Will the Lebanese take over Liberia? Many Liberians think so

Only persons of Negro descent may acquire Liberian citizenship, but President George Weah wants that to change. The problem: many Liberians fear that the Lebanese community will take over if it does.

The small West African nation of Liberia already made international headlines in 2018 with the election of George Weah - one of the greatest African footballers of all time - to the country’s highest office. At $900, Liberia’s per capita GDP is among the lowest in the world, with a third of national GDP reliant on remittances from abroad. Still bearing the scars from the 1989-1996 and 1999-2003 civil wars and buffeted by the 2014-2015 Ebola pandemic, Liberia is in desperate need of a reprieve and revitalization, with many ordinary Liberians pinning their hopes on President Weah.

Weah’s election has sparked a wave of optimism in the country with hopes for urgently needed economic and political reforms. One of these reforms concerns Liberia’s unique citizenship laws, laws which have once again elevated the tiny country to global attention. Liberian citizenship (whether by birth or naturalization) is limited to individuals of African descent, thus denying non-blacks political franchise, as well as other attendant rights, such as the ability to own land.

In order to make the country more competitive, Weah has sought the introduction of a law permitting dual-citizenship, as well as the ability for non-citizens to own land. Weah argues that no foreign investor will do business in a country where they cannot own land. Weah is also willing to tackle entrenched notions of what it means to be Liberian, specifically the racial restriction on citizenship. Speaking on the issue, Weah maintains that, “we have nothing to fear from other races becoming citizens of Liberia. I recommend and propose that consideration be given to removing this clause from the constitution.”

Liberia's unique birth

The clause in question is a product of Liberia’s unique birth. The inclusion of a provision (Article V, Section 13) limiting suffrage to “persons of colour” was a reflection of the context in which Liberia was founded. Liberia was envisioned as a refuge for freed American slaves, who feared that giving non-blacks suffrage would only lead to whites once again exercising control.

By the 1830s, the practice of slavery in America had led to growing disquiet and calls by religious and abolitionist groups to find a solution to an issue which was eroding American society from within. Liberia was founded in 1847 as part of the ‘Back to Africa’ movement, which believed free blacks would have a better chance to protect their rights and freedoms if they returned to Africa.

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The American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded to establish an American colony in West Africa, with thousands of African-Americans making the journey to what became Liberia. To this day the capital of Liberia - Monrovia - harkens back to this colonial past, as it is named in honour of U.S President James Monroe, a staunch supporter of the ACS and its project in Liberia.

It is important to note that the arriving free blacks had nothing in common with the local Africans living in the region claimed by the ACS. Born in the United States and harbouring preconceptions about the superiority of republicanism and Protestantism, these black colonists remained at odds with the local tribes. This hostility led to the creation of an insular colonial society, which eventually became the Amero-Liberian community. Said community acted in a manner very similar to other colonial diaspora, viewing the local population with disdain. Consequently, despite Liberia’s raison d’être the local African population was denied citizenship until 1904.

Asians replace whites as spectre of subjugation

While the spectre of white domination never emerged in Liberia, there were still concerns that other minorities could usurp control of the country. One can argue that these concerns led in part to changes in the wording of Article V in 1955, when “persons of colour” was changed to “Negros, or persons of Negro descent.” While this change reflects changing racial vocabulary, it can also be seen as a means to more narrowly define the parameters of Liberian citizenship.

Given that many Asian individuals were categorized as persons of colour by various colonial administrations, Liberia’s continuing use of said term could have provided non-Africans with a means to exploit the gap between the constitution's de jure wording and de facto implementation.

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Such a scenario is no mere conjecture, as for decades there have been concerns about the role and influence of Asian communities in Liberia, specifically the Lebanese diaspora. Lebanese immigration to West Africa stretches over 150 years, with many fleeing economic crises in, and oppression by, the Ottoman Empire. This initial wave of immigrants was later joined by a larger exodus in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).

