Liberia: The End of ‘State-Sanctioned’ Discrimination?


The framers of our Constitution knew that time could blind us to absolute truths and later generation can see the laws once thought necessary can only serve to oppress.

This is the case with Article 12 of the Liberian constitution. 

Liberia’s Nationality Laws based on its original 1847 Constitution and included in 1986 revisions are profoundly discriminatory, which requires that being black is the only prerequisite for being a citizen. Nationality is conferred solely based on race. 

Under the current constitution, only persons of Negroid origins can obtain citizenship. This is wrong!

This is hypocritical, as President George Weah said: “Liberians are free to purchase property in any part of the world as non-citizens; however, the Liberian Constitution and laws will not allow the similar privilege to be accorded to the citizens of other nations.” 

One of the great intellectual and moral epiphanies of the modern epoch is the realization that human racial diversity is a gift from God. It has become conventional wisdom that being around those unlike ourselves makes us better people — and more productive beings.

Social scientists have long shown that diversity in the workplace can increase creative thinking and improve performance. Meanwhile, excessive homogeneity can lead to stagnation and poor problem-solving. 

The Liberian Congress must accept President Weah’s recommendation and amend the discriminatory ‘Nationality Clause’ in the constitution, which would encourage greater investments in the country at a time when Liberia’s economy is in tatters with one of the highest unemployment rates in Africa. 

Nigeria, where I worked for two years, has lots of problems, prominent of which are tribalism, corruption, sectarianism, and regionalism, but state endorsed racial discrimination is not one. People of various ethnic orientations are active both in the formal and informal economic sectors. 

My boss was a white Nigerian. Yes, they do exist and are visible throughout the country. I had the opportunity of interviewing and hiring a Pakistani Nigerian engineer to design solar systems for health facilities in northern Nigeria. 

Unfortunately, Liberia has a shortage of professionals who are of different races because the country’s constitution bars non-negroes from becoming citizens. Even Liberians who acquire citizenship in other countries are excommunicated.

The nation has stopped short in both the understanding and appreciation of authentic diversity — the diversity of citizenship — and that problem is taking a significant toll on productivity at home and its image abroad. 

I was ashamed recently to read an article in the New York Times about a prominent Harvard-trained medical practitioner, Dr. Raj Panjabi, who was born in Liberia but has been denied citizenship. Dr. Panjabi and two other civil war victims founded Last Mile Health which is headquartered in Zwedru with offices in Boston and New York City and work in the southeast to train community health workers. 

The organization has won many international awards and high praises for its work in training frontline health workers.

Dr. Panjabi didn’t start an organization in India the birthplace of his parents but in Liberia where he was born, but the country has turned its back on him. Sadly, he is not alone. There are many people born in Liberia to parents of different races, including some who are of mixed race who are denied citizenship. 

A Guinean American colleague once asked me what’s wrong with you Liberians? Why don’t you support dual citizenship? I was surprised at how well known and silly our dual citizenship debate has become. I said it didn’t make sense to me either.

What is the situation in Guinea, I asked? He pulled out his American passport and his Guinean passport. Guinea accepts dual and non-negro citizenship, so does almost every country in Africa, except Liberia. 

What many Liberians don’t understand is that diversity doesn’t just sound nice, it has tangible benefits. Countless research studies show that homogeneous groups like the cabinet can be less creative and insightful than diverse ones. They are more prone to group think and less likely to question faulty assumptions. 

The point is that diversity of groups of people solving problems and creating jobs – is linked to economic prosperity. Amending the racist law would also allow Liberia to benefit from the skills, education, and expertise of the second generation of Indian, Lebanese, Syrians, and Europeans who are essential players in the economic survival of Liberia. We need to stop scapegoating the Lebanese and embrace them. 

Countries and cities that are more diverse are prosperous than similar ones, and that often means higher wages for ‘native-born’ citizens. The perception that out-groups gain at in-group’s expense persists. Let me be the first to acknowledge that diversity isn’t natural. It is uncomfortable. It can make people feel threatened, but it is necessary and leads to productivity. 

People can cling to tribal views even when exposed to mountains of evidence contrasting those views. But an optimistic interpretation is that when a society’s tribal makeup moves beyond a certain threshold – when dark-skinned Liberians stop being the majority, for example, and a large percentage of the population is mixed – racial discrimination may be harder to do. 


W N Russell, Contributing Writer
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