Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Liberia's constitutional negro clause under review

Introduction: The Liberian Constitution forbids people of none negro origins from acquiring citizenship and properties in Liberia. Here, three separate views from very outspoken women are presented below about the issue. Rima Merhi essay is culled from the Huffington Post, which accused the Liberian Constitution of blatant racism,  Ms. Pailey's piece was originally published by the FrontPage Africa, while Ms. Sayegh article originally appeared in the Liberian Journal.

The Face of America in Africa' Must End Constitutional Racism

Rima Merhi

Founded in 1822 to free the black slaves of America, the Liberian constitution makes it mandatory for citizens of Liberia to be black of African descent. I am one of many white children born in Liberia to non-African parents and denied nationality and citizenship rights due to the color of my skin and roots.

But the "face of America in Africa" cannot legalize racism, as it runs contrary to the values of Christianity, liberty, and tolerance that define the heart of Liberia, a nation born from America, its mother. No country in Africa embraces America like Liberia. The Liberians have close kinship ties to America and are inspired by American political figures, particularly President Barack Obama. The Liberian national flag bears a close resemblance to the American flag with just one star, and American culture is very popular, with the Liberian market flooded with bestselling American brands.

Liberia today lies at a crossroads: Either it will continue to live in the past or find more progressive ways to preserve its identity, culture, and roots without alienating its white non-African children.

As it stands, there are no reliable statistics to determine the number of people who are affected by this constitutional discrimination. But Liberia is native home to many Europeans, Americans, and Arabs. Most severely affected are the Lebanese people born in Liberia, and this is a very serious issue for Liberia, given that the economy is largely dominated by Lebanese traders and businessmen who have been in Liberia since the 1960s.
"When all the Liberians were leaving the country as a result of the war, we, the Lebanese, stayed here to keep our businesses running," said a Lebanese businessman who has spent 50 years in Liberia. "We pay our taxes like any Liberian. We respect their laws, we make investments in the economy, but after all this time I can't effect any decision that impacts my life or own more than the trouser on me."

Despite the atrocities of a 14-year civil war that raged until 2003, a nation that refuses to sell its land cannot sell its children. Having grown up in Liberia, I've seen many Liberian families sell their children to non-African white families to work as maids and nannies in their homes, due to extreme poverty. One maid I know lived with a family outside Liberia for over 30 years, and when she decided to come home to Liberia to marry and start a family, she died giving birth, due to poor hygiene and medical services.

Last year, I visited my childhood home in the capital Monrovia. The lease had ended during the bloody Liberian civil war, a time when no one was able to enter or leave Liberia, and with it was lost the family home we had kept for decades. I was deeply saddened to see our house in a completely worn-out state and our supermarket locked with huge metallic bars. This corner used to bustle with people, beggars, and saleswomen, and had my father continued to own the premises, there is no way we would have turned a blind eye to a place that is so precious to us on both a personal and professional level.

Liberia must take serious steps to amend this constitutional discrimination. A review of the outdated constitution will reinforce Liberia's commitment to international human-rights laws and norms and allow it to become a more progressive, credible actor on the world stage. At the same time, this shift in government policy would encourage greater investments in the country at a time when Liberia remains one of the poorest five countries in the world; it would also allow Liberia to benefit from the skills, education, and expertise of a second generation of Lebanese youth who are, as it stands, important players in the economic survival of Liberia, given that the majority of Lebanese living in Liberia set up family-owned businesses over the years.
Going forward, there is clearly a need for the UN to set up a committee of experts made up of Liberians and whites of non-African origin to revise the Liberian constitution and make recommendations. These revisions must include a plan to develop the national identity of Liberia, and a financial strategy to empower Liberians in the long run. There is also a dire need to collect statistics about the people who are affected by these discriminatory provisions in the constitution.

To President Johnson Sirleaf (a Harvard alumna) and President Obama, I say my time at Harvard and in America taught me to speak up and fight for human dignity and life. No constitution in the world should be allowed to discriminate against its people for the color of their skin or their origin, especially not the face of America in Africa.

