The Struggles for Liberian Citizenship

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Liberia's President Weah stands with his wife Clar during his swearing-in ceremony at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex in Monrovia on January 22, 2018 [File: Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters]

Why has Liberia not enacted dual citizenship or repealed a constitutional ‘Negro clause’?

By Robtel Neajai Pailey 

It has been exactly one year since newly inaugurated Liberian President George Manneh Weah sparked controversy by declaring staunch support for enacting dual citizenship and repealing a constitutional “Negro clause”, which prohibits non-blacks from obtaining citizenship by birth, ancestry or naturalisation.

Although the footballer-turned-president acknowledged the historical preoccupations of Liberia‘s settlers who fled 19th century economic servitude in the United States and the Caribbean, he claimed that upholding the “Negro clause” and prohibiting dual citizenship would impinge upon the country’s 21st century post-war progress and prosperity, especially given the vital development contributions by Liberians abroad.

Yet, my research on how Liberians view citizenship in general and dual citizenship in particular – based on over 200 interviews in cities in West Africa, Europe, and North America – shows that the laws remain unchanged because objections to amendments are deeply socioeconomic in nature, and cannot be simply wished away by presidential proclamations. Liberians experience citizenship differently based on their class, gender and ethnicity, and this largely influences whether they reject or accept dual citizenship and the “Negro clause”.

Generated in 2014, my findings uphold the hard-line stance of the majority of delegates at a 2015 constitutional review conference in Liberia who vetoed legislating dual citizenship and removing the “Negro clause”. This has been further corroborated by 2018 Afrobarometer survey data in which two-thirds of Liberians said they oppose dual citizenship as a policy prescription, support limiting citizenship to people of “Negro descent”, and believe that only citizens – and by extension blacks – should own land.

While the president has elevated the rival sentiments of some Liberians at home and abroad, rumours abound, however, that his position on citizenship is based on self-serving rather than national interests. Many argue that he is ineligible for his current position having allegedly been naturalised as a French citizen while playing for Paris Saint-Germain in the 1990s. Some say that he wanted his Jamaican US citizen wife to be automatically entitled to a Liberian passport. And others contend that he aims to advance the commercial interests of Lebanese associates and therefore wants non-blacks to own land.

These concerns and more drive anti-dual citizenship and pro-“Negro clause” lobbies.

Contrary to President Weah’s assertion that Liberia’s citizenship provisions are unnecessarily restrictive and “racist”, based on my previous and current research here are four key reasons resistance to his proposed amendments persist in popular imagination and policymaking as “protectionary”:

Displacement and dispossession define Liberia’s past and present

Scholars like Bronwen Manby have illustrated how struggles over citizenship and belonging are most apparent in African countries that experienced widespread colonial-era forced and/or voluntary migration of Africans from other parts of the continent, Asian indentured workers or European settlers, such as Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

For example, whereas Sierra Leone inserted a “Negro clause” in its constitution following independence, other countries like Chad, Malawi and Mali at one time restricted citizenship to people of “African origin” or “African race”. And while a large majority of African countries currently recognise some form of dual citizenship, others like Liberia remain doggedly opposed.

Although Liberia was never formally colonised by Europe, its founding history of displacement and dispossession – in which black migrants created citizenship tiers excluding indigenes for almost a century – has impacted how people view citizenship in the 21st century.

I have argued previously that a 19th century settler/indigene divide has been replaced by a 21st century returnee/non-returnee rift pitting those who fled Liberia’s protracted wars – and are now returning to demand citizenship rights – against those who never left and feel that they do not benefit sufficiently from the institution of citizenship.

The presence of wealthy Middle Eastern and Asian merchants – many of whom have lived in Liberia for decades but are ineligible to own land, vote in elections or hold public office – further intensifies the competition for Liberian citizenship.

Land in Liberia is violently contested

While land in Liberia can primarily be owned by citizens, the administration of Weah’s predecessor leased millions of hectares to foreign multinationals for logging, palm oil production and other agro-industrial ventures without consulting affected communities, which resulted in protests and riots.

During Liberia’s armed conflicts, squatters occupied unclaimed land and with the post-war return of diaspora Liberians – some of whom revoked their citizenship by naturalising elsewhere and therefore relinquished any entitlements to the property once owned – this has created a perfect storm for violent clashes.

