Liberia Debates Race-Based Citizenship

Liberia Debates Race-Based Citizenship

MONROVIA, Liberia -- A clause in Liberia's constitution requiring black ancestry in order to hold citizenship has spurred debate on the nature of foreign ownership of land here, and in Africa in general. Many Liberians insist that the clause must be changed, decrying their country for being the only "legally racist" nation in the world. Others claim the clause protects Liberians from foreigners who might otherwise take control of the country's vast natural resources and pristine land.

Article 27(b) of Liberia's constitution dates back to 1847, when freed American slaves declared the country an independent republic. Fearing their white former masters would rescind their freedom and seize their land, Liberia's founders included a clause requiring all citizens to be "of negro descent." In part, this helped Liberia remain a black-ruled state while the rest of the continent fell under colonial rule.

According to Darius Dillion, a respected political figure and senior aide to Sen. Jewel Howard Taylor (ex-wife of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, now on trial at the Hague), "this law was both understandable and reasonable" within the historical context. However, Dillon, who is currently leading a campaign to change the clause, believes no room exists in the modern era for what he sees as an implicitly racist, primitive law that promotes backward thinking.

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