Freelance journalist, former human-rights fellow, and consultant at Harvard

The Negro Clause in Liberia’s Constitution Is Not Racist; It Is Protectionary

By Robtel Neajai Pailey New Narratives Fellow   

There is a subculture in Liberia that, though highly visible and active, is almost never discussed – like an unacknowledged elephant in the room.

It consists of Lebanese businessmen and their families who started migrating to West Africa in the 1950s and found a home in Liberia. It consists of thin, lanky young men and women who manage all the major stores on Randall Street, Camp Johnson Road, Somalia Drive, and the Vai Town-Clara Town-Logan Town corridor.
It consists of dark-haired and olive-skinned children who look visibly different from the average Liberian child, yet possess our slippery tongues and slurring words.

Some were born in Liberia while others flocked to the ‘land of liberty’ looking for milk and honey. While some are content to remain insulated in “Little Lebanon” in Liberia, others have assimilated, struggling hard to carve out their own form of ‘Liberianness.’

But under our Constitution, they cannot own land. Under our Constitution, they cannot vote in national or sub-national elections. Under our Constitution, they cannot carry Liberian passports. According to the Negro clause in our Aliens and Nationality Law–which states that only people of black African descent can be citizens—Lebanese nationals are not eligible to be citizens of Liberia.

And neither should they be.

I recently read an op-ed in the Huffington Post by Rima Merhi, a Lebanese national who grew up in Liberia. She balks at what she considers to be Liberia’s ‘constitutional racism,’ arguing that as “America’s face in Africa,” Liberia should have more inclusive nationality laws.

What Merhi fails to realize is that context matters.
Liberia’s Negro clause is not racist; it is Protectionary The Negro clause was instituted at a time when Liberia was trying to protect itself from foreign domination. But the threat to national sovereignty did not disappear just because the 19th century “Scramble for Africa” by European powers ended in the 20th.

The Negro clause may be discriminatory, but it is not racist. Besides, most nationality laws throughout the world are discriminatory, clearly separating those who belong from those who must fight to belong. Just ask Mexicans who die trying to jump over fences the height of Mt. Nimba on a daily basis crossing into the United States. Or Sub-Saharan Africans who risk their lives sailing in makeshift boats to Europe and are denied entry. Or the Roma in Turkey who are not citizens in the land of their birth.

Nationality laws are the only means by which countries can assert their power in the 21st century. Liberia is no different.Therefore, our Aliens and Nationality Law cannot be considered racist in context.

Racism is about withholding power based solely on race. But most non-black, non-African nationals in Liberia are far more powerful than the vast majority of our 3.4 million native Liberian population. One only has to peak in the doors of our major concession negotiations, our policy meetings at the highest level, or our posh restaurants/bars/clubs/entertainment centers to see who actually wields political, economic, and social power.

At the moment, the Negro clause is the only way of protecting the vast majority of Liberians from oblivion, especially since the civil war left them with virtually nothing, except their citizenship. By maintaining and enforcing our current nationality laws—and warding off foreigners—native Liberians stand a better chance at achieving political reforms, economic prosperity, and social cohesion on their own terms.

Most great nations go through a period of internal awakening, when they define what it means to be a unified whole. Before Ghana expanded its nationality laws to grant citizenship to non-Ghanaian in 2002, it went through a long period of nationalism. Liberia has yet to shut the outside world out. It is now time to look “inward,” beginning with the process of clearly defining what is required of Liberian citizens under our current Constitution.

We must first tighten our nationality laws and ensure compliance. We cannot begin to think about amending the Negro clause until this process is complete. Granted, the Negro clause also affects the countless numbers of Indians, Chinese, Europeans, and North Americans of non-African descent whose case for citizenship is no different from the Lebanese. The Negro clause is especially controversial now in the age of rapid globalization, but we should not discard it just because we want to bow down to pressure from what is increasingly becoming a borderless world for some and not others.

