The author boast of acquring educations and is currently working and living and owning properties in the United States, a country not of his birth. Yet, he promotes racial discrimination in Liberia under the pretext that his fellow black Liberians are too inferior to compete with others in a capitalist, non-discriminatory world.

    • Mr. Jackson, you seem to be the ignorant fool in this case compared to Dr. Vansiea. Whether you agree or not, the man presented a brief but enlightening piece of history on the Liberian constitution, specifically having to do with the prospect of accommodating people of non-Negroid descent. The thing to do in response in any intellectual circle would be to state your agreement or disagreement with the argument with all or few reasons why. But not to react in such vulgar and uncivilized fashion as you and the other moron called Phil Jackson did. As you can tell, in case you had a flake of intelligence to even recognize it, Dr. Vansiea did not just utter rubbish about this subject matter like some of you semi-literate are fond of doing. The gentleman did his research well for the topic under discussion and in spite of the unappreciative, or is it the ignorant of you who could not even tell the difference. Boneheaded buffoons like you and Phil Jackson are spectacular evidence that humans too, can survive with one brain cell, notwithstanding the depressing consequences the rest of us have to endure as a result. Shame on bozos like you and etc. for all the despicable insults thrown at Dr. Vansiea for simply attempting to shed light on a subject matter that has confounded all of us for years, which fools like you least understand in all its ramifications.

      • If you called this a well-researched article I question your educational background. This is a pile of rubbish backed by “evidences” that are century-old and obsolete. There is nothing “enlightened” about this article other than to show the author’s ignorance and racist beliefs, and thus reflects poorly on someone like you who would support it.

      • Hilary, FYI, I have zero respect for anyone who preaches racist policies, regardless of whether they are white or black, especially if that person claimed to be a man of God. One of the problems in some of the Black community is we vehemently argue against racism by Whites and others and ignore racism by our fellow blacks. What a shame.

    • Dr. Samuel E. Vansiea, thank you so very much for your piece: “the Liberian Constitution: what we didn’t know.” I think it is a well-researched and well-written backdrop with due regard to ” Exclusionary Clause” as it relates to “Liberia’s Non-Negro Clause.” I particularly want to thank Mr. Arthur B. Dennis for intelligently responding and making his contribution to your piece without insults or condemnation.

  5. I read the entire article and the author’s suppositions or basis for retaining the particular constitutional clause is based on an outdated premise, grounded on a flawed view that protectionism in some ways would propell economic growth, and consequently improved the citizens standard of life. There is incontrovertible evidence that the intent of that constitutional provision has not yielded anything the framers had hope to accomplish. Furthermore, the substance of the good reverend argument is untenable under the prevailing disposition in Liberia. There are ways to achieve the same results without having a constitutional scheme that is reclusive and essentially hinders development.

    • Mr. Freeman. Your comment well noted.
      First, I encourage you to read the citizenship and naturalization sections of the constitutions of the countries I mentioned in the article.
      Second, if you haven’t done so, I invite you to read my previous article in this same paper last February. It was, “Mr. President, the Constitution is not Racist.”
      Third, Development and economic growth thrive well with protectionism. That is why, in civil societies, they makes laws around economic structures first, then strategies for growth follow. That is why I pointed out Ghana, Nigeria, etc as examples. That is why I also pointed out that the UN created special rules for developing countries to protect the economic interest of their citizens and be careful to what degree they will accommodate non-citizens. I did not make that up. It is a UN covenant.
      Last, I also encourage you to read the UN stipulations I mentioned in the article in their entirety. I believe you will arrive at a “Hmmmmmm” moment.

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