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Liberia: Negro Clause Is Not Racist; It Is Protectionary

By Robtel Neajai Pailey  

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-Ghanaians 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.

* ** robtel@newnarratives.org*

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