Two hundred years ago, the first freed slaves arrived from the United States with dreams of creating a ‘black promised land’ on African soil.
Calling their new homeland Liberia, from the Latin for liberty, the recently liberated Americans quickly built a thriving settler society, which a quarter of a century later would be declared the first independent republic in Africa.
Spreading out from their original settlement on Providence Island, in the present-day capital, Monrovia – named after US President James Monroe – they created a new society modelled, in part, on the country they had left behind.
But it wasn’t just the antebellum mansions, Baptist chapels and European dress that the freed slaves adopted from their former masters in the American South.
The ‘Americo-Liberians’ also imported a caste-based society and established themselves as the elites.
They forced the indigenous people to work in fields and plantations, storing up resentment that would explode into genocidal conflict and the toppling of the former ruling class.
Liberia is still grappling with the aftermath of these conflicts more than almost two decades after the restoration of peace, but as the country marks the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the freed American slaves, 2022 has seen renewed introspection around the country’s so-called ‘racist’ constitution.
Liberia is the only country where citizenship, by law, depends on the colour of one’s skin.
The founding fathers crafted the constitutional anomaly, known in Liberia as the ‘Negro Clause’, to block citizenship to the white people who had taken their ancestors into captivity during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
But two centuries on, academics are arguing whether denying citizenship to ‘non-Negroes’, such as the country’s large Lebanese community, has helped or hindered Liberia’s growth.
The current president, George Weah, made his position on the matter clear in his first address to the nation’s legislature in 2018, declaring that the restrictions were not healthy for modern
Liberia, and calling for them to be dropped as happened in other countries like neighbouring Sierra Leone, which allows non-black Africans to naturalise.
‘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,’ said the ex-footballer, calling his push to repeal the clause ‘my most urgent and imperative agenda’.
President Weah argued that discriminating against races ‘contradicts the very definition of Liberia’, putting him at odds with two-thirds of his countrymen who told an Afrobarometer survey that they opposed dual citizenship and extending Liberian nationality and land rights to people who are not of Negro descent.
Many were surprised that Weah chose to make the long-running controversy a focus of his first address to the nation when he was faced with a lot of other pressing challenges.
Liberia's former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (left) talks to President George Weah and his wife Clar at his swearing-in ceremony.
Unsurprisingly, those in the ‘white’ community, which includes Liberia’s Lebanese community – once estimated to number around 17,000 – welcomed the move.
Tony Hage, a high-profile Lebanese entrepreneur and former president of the Lebanese community in Liberia, is hopeful that the president will deliver on his 2018 promise.
‘It was a very encouraging statement to the legislature,’ said the businessman, whose family has been in the country for half a century.
‘I celebrated my 15th birthday in Liberia. I have never regretted living in Liberia. I am happy because President Weah is looking at the future of this country.’
The Lebanese business tycoon believes dropping the racist clause would lead to the young generation of Lebanese and Liberians ‘doing joint business together’.
But no sooner had the president put his platform before lawmakers than a new advocacy group, Citizen’s Action Against Non-Negro Citizenship and Land Ownership, sprang up in opposition to the call.
‘Every nation has a foundation on which it was built,’ the group’s spokesman told NewsAfrica.
‘If you undermine that foundation, the nation will definitely crumble.’
It’s a view echoed by many Liberians, such as businessman Rufus Oulagbo, who bluntly stated that ‘white people will definitely enslave black Liberians,’ if they are made citizens.
Views on the controversial topic were mixed when NewsAfrica spoke to people in Monrovia.
Sei Sylvester Zingbey, a banker, said it was time to grant citizenship and land rights to white people who have ‘lived here all their lives’, adding: ‘They make millions of US dollars every year but don’t have right to own land or be citizens.’
But US-based Liberian Robert Gbeanquoi Sr warned that allowing non-Negroes Liberian citizenship, and thus land rights, will result in ‘a South African scenario’, with Lebanese and Indian residents buying up all the land.
Mohamed Jawara, a finance and administration specialist, had similar reservations about nationality and land rights.
Unlike Gbeanquoi, he said he ‘would be tempted to endorse white people becoming citizens of Liberia’ because of their access to capital and markets, and international contacts with wealthy nations.
However, he too was concerned by what he sees as ‘the slave-master mentality’ of some non-nationals and added that the political ambitions and economic dominance of the Lebanese community, combined with the high levels of poverty and illiteracy among indigenous Liberians makes ‘the time not yet right’ for a change in legislation.
Ironically, this debate around citizenship and land rights stretches all the way back to the country’s 19th-century foundation – only, back then, it was the ancestors of the people we spoke to who were the ones being locked out.
Segregation is as much a part of the Liberian story as the island where the Americo-Liberians first landed, or the Providence Baptist Church, where the country’s Declaration of Independence was signed on July 26, 1847.
The ex-slaves ruled the native population with an iron fist and excluded them from the governance process right up until 1980, when their hegemony was toppled in a bloody military coup.
Led by a previously unheard-of master sergeant, Samuel Doe, the 1980 insurrection saw the country’s indigenous population seize power for the first time.
The Americo-Liberian president, William R Tolbert, was slain in the coup, and 10 days later 13 of his top-ranking officials, including the chief justice, head of the senate and the minister of foreign affairs, were hastily tried by military tribunal, lined up on a Monrovia beach and publicly executed.
One of very few officials of the Tolbert government spared by the coup leaders was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the ‘indigenous’ minister of finance who went on to become Africa’s first democratically elected female president when she won the post-war polls in Liberia in 2005.