In my Ph.D. research on the current and historical factors that have led to the introduction of dual citizenship legislation in Liberia, I have come across many arguments for why people should hold multiple citizenships. But I remain on the fence. No argument has convinced me that holding multiple citizenships brings a person closer to his/her nation. I’m not convinced that removing the Negro clause will bring non-black, non-African nationals in Liberia any closer to fulfilling obligations as active citizens.

Citizenship is not some cosmetic exercise. You don’t put it on when it’s convenient, and wipe it off when it’s not. For me, citizenship is about participating in the political, economic, and social development of a nation. It is an activity and not a state of being. Citizenship is not only about demanding privileges and rights. It is about asking what you can do for your country. And doing it.

Some Liberians argue that the Negro clause is outdated, that we need to gradually move into the 21st century. I’m not convinced we are ready to relinquish the Negro clause yet, even if we say we are. We still need to figure out what ‘Liberian citizenship’ truly means, and practice it in both words and deeds.
If we are accused unjustifiably of racism until then, so be it.

Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey is an opinion fellow with New Narratives, a project supporting leading independent media in Africa. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar. She can be reached at

The Shaft of the Arrow’s Bow: The “Negro Clause” and Liberia

Jackie N. Sayegh

While reading Robtel Pailey’s piece on the Negro clause in the Liberian constitution, (The Negro Clause in Liberia’s Constitution Is Not Racist; It Is Protectionary  FrontPage  newspaper, October 20, 2012),  I immediately thought of the Langston Hughes poem “I too sing America.” In it, Langston laments the discrimination faced by African-Americans as he penned the words:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,

"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

The irony of the Liberian “Negro clause” has never been lost on me.  It certainly was there as I marched with other Liberians to petition the US Congress for permanent residency for Liberians on Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Marching for what my father could not obtain in Liberia, asking the US government to grant what we Liberians deny others at home.

As a young university activist, my father fled his native Syria to escape the tyranny of the first President Assad. Penniless and homeless, he came to Liberia as an apprentice to a store owner.  After many years of struggles (more than 20 years after his arrival), he opened the National Book Store.  Mr Dayoub or Mr. Salim as he was called loved Liberia. He loved the people, he loved sitting and just talking and on Saturdays, his home was filled with the smells of his two favorite food, palmbutter and dumboy. Education, for him, was the most important thing in life (a grade of 97 was not acceptable) and Liberia was where I needed to be. With youthful arrogance I wanted to ask him “but is Liberia where I want to be?”  

But I did not dare. My dad was a strict disciplinarian who took an intense interest and participated actively in my upbringing. Returning home after a year on the American Field Service exchange program, I told myself that the US was where I needed to be. There is a saying that “man plans, and God laughs.” In this case, my father was the one who laughed. He took one look at his 17 year old once submissive and quiet daughter now back with short hair, jeans, make-up and a mouth full of cheek, and declared that I would not be returning to the US but would attend the University of Liberia.  Supported by my mom and great grand-mother, two very strong-willed women, no amount of crying on my part could convince them otherwise. 

Thank God they did!  During the years at the University, and evolving into adulthood, there grew within me an intense, encompassing, fierce almost primal love for my country. Love of one’s country is not automatically handed down, passed through DNA at birth. It comes slowly, a realization that this piece of land where you find yourself has taken a hold of your heart and that with each breath you become one with the heartbeat and rhythm of your country. No, it is “not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” This is very true and I believe that had I not remained in Liberia during these formative years, this cultivation of deep love for my country would have eluded me.

I did return to the US after many years, as a Fulbright Scholar at Cornell.   Calls from my father always ended with the question of when I would be returning home.  Yes, there was a war raging but he always assured me that peace would come one day and that we Liberians would not suffer forever. Who is this “we,” I wondered. During the war, my father was robbed, beaten and tied up to be killed. It was through the intervention of now Senator Prince Johnson that my father lived. As he recounted the story of his ordeal over the phone, my fear for him formed the words “go back home.”  His reply was always the same, he was home.   What was it with this man that he insisted on staying in a country that clearly after all these years still saw him as an outsider?  Liberians themselves had fled the war, what made him so different or special?   