In an attempt to reconcile statutory and customary tenure systems, Liberia passed in September 2018 an historic Land Rights Act, but it remains to be seen how the new law will actually mitigate land disputes since it reinforces Article 22 of the constitution permitting non-citizen “benevolent” entities to own land for humanitarian and educational purposes.

Liberian laws are not enforced

Regulations intended to protect Liberian citizens are unenforced and flagrantly disregarded, especially by political and economic elites. Despite the current gridlock on dual citizenship, some Liberians break the law by carrying two passports.

For example, after Liberia’s ambassador to the US-designate, Gurly T Gibson, was reportedly rejected by the US government for holding a US passport, she was later confirmed ambassador to the United Kingdom after successfully evading questions about her de facto dual citizenship.

These stories are rife in the public sphere, leaving many Liberians wondering what the rights and responsibilities of non-black or dual citizens would be if the laws were changed and if this would give the rich and powerful the licence to infringe upon their already limited citizenship privileges.

Liberia remains a severely unequal country

President Weah also announced last January that he had inherited a “broke country” with a “broken economy”, but his own mishaps the past 12 months have widened disparities and made Liberia’s socioeconomic outlook grimmer.

The president claims to have adopted a “pro-poor” agenda and yet he is being accused of embezzling public funds to construct flashy homes across the country. Meanwhile, inflation is at an all-time high, $100m worth of cash allegedly disappeared from a Liberian port, and dubious loan agreements totaling nearly $1bn have mushroomed the country’s debt.

Liberia has become frighteningly unequal, prompting outrage against attempts to further privilege a seemingly advantaged class of people by adopting dual citizenship and abolishing the “Negro clause”.

The Author:
Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author of two anti-corruption children’s books.

This article was originally published on Al Jazeera English.

9 COMMENTS

  1. It will never pass. Dual citizenship for only Liberians outside not every black person. Only Liberians. We do not need Jamaicans and other blacks to come and buy up our country. Very soon there will be no land left. Can Liberians buy land in Lebanon or India? can we own businesses in Ghana or Senegal? Liberia for Liberians. End of story.

    • Well Anderson as it stands right now Jamaicans can own land in Liberia if they become Liberian citizen. Anyone of Negro descent can own land in Liberia.

      • yes, that is why Nigerians and Ghanaians own the land now. Liberians better stand up. I say only Liberians, or not every black person. Soon Liberia will be owned by Ghana prostitutes. These people do not know what they are doing. The Lebanese will take over.

  2. What a brilliant historical synopsis about Liberia’s protectionist “Negro Only” and “Non-dual” Citizenship Laws written by Dr. Robtel Neajai Pailey.

    A wise person once said, “Laws are not invented; they grow out of circumstances.”

    Yes indeed, time has changed, and circumstances have evolved since our founding fathers embedded this “racist” clause into Liberia’s constitution which is still enshrined in the ratified constitution of 1986.

    Liberians cannot continue to practice archaic laws (racist law & denial of dual citizenship) when other countries, mostly western countries, are granting foreign citizenship to eligible immigrants including Liberians and other people of color. Why can’t Liberia reciprocate by making available sensible (conditional) citizenship laws for “Non-Negroid” people?

    It is very hypocritical for Liberians to expect rapid development; to expect increase in employment growth; to expect increase in foreign investments; to expect increase in Liberia productivity; and to expect increase in technical and scientific knowledge, while Liberia lawmakers continue to deny dual citizenship to their fellow Liberians living in the Diaspora; and refusing to pass sensible (conditional) Liberian citizenship laws for people of “Non-Negroid” descent.

    Many of our brothers and sisters obtained foreign citizenship out of circumstances beyond their control. Many are highly educated; technically skilled; gainfully employed; some retired; some wealthy; and some have contributed tremendously in providing financial support to relatives in Liberia. Yet, these Liberians in the Diaspora are denied dual citizenship in Liberia.