More than 40 years on, remnants of lampposts on which the officials were restrained before being killed are still very much visible on the execution ground at the back of the Barclay Training Center, a Monrovia military barrack. The decaying execution poles are used as goalposts by kids playing football.
About half a mile away, in the now heavily looted and desecrated Palm Grove Cemetery, the remains of the coup victims, including Tolbert, are dumped into a mass grave where family members visit each year.
‘I think there is a need to exhume and re-bury them in a more decent manner,’ a former information minister told NewsAfrica.
‘We need to close a chapter on this.’
Nine years after the brutal killings of Tolbert, what would become one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars started when Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian and US-educated economist who had worked in Doe’s post-coup regime, launched a rebellion from across the border with Ivory Coast.
The war killed an estimated 250,000 people and ended in 2003 after Doe had been executed by a rival rebel group and Taylor, who had gone on to become president, was forced out of power and into exile in Nigeria.
Many still see the Taylor revolt against Doe, who was from an indigenous tribe, as a revenge for the unexpected, violent removal of the Americo-Liberian class.
Whatever the cause, the destruction of the former ruling class has left those Americo-Liberians remaining in the country reluctant to speak openly about their heritage today.
One of the rare exceptions is Fubbi Franklin Armah Henries, grandson of one of the 13 officials paraded naked and publicly executed after the April 1980 coup.
He believes there was no justification for the coup that killed his grandfather, Speaker of the House of Representatives Richard Henries.
‘It was blamed on rampant corruption, marginalisation of native people, nepotism, abuse of power, etc. All of those reasons are more than 20 times [the case] today.’
‘Worse of all is the tribal feud it created amongst the very people that classified themselves as natives and feel they are more Liberians than others,’ Henries, a two-time legislative candidate, told NewsAfrica.
A vocal defender of the Americo-Liberian legacy, Henries is happy that, in spite of the wars and coups, 200 years on from the arrival of the freed slaves on Providence Island ‘those from the Americo-Liberian background are still contributing meaningfully to the growth of Liberia’.
‘There are still family businesses and farms being operated. They are still part of major political institutions and have been part of every government, playing key ministerial and advisory roles.’
Somewhat controversially, Henries thinks the country would be in a better state had the military takeover not happened.
‘Liberia was on a path of industrialisation prior to 1980,’ said the politician.
‘Liberia would have been a far better, advanced country had the coup not taken place.’
He claimed the removal of Tolbert led Liberia down a ‘path of massive open looting of public resources’, adding: ‘We see public officials amass wealth that their remuneration cannot back.’
Martin K N Kollie, an exiled political activist, writer and former student leader, has a different perspective of events: ‘I do not agree that the coup of 1980 was the beginning of Liberia’s dark days and history won’t even agree with anyone who chooses to succumb to such a misreading or mischief.’
A critic of President George Weah’s administration, Kollie was forced to flee Liberia more than two years ago and now lives in exile.
He thinks the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the freed slaves is no cause for celebration.
‘From the very founding of Africa’s oldest republic, the seed of discord, division, exclusion, marginalisation, and disintegration was sown by the settlers against the natives. The settlers had a choice to either unite the country or divide it. But they wilfully chose the latter,’ he said. Kollie blames Liberia’s underdevelopment partly on the constitution introduced by the Americo-Liberians.
‘This racist and anti-democratic constitution excluded over 90 per cent of the citizenry from social, economic, and political privileges, suffrages. The natives could not even own properties even though they were forced to pay taxes to the oligarchy.
‘So, the coup was actually provoked by more than a century of economic deprivation, political exclusion [Liberia was ruled by one-party system], and segregation. The coup was never a historical accident but a fundamental necessity intended to erase an era of excruciating inequality.
‘The real beginning of Liberia’s dark days was when thousands of natives were killed by the Americo-Liberians far before 1980. This polarisation created a breeding ground.’
While Liberia is generally regarded as the one African country that was never colonised, some academics see things rather differently.
The Boston-based Liberian rights’ activist Reverend Torli H Krua has sent an open letter to the Liberian parliament calling for a public hearing on what he claims is ‘200 years of lies and deception responsible for systemic corruption, massacres and poverty in Liberia’.
The founder of Universal Human Rights International claims to have ‘irrefutable documentary evidence’ that progress in Liberia is impossible ‘unless the truth extricates colonial Liberia from centuries of bondage’.
He added that Liberia needs to undergo a radical transformation if it is truly to become ‘a new nation that guarantees security, prosperity and equal opportunities for all citizens.
Despite being endowed with vast natural resources, Liberia’s underdevelopment bewilders outsiders visiting the country.
Liberia’s traditional ally the US has warned that unless the country fights graft, it’s progress will continue to stall.
The latest reminder came from Dana Banks, Special Assistant to the US president, who didn’t mince her words when she spoke to a recent Monrovia gathering as part of the bicentennial celebrations.
‘Corruption is an act of robbery,’ said the African-American politician.
‘It robs Liberia’s citizens of access to health care, to public safety, to education. It robs you of the healthy business environment we all know Liberia could have, which would lift countless Liberians out of poverty.
‘Too many of Liberia’s leaders have chosen their own personal short-term gain over the long-term benefit of their country.’
‘Ultimately,’ she added, ‘only the Liberian government and the Liberian people can tackle corruption, fight for accountability and transparency, and move this country forward.’