Obama sparks citizenship debate in Liberia

April 4, 2009 12:00 am

, MONROVIA, Apr 4 – Student Gabriel Wlemongar bangs his fist on the table. "Why don’t you people understand? he demands. "Don’t you know that if you allow these Lebanese or Indians to naturalise they will buy all the land?"

Only blacks are allowed to hold citizenship and own land in Liberia, a country founded by freed slaves, but Barack Obama’s election as the first black president of the United States has prompted many to question that policy.

"Look at a black (man) sitting in the White House in America: isn’t that enough to say it is time to change?" responds Thomas Sieh, another student taking part in the debate at a Monrovia entertainment centre.

"…the Liberian constitution is contrary to reality in these modern days," he adds.

That view is shared by a growing number in Liberia who say that the constitution, which only accords property and citizenship rights to those who are "Negroes or of Negro descent," is outdated and harming economic development.

In restaurants and bars, on radio and television talk shows, the issue is at the centre of a heated debate.

War-torn Liberia has a large and economically successful Lebanese community, which the foreign ministry says owns the majority of the businesses, as well as an expatriate Indian community.

Official figures put the number of Lebanese at 35,000, and a further 15,000 Indians out of a total population of 3.9 million.

Many Liberians fear the influence they might wield if they were to be given new rights.

Mohamed Sabra, 57, is Lebanese but was born in Liberia. He argues that the policy is holding back the nation’s economic development.

"When the foreigners or the expatriates come with the intention of building and they notice that the constitution does not allow them (property and citizenship rights), they go back with their money," he says.

"This is not good for the development of Liberia."

But high-profile Liberian businessman Musa Bility is against any change to the law, saying the tensions it might spark risk plunging the country back into conflict.

"I think that while it is true that it sounds discriminatory in this modern age, we have to look at this special case of Liberia where we have just come from war.

"The country’s economy is in bad shape, and the nationals have never gotten perfect opportunity to restart," he says.

Liberia was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves and ruled almost exclusively by the so-called Americo-Liberian elite until a coup d’etat by Samuel Doe in 1980.

After a decade of authoritarian rule, Charles Taylor launched a rebellion against Doe triggering back-to-back civil wars that ravaged the country between 1989 and 2003 when a peace agreement was finally signed.

"To give the people who are economically viable the opportunity to become citizens and all rights of citizens… is to set the pace for their domination of our economy and our politics… leading to another problem in the next 15 or 20 years," adds Bility.

A change in the constitution, however, remains a sensitive issue and while some parliamentarians have spoken out in support of an amendment, political parties are reluctant to publicly state their position.

Observers say president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, herself a member of the Americo-Liberian elite, is also wary of the issue because she does not want to alienate the descendants of Liberia’s indigenous people.

With proposals to amend the constitution requiring a two-thirds majority in parliament, any change in the foreseeable future looks unlikely.



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