    Here are some countries in Africa that are utilizing talents of their citizens living in the Diaspora by granting them dual citizenship, and by granting citizenship (regardless of race) to those who meet the necessary criteria as stipulated

    Sierra Leone

    In 2007, Sierra Leone officially adopted dual citizenship. The bill was passed as an amendment to the 1973 Citizenship Act, in November 2006. Under the amended law, citizens can retain their citizenship status or restore it if they had lost the status under the previous law.

    Ghana

    Ghana adopted the Dual Citizenship Act in 2000 which allows Ghanaians to hold other citizenship. The law provides for non-Ghanaians who reside in the country to apply for citizenship by registration. Individuals can also apply for Ghanaian citizenship if they have contributed in any documented area that promotes national interest. In 2002, parliament passed the Citizenship Act 2002 (Act 591), which allows individuals with U.S. Citizenship to apply for dual citizenship.

    Ivory Coast

    Ivory Coast, a leading producer of cocoa, accepted dual citizenship in 2004. It can be acquired by birth. Children born in the nation to foreign parents can acquire the citizenship of Ivory Coast. In August 2013, parliament passed legislation that allows foreigners to acquire Ivorian citizenship upon marrying an Ivory Coast citizen. The law also allows foreign-born citizens who have lived in the West African nation before independence to become citizens alongside their descendants. Individuals born in the nation between 1961 and 1973 and their children also qualify for citizenship.

    Nigeria

    Nigeria adopted dual citizenship in 1999 under the leadership of former President General Ibrahim Babangida. According to the law, any person who is a Nigerian citizen by birth can acquire citizenship of other countries.

    If Liberia really wants to modernize and catch up with the rest of developed countries, it is time for Liberia Lawmakers and citizens to study the tremendous economic benefits these African countries are gaining by implementing sensible dual citizenship and naturalization laws regardless of race and citizenship they obtained while living in the Diaspora.

    Remember, the wise person once said, “Laws (in Liberia) are not invented; they grow out of circumstances.”

    If other Africans (Nigerians, Ghanaians, etc.); and people of African Descent from other countries are privileged to be granted Liberian citizenship per Liberia’s constitution, and still keep their original citizenship of birth; isn’t this dual citizenship for them? Isn’t this double standard?

    Therefore, why deny fellow Liberians in the Diaspora from obtaining dual citizenship in Liberia? This doesn’t make any sense in this modern era of economic inter-dependency?

  3. I just want to get certain facts clarified that were mentioned in R. N. Pailey’s article. One of the most glaring points he raised assumes that Liberians who fled their country fearing for their lives and safety of their families relinquished the properties, especially real estate, which they left behind in their home country, Liberia. Some of them bought and developed their real estates with their own earned resources, while others inherited theirs from ancestors. FLEEING THE 14+ YEARS OF BRUTAL KILLINGS AND WANTON DESTRUCTION DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN THAT THESE PEOPLE RELINQUISHED THEIR PROPERTIES, EVEN IF THEY TAKE UPON THEMSELVES FOREIGN NATIONALITIES, THOSE PROPERTIES ARE STILL LEGALLY THEIRS! No one has the right to encroach on those private properties. If the Liberian Government, for a good cause in the best interest of the country uses the land, the owners of those properties should be justly and fully compensated for their properties by the government. Those encroaching on the properties through theft should be thrown out of the properties or they should come squarely clean with the rightful owners of those properties . This fact is per the Liberian jurisprudence!

    The other assumption made in Pailey’s article is that all Liberians that are presently residing in other countries due to the Liberian Civil War, or for any other reasons, have naturalized and taken on citizenship in those foreign countries. THAT IS A FALLACY! Take for instance, Liberians living in the United States of America are not all US citizens. IT IS A WELL KNOWN FACT THAT FOREIGNERS CAN LIVE IN THE UNITED STATES AS LAWFUL PERMANENT RESIDENTS (the so called Green Card holders). Green Card holders are NOT United States citizens! The fact is that there are many Liberian citizens living in the US who are US Green Card holders. This latter group of Liberians are not the ones making all the noise over dual citizenship.

    When we write our “big book” let’s try hard and simply get the facts straight.

  4. This is for everyone.
    Once a Liberian, you are always a Liberian. No one can take that away from you.
    Forget about all the noise in the market. Help your people to build the Liberia we once had.
    I am a Liberian and I am also an American.

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