In his first annual message to the legislature in January—roughly equivalent in ceremonial significance to a State of the Union address—Liberian President George Manneh Weah called for eliminating the “unnecessary, racist, and inappropriate” constitutional clause that bars non-blacks from becoming full citizens of his nation.
Liberia’s top Muslim cleric responded this week by warning that black citizens would be marginalized and oppressed if the rules are changed. He accused Liberian residents who are not black of harboring dual loyalties and criticized Weah for appointing two Christians as his religious advisers instead of naming a Muslim.
In his address to legislators, President Weah said the constitutional requirement that all citizens of Liberia must be black “may have had every reason and justification” when the document was framed in 1847, because the country was mean to be a safe home for former slaves “fleeing from the oppressive yoke of slavery imposed upon them by white slave owners.”
“This may have been appropriate for the 19th Century and for the threats and conditions that existed at that time,” Weah said. “However, here in the 21st Century, I am of the view that these threats no longer exist, and that conditions have changed. In these circumstances, it is my view that keeping such a clause in our constitution is unnecessary, racist, and inappropriate for the place that Liberia occupies today in the comity of nations. It also contradicts the very definition of Liberia, which is derived from the Latin word ‘liber,’ meaning ‘liberty.’”
Not only did Weah criticize the blacks-only requirement as a racist anomaly in a more enlightened age, especially for a country that models itself on America, but he frankly explained that allowing non-blacks to become citizens, apply for dual citizenship, and obtain full property rights was vital to the “development and progress of this country.”
“No foreign investor—in fact, not any investor—will be willing to make significant direct investments in our country if they cannot own property in fee simple,” he said. “Furthermore, direct investments placed on leased properties are virtually unbankable, because most banks are reluctant to accept leaseholds as collateral for loans to persons and business entities for projects that could very well enhance our development and create jobs for our people.”
Weah said this situation is inconsistent with his declaration that “Liberia is open for business,” and also unfair given that Liberian citizens are allowed to own property in other countries.
Weah, a former soccer champion, won a landslide victory in the December election by promising to restore the economy, combat government corruption, and improve services such as education and healthcare. Poor Liberians—who constitute almost 65 percent of the population—were drawn to his fame and charisma, as well as finding his personal success as an international sports star inspirational. One of his populist gestures involved slashing his own salary by 25 percent.
Unfortunately, cutting the salaries of a few top officials will not come close to providing the money Weah needs to deliver on the rest of his promises. To that end, a team from the International Monetary Fund arrived in Liberia last week to assess the national economy. The IMF has already put a great deal of money into Liberia and is not pleased with the results so far.
Although Weah specifically rejected the notion that allowing non-black citizens would marginalize black Liberians in his annual address, citing the examples of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, on Monday the head of the National Imam Council of Liberia expressed that very concern.
As Front Page Africa tells it, Imam Ali Krayee said an influx of people “who are far more advanced intellectually and economically” would take over the major cities and push indigenous Liberians into the slums.
Krayee said Weah’s proposal is a “time bomb” that would create a class structure condemning “generations unborn to slavery and deprivation in the lands of their fathers,” with explosive results comparable to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. In other words, he was predicting white settlers would move in and take over the Liberian economic and political system, until the blacks eventually rose up in a guerrilla war and overthrew them.
“As for dual citizenship, it simply means dual loyalty,” the imam said contemptuously. “Whatever it implies is plain to all. We reject racism. What we teach rather is race consciousness and often unpalatable realities associated with certain policies.”
Krayee also blasted Weah for appointing two Christian religious advisers but no Muslims as of yet.
“As we speak, only a tiny portion fraction of Muslims nominees have so far been announced. We look forward to better recognition. We know that few steps have been taken to, in some way, placate the Muslims,” he said.
“It is important to note that Muslims are under religious obligation to be loyal to and sincerely support the government of the day,” Krayee added. “We need to collaborate more meaningfully with our Christians counterparts, non-governmental Organizations and other stakeholders as we all work to make Liberia work for all.”
Krayee claimed that Muslims were in Liberia long before the arrival of Christianity, but they still feel they have not been fully accepted in the political system. Muslims comprise about 12 percent of the population by official count, although some claim they have been systematically under-counted, and their political influence has been further diluted by bitter factional infighting.
Liberia’s 19th-century founders were Protestants who relied upon Christian principles when crafting their laws, which was very important to the incoming population of freed slaves, but they also specified religious protection for indigenous tribal beliefs. The population is currently about 85 percent Christian.
Religious and tribal friction have played major roles in Liberia’s turbulent history. An effort to make Christianity the state religion in 2015 angered the Muslim population and other minorities, raising fears of “marginalization” that provide the context for Krayee’s comments this week.
Another important bit of context for Weah’s proposal and Krayee’s reaction is that one of the most important non-black groups in Liberia consists not of white Europeans but Lebanese. Lebanese businessmen have taken up residence in the country for decades, producing a new generation of Liberian-born children who are not allowed full citizenship because they are not black.
Weah seems acutely aware that Liberia cannot afford to see Lebanese, Indians, and other non-citizen residents take their money and skills elsewhere; Lebanese and Indians account for so much of the business class that they would eviscerate the national economy by withdrawing.
A scandal broke out in the early days of his presidency in January when Weah was accused of accepting improper gifts from the Lebanese community, which opponents have portrayed as a sinister subversive force looking to manipulate politicians with bribes to protect their business interests.