Liberia’s new president George Weah has announced his plans to reform the West African nation’s “racist” citizenship law, which is restricted to “a Negro or of Negro descent” due to a clause in the constitution. The nation does allow non-Blacks to hold permanent residency status.

You may be amazed at the existence of such a law in the present day, which on the surface appears to be so blatantly exclusionary, denying other residents of the nation the ability to acquire citizenship and all the rights it entails, solely on the grounds of race. However, the reasoning behind such a clause in the constitution provides a context in which Liberia’s citizenship laws may even be deemed appropriate.

The flag of Liberia bears close resemblance to the American flag, showing the freed American slaves’ connection to the country

The Republic of Liberia was was founded by African slaves from North America by the American Colonisation Society, initially as a colonial settlement before declaring independence in 1847. The American Colonisation Society was an organisation which supported the migration of freed African-American slaves back to Africa. This wasn’t a universally popular at the time, with some African Americans preferring to fight for their human rights in the land of their birth, and the repatriation was met with resistance by those living around the areas colonised by the society.

The American Colonisation Society itself consisted of members with conflicting ideologies, who compromised on the repatriation of African Americans back to Africa. Some were Quakers and evangelicals, religiously in favour of the abolition of slavery, who believed Africa represented an opportunity for freed slaves to rebuild their lives. The less enlightened amongst the group were slave-owners who wanted to remove free blacks from America in order to avoid slave rebellions.

Thus, being a home to freed slaves, Liberia became a “refuge and a haven for freed men [and women] of colour”, and so made a concerted effort to ensure the well-being of Black people was of paramount concern. President Weah sees the citizenship laws as “unnecessary” and “inappropriate”, contradicting the very idea of Liberia, whose name is derived from ‘Liber’ in Latin, meaning free. The country’s motto is “The Love of Liberty Brought us here”. He has taken a wider interpretation to the nation’s values, believing liberty to be a right for all those in the nation, not just the black people who were brought to inhabit the land hundreds of years ago.

Liberia’s minority Lebanese population would stand to benefit from this proposed policy change. They represent only about 3,000 of the nations’ 4.5 million population, after numbering around 17,000 in the 1970’s before the nation’s devastating civil war. Compared to the Black majority population, the Lebanese population are very wealthy, making healthy contributions to the nation’s economy, and own some of the country’s top hotels and businesses. They have argued that their current legal predicament has rendered them as second-class citizens, in a nation that many have lived in from birth or a very early age.

Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city (Source: Mediaguinee)

There also exists a significant proportion of Liberia’s black population that fears that widening citizenship will allow other people to develop Liberia contrary to the wishes of the majority, and that President Weah should prioritise fixing the country’s ailing economy instead. A third of Liberia’s GDP comes from expats living overseas, and the nation ranks 225th out of 228 nations in average salaries per person, at $900 per year in 2017.

Liberia’s civil society has made its voice heard on the matter.  The Citizens’ Action Against Non-Negro Citizenship and Land Ownership has been set up in opposition to President Weah’s proposals. “Every nation has a foundation on which it was built – if you undermine that foundation, the nation will definitely crumble,” the group’s leader Fubbi Henries told the BBC.

There may be some merit to that view. Weah’s definition of racism, applied in this context, perhaps betrays the historical context in which Liberia was formed. Freed slaves suffered unspeakable horrors, which fall within the textbook definition of racism, justified by white supremacist thought. The idea that black people were afforded special status in Liberia’s constitution does not equate to the treatment they suffered under slave-owners which the nation is designed to provide refuge from.

Mr Weah has spent significant portions of his life living in Europe as a professional footballer, which no doubt played a big part in the formation of some of his world views. If Italy or France excluded non-whites from their citizenship laws, he would have expected the rest of the world to condemn them for racism, which would likely be the case.

But the citizenship laws in Liberia are not designed to oppress the minorities of the nation in the same way that the founding fathers of the United States did when they attributed to the black man three-fifths of the value of a white man, or Apartheid South Africa which denied its majority black population the franchise, as well as basic human dignity. That said, perhaps in the present day, Liberia’s laws are slightly disproportionate. The Lebanese community, alongside other minorities in Liberia, have contributed to the country’s prosperity, and should be rewarded with the prospect of citizenship. Granting the franchise to potentially 2% of a country that has the 5th fastest growing population will not override the foundational principles of Liberia.