With the advent of peace, I promised to "visit" soon. This was not to be.  On July 2007, my father died from a massive heart attack.   Tears from his Liberian friends enveloped me on my trip home, their comforting stories helping to numb the pain and leaving me in no doubt that he was deeply loved if not by Liberia, then by Liberians. Street sellers, students, friends, all attended his service and I sat dumb as Liberians gave tribute to how he was the one responsible for their tuition, their books, their allowances, how he had served as their surrogate parent and how his small apartment had sheltered them during the war, how they all had slept on the floor to avoid the bullets that flew through the air.

Like my father, many people throughout the world have grown to love their adopted land at times even more so than those born within its borders. US Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, (a Czech-born refugee) and Henry Alfred Kissinger (born in Germany) were foreign born but their service and their writings leave no doubt as to where their loyalty and love lie.

There are Liberians who claim that Middle Easterners and others foreigners see Liberia as a goldmine, a place to make money and leave. Well, Lebanese are after all ancient Phoenician traders and commerce is in their blood. Business people are not by nature philanthropists.  Are Liberian returnees’ motives any more virtuous because they are black? I have met Liberians who returned home after the war not because of any great love for their homeland but as a way to make a quick buck.

What I do know is that it is not wealthy people that leave their country to seek a better life elsewhere. Such people benefit from the existing system in their countries and do not seek greener pastures. It is the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” that leave familiar lands for the unknown sometimes on a wing and a prayer. Displaced people everywhere have lived the words of Dante’s exile in Paradiso Cantos XV-XXI when he is told “you will lose everything you love most dearly: that is the arrow that Exile’s bow will fire. You will prove how bitter the taste of another man’s bread is, and how hard it is to descend, and climb, another man’s stair.” 

Robtel continues in her article that "the Negro clause may be discriminatory, but it is not racist.”

I disagree. It is not protectionism in the least! In protectionism, a person safeguards what they own or have from all others; in discrimination, they secure it from certain groups; and, in racism they secure it from a certain group based on color. If I had a bowl of rice and stipulated that anybody can eat from the bowl except a white person what would it be called? The whites-only sign that saturated the US deep south during segregation was not protectionism! It was unadulterated racism.  Are we to believe that the freed US slaves, given the chance in Liberia,  did not take some perverse pleasure in using turnabout and denying the whites the very same thing they had denied the blacks for so long, ownership of land and citizenship? I believe that they did!

If "Negro descent" is the criterion we have to go on to determining citizenship, then we are in for a protracted battle. The freed slaves did not allow the indigenous Liberian to vote until 1963 and the indigenous were of “Negro descent!” Liberians come in all shades, so who is to determine who is "of negro descent?" There are Liberians who are as white as any European. My two nieces display no visible sign of "negro descent" yet they lay claim to it as they are a quarter Grebo, a quarter Thai, a quarter Middle Eastern and a quarter Asian. Fourteen years of displacement have brought with it travels to distant places, unions with people from different races, and children of all glorious array of shades, colors, and hues.  Black or white or red, all united in creating a better life wherever they find themselves. 

I believe that we Liberians are a decent and fair people. I have spoken to many Liberians about this and I believe that at the heart of this issue is the fear of what citizenship entails. It bestows certain rights on the citizens, one of which is the right to own land. Currently in Liberia, land ownership is mired in a chaotic web of conflict and insecure tenure. Citizenship, if granted to all, would make it possible for others to own land and understandably, native born Liberian citizens view this with a deep seated fear. Liberia lacks a vibrant middle class and an adequate legal framework to ensure fairness in allocation of resources, and in upholding the rights of all Liberians. In such an environment, those with the most wealth are the ones to benefit and accumulate the most resources. With the right institutions and a corruption-free judiciary and government, this fear would be alleviated. Foreigners do not reside in Liberia alone. They are in Ghana, Nigeria and other African countries where there exist strong national institutions and strict governmental policies to create an enabling environment where all can benefit, not just a few. Kenyans in their 2010 constitution recognizes a “non-racial” society. As early as 1955, in South Africa, the Freedom Charter, adopted in 1955 by the Congress of the People at Kliptown near Johannesburg, was the first systematic statement in the history of the country of the political and constitutional vision of a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa. And this was in South Africa where apartheid was alive and well at the time!