In the late 1970s, Liberia was host to some 17,000 Lebanese, and by 1984, some 30,000 Lebanese were also living in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Reporting on the influx of Lebanese into West Africa in 1984, the New York Times commented on the continued inclusion of the reworded 1955 amendment in the (at the time draft version) 1986 Liberian constitution:

“The Lebanese presence in Africa has also been highlighted by the publication of a new draft constitution in Liberia, which contains a provision that ''only persons who are Negroes or of Negro descent shall qualify by birth or by naturalization to be citizens. Many people say they believe the passage is specifically intended to prevent the many Lebanese in Liberia from acquiring citizenship.”

Concerns about the influx of Lebanese into the region and their growing economic influence have remained persistent for several decades; especially in Liberia, despite the country having one of the smallest Lebanese communities in West Africa, as many left the country following its descent into civil war.

Currently only between 3,000 - 4,000 Lebanese live in Liberia (compared to some 100,000 in Senegal) out of a total population of some four million. Despite this low number, many Liberians feel as threatened as they did during the height of Lebanese immigration several decades ago.

Long term Lebanese residents of Liberia, such as Tony Hage, who has lived in the country for fifty years, are used to hearing such concerns. Remarking on the changes in Lebanese immigration to Liberia and relations with the local population, Hage remains relaxed. “Lebanese people were all over in this country,” he reminisces “and it wasn’t any threat; and we have enjoyed living with Liberian people.”

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Nevertheless, President Weah’s efforts to remove any racial preconditions on Liberian citizenship have sparked an up-tick in fear mongering and anti-Lebanese sentiment in the country. “Every nation has a foundation on which it was built,” argues Fubbi Henries of the Citizens Action Against Non-Negro Citizenship and Land Ownership. “If you undermine that foundation, the nation will definitely crumble.” Henries’ arguments mirror those which have been repeated for decades.

Speaking on limiting citizenship to Negroes in 1984, a young Sierra Leonean businessman voiced concerns which could easily come from the mouths of contemporary activists. “It’s a good idea,” he states - “The Lebanese will always be Lebanese. They run everything, they have all the money and they have no respect for [Sierra Leoneans]. Liberia should be for Liberians and Sierra Leone for Sierra Leoneans.” Many continue to point to the business dealings of the Lebanese community as evidence for their disproportionate influence.

While often exaggerated, the role of the Lebanese in Liberia’s economy is a prominent one. Many of the country’s largest businesses and brands are owned by the country’s small Lebanese community (primarily centred in Monrovia). This influence can be seen in the aftermath of the racially motivated killing of two Lebanese in the capital in 2002. The solidarity shown by Monrovia’s Lebanese community (and other Asian immigrants, notably the Indian community) with the families of the victims saw business in the city grind to a halt on the day of the funeral.

For the economy of Liberia’s largest city to come to a halt does demonstrate the amount of economic clout wielded by this small community. While this tragic event occurred during the dying months of the civil war, prejudice against Lebanese does not exist on the margins of political life in Liberia.

The Lebanese bogeyman has long haunted Liberian politics

Fear mongering about the economic control exerted by Lebanese in Liberia often follows election cycles, with various politicians regularly accusing their rivals of being in the pocket of the Lebanese. This kind of dog whistle politicking only normalizes and reinforces existing prejudices against Lebanese and other non-Liberians in the country.

For instance, during the rule of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor ((1997-2003), Lebanese businessman George Haddad forged a close relationship with Taylor’s government, supplying the regime with major commodities and vehicles. Follow Taylor’s resignation, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (EJS) became president of Liberia. According to Globe Afrique columnist, Martin Kollie, EJS sought to differentiate herself from Taylor’s legacy, stating that “never will a Lebanese businessman have such power under my watch.”

Such a statement was surely tailored to playing to the mood of the Liberia electorate, although it is amusing to note that EJS’s grandfather was himself Lebanese, having moved to Liberia in 1912.

