By Aisha M. Dukulé
In his inaugural address, President George M. Weah’s called Liberians to do away with the constitution’s “negro clause”.
The President discussed Article 12, stating, “it is my view that keeping such a clause in our constitution is unnecessary, racist, and inappropriate for the place that Liberia occupies today in the comity of nations.”
It was a surprising move for many Liberians for the President to address this issue so early on, while the country faces many pressing challenges, such as the “messy” educational and the failing healthcare system, the broken economy, and of course dual citizenship for the Liberian Diaspora.
Nonetheless, it is an important topic as it does, and will directly affect the Liberian economy.
This belief dates back to President Samuel K. Doe who in December 1985, approved a decree that would have given non-negroes the right to own property in Liberia, the closest in near history they have been to becoming Liberian citizens. 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.”
Suggesting as President George Weah insists, that excluding a class of persons based on race from obtaining citizenship, is an outdated hindrance to the Liberian economy.
Originally, Article 12 of the Constitution was a form of self-protection, when Freed Slaves formed the Republic of Liberia, this “institutionalized discrimination” as some may call it was their direct rebuttal to the experience of slaves and freed-slaves born in the United States, where as many Lebanese who are born and raised in Liberia today find themselves, unable to vote or own property.
The Negro clause ensured that the freed slaves that created Liberia would never become slaves again, nor will they ever become enslaved by the “white man.”
Arguably, those freed slaves who created Liberia, sought to create an “African nation for Africans” but ended up with their own ‘Small America’. Their attempt at creating a free nation for the African diaspora founded in the principles of democracy and liberty, as we all know resulted in the creation of a ‘plantation state’ that enslaved the indigenous for more than a century, that ended in a bloody civil war and the ongoing current period of reconstruction.
The indigenous people of Liberia in the modern sense did not become “citizens” of Liberia until 1951 when they received the right to vote – which was exclusionary as it hung on a “property clause”. This was successfully challenged by the “Progressists” in the ‘70s which opened to the full democracy Liberians enjoys today.
The fear held by the founders of Liberia has not disappeared but is now held by a different class. The new fear is uttered straightly everyday by Liberians, “We do not want to become slaves in our own country.” The general belief is that once Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis and Lebanese are given the opportunity to become Liberian citizens they will take full control of the Liberian economy – which they do now, to some extent – and buy up all the land, thus enslaving the already subjugated poor people.
American slavery may be far, but “Congua” slavery is a close memory. Those who chanted in the streets during the October 2017 elections “Dah our time now”, will not embrace an “Everybody Welcome” policy so quickly.
There is sordid history of people coming to Liberia, occupying land, making promises, and exploiting the land and its people. Liberians have not gained much profit from the open-door policy and never had a government that put indigenous Liberian interests first. Whether it be dizzying concession agreements, land laws and skyrises in Sinkor that most Liberians can’t afford to live in, or the Liberianilization policies which are supposed to safekeep certain industries but are constantly manipulated and almost never enforced, Liberians find themselves repeatedly swindled. Liberians have a justifiable right to fear amendments to the Negro clauses — which are seemingly their last bit of economic armor against foreign invasion.
This fear of enslavement is both mythical and real. The current economy of Liberia is already dependent upon the Indian and the Lebanese community. The myth is that once citizens, they will keep their money in the country. The fear is based on the way these communities interact with Liberians, socially and in the work place.
However, Liberians will not become enslaved again unless they choose to be. They now have the democratic space and the freedom to demand changes that would empower them. If sound choices are made when amending the negro clause, if Liberians are empowered and refuse to continue “being spectators” in their own economy they will not be enslaved by anybody, Black or White.
Foreigners are not the boogey-man, corruption, greed, dependency syndrome and the lack of political will are.
The Lebanese community unfortunately has created a perception of backroom dealing with government officials, so much so, that many Liberians believe the push to open citizenship to people of non-negro descent is merely a payback for political debt.
The current dilemma of citizenship is a communication issue, once again a conversation is not being held between Liberians and foreigners. There is no open lobbying from these communities to be integral part of this country. Liberians are not being asked by this community to become a part of their country, they are being told that is what’s good for them because they know better. Sound familiar?
So, how does one marry the two? How does one do what is morally right and economically sound while protecting Liberians and ridding them of their fears. This is the responsibility of all parties involved.
President Weah is a Liberian, he should not be the only one asking if Liberians will do away with the negro clause, those wanting to be Liberian should also be doing the asking. They should discuss their plans with the Liberian people and foster a relationship of mutual respect. Until then it will always be met with a fierce push back and if executed without their blessing, it can be an act of betrayal.
The Liberian government must stand up for the Liberian people. Asking them to forgo the Negro clause is asking the Liberian people, whether they understand it or not – to forgo part of their political heritage. The administration must ensure that the amendment is mutually beneficial throughout. They must also see this as an opportunity to tighten up relationships between the communities and revisit trade and business regulations.
Lastly, Liberians must stop speaking of themselves as victims. No one should be able to come into your country and enslave your people. If so, it is of your own doing. If you go to a store where you know the Liberian store clerk who has worked there for six years is being paid less than $80 while newly recruited foreigner takes home $1,200 for the same job and you continue to shop there, you may be part of the problem.
The issue of Liberian citizenship has political and economic consequences that must be weighed seriously before being expanded. If Liberians controlled the economy, if Liberians companies were first to receive government contracts, if government muscles the political will to adhere to its Liberianization policies, and if the social and economic relations between the non-negroes and Liberian was equitable, based on mutual respect there would be no question asked. But such is not the case. Those who claim that granting citizenship to “non-negroes” will develop the country, are pushing a self-defeating argument, one based on dependency and low self-esteem, as if saying that Liberians can never do it by themselves.