 Laws that prohibit full equality whether based on color, gender, or ethnicity are archaic manifestations of bygone eras when international conventions and sovereign rights were not as clearly laid out as today. Not one of the countries of the African Union have this clause.  Liberia is a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Convention “solemnly affirms the necessity of speedily eliminating racial discrimination throughout the world in all its forms and manifestations and of securing understanding of and respect for the dignity of the human person; that any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere; and, that the existence of racial barriers is repugnant to the ideals of any human society.”

The world is changing rapidly and Liberia must keep pace with the change. If Liberia is to take its rightful place in the world, we need to envision and affirm our core values and identity as a nation. African-American writer Ellison’s description of the American society as “woven of many strands . . . recognize them and let it so remain; our fate is to become one, and yet many. This is not prophecy, but description” could also apply to the Liberian society if we desire. The young Lebanese store merchant, the Guinean tailor, the Sierra Leonean taxi driver, all of them Liberian-born who speak Grebo, Kru, Bassa, Kpelle, like the old Ethiopian I met on Mechlin street who has been in Liberia for more than 20 years and continuously blesses this country, and like a young Syrian activist who fled more than 50 years ago to a welcoming country,

They, too, sing Liberia.

Jackie N. Sayegh is Program Manager of the Institute for African Development at Cornell University. She is an alum of the University of Liberia and Cornell.

1 comment:

Lillian Morgan said...

Mr editor,

Anybody would want to respect Robtel, who in my view is an excellent Liberian intellectual. I have read her works, and every time I have come up impressed, but let me say that I disagree with her on this article.

Here she writes... "Racism is about withholding power based solely on race. But most non-black, non-African nationals in Liberia are far more powerful than the vast majority of our 3.4 million native Liberian population. One only has to peak in the doors of our major concession negotiations, our policy meetings at the highest level, or our posh restaurants/bars/clubs/entertainment centers to see who actually wields political, economic, and social power.

a) Question: What has held back indigenous Liberian entrepreneurs from doing good? Most of them has acquired millions illegally from the Liberian government, and most has borrowed legitimately from banks, but yet are not able to, or simply are not interested in business and entrepreneurship...but a lot of Liberians though, are doing good today in business if I may say... racism is definitely withholding power solely on race as you correctly states, no ifs and buts....Racism, is an inequality in any form in as much the reason principally is based on race, whether for economic, social or political, and may I add egotistic reasons.

At the policy and board meetings and the major concessions conferences, it is Liberians again who chair these negotiations, and their own input has been to cheat their own countrymen because of greed, but yet we blame our misfortune on the "thin, lanky young men and women who manage all the major stores on Randall Street, Camp Johnson Road, Somalia Drive, and the Vai Town-Clara Town-Logan Town corridor. And also of the "dark-haired and olive-skinned children who look visibly different from the average Liberian child, yet possess our slippery tongues and slurring words." I can not phantom the argument, especially in the 21st century: Blacks were denied citizenship in 17th and 18th century America and Europe because the race would corrupt the white society, because simply we were not good enough, 'and who the hell again is Obama again..' excuse the pun...

b) Liberia has been in existence for too long, but yet it laws are retrogressive compared to other African countries, whether you want to argue same sex marriage, FGM, or the right for women to inherit their spouses properties, or the current clause under review...

Thank you Robtel for raising a really important thought provoking issue, it is time to move forward, Liberia can not be stock in the past forever....

L. Morgan