 E.J. Sirleaf's grandfather (right), in Lebanon with family and two visiting friends from Liberia. Source: The Africa Report

E.J. Sirleaf's grandfather (right), in Lebanon with family and two visiting friends from Liberia. Source: The Africa Report

Despite avowing change, Kollie argues that the EJS government followed in Taylor’s footsteps. Kollie points to the relationship between the government and Lebanese businessman George Abi Jaoudi, who had the backing of EJS’s sister, Jenny Bernard. Jaoudi owns GBK Motors, from which the Liberian government sourced vehicles: GBK also maintained and repaired government vehicles.

The National Port Authority was also said to have rented some of Jaoudi’s warehouses at the Freeport of Monrovia. Kollie also cites the 30 year tax holiday given to Jaoudi’s newly established Farmington Hotel as evidence of collusion; arguing that no Liberian-owned venture has ever received similar treatment.

During the 2005 presidential election (which EJS won), one candidate - Varney Sherman - came under attack for his work with the Lebanese community. Specifically, he was accused of aiding Lebanese individuals with their legal troubles, a fact which Sherman thought moot given that he works as a lawyer. His opponents maintained that the mere fact of having Lebanese clients made Sherman a stooge for Lebanese interests, going as far to claim that Sherman had promised to name a Lebanese vice-president. The fact that non-citizens (i.e. all Lebanese) cannot hold office seemed lost on his adversaries.

Conflicting claims have also dogged President Weah, who is claimed to have turned down some $2 million collected by the Lebanese community following his electoral victory in 2017. Conflicting reports exist as to whether this story is true, but a video claiming as much has become a viral sensation on Facebook, marking another chapter in the narrative of Lebanese influence peddling.

Weah’s running mate, vice president Jewel Howard Taylor (ex-wife of Charles Taylor) has also fuelled anti-Lebanese sentiment, warning in late February of the risk of frozen food and rice unfit for human consumption imported by Asian businessmen. “All the Lebanese people are saying that we are not serious because they are the ones bringing in imported rice that is giving us diabetes,” claims Taylor.

Such statements join claims that Lebanese and Indian businesses are inflating food prices to take advantage of the inability of Liberians to grow enough food locally. That being said Taylor’s comments regarding the safety of imported food come as one of the country’s largest grocers, the Abi Jaoudi Supermarket, faces a $75,000 fine for selling expired meat and other products.

It is within this context of prejudice and suspicion that demonstrations against expanding Liberian citizenship to peoples of all races are occurring. Fears about a potential usurpation of power by the Lebanese community are overblown, although the small group’s disproportionate clout invariably makes them a convenient scapegoat for the country’s problems.

Moreover, the fact that many Lebanese have long campaigned for the kinds of proposed changes (including the introduction of dual citizenship) being advocated by Weah, only makes Liberian nationalists more suspicious. The current legislative hurdles faced by the Lebanese (and other non-citizen communities) is such that many have opted to leave the country, rather than face the arduous annual renewal process for work and residency permits.

Lebanese businessman Abraham Farah is one of many calling for the implementation of dual citizenship so that individuals like himself can become citizens. Farah is married to a Liberian woman and has biracial children, but still faces the prospect of being separated from them should his annual permit renewals be denied.

Both of my parents are Lebanese, but I was born in Liberia and lived all my life here but the constitution says one of your parents have to be of Negro descent and its not fair for me to be called a foreigner [...] You don’t choose your parents. I did not choose both of my parents to be Lebanese, neither did I choose to be born in Liberia.”

Conclusion

Many Liberians see George Weah as the country’s best chance to emerge from years of economic stagnation. Still bearing the wounds of two civil wars and the recent Ebola pandemic, Liberia needs all the help it can get in order to progress. To this end, Weah is looking to make Liberia more friendly to foreign investors, which entails giving them the right to own land. In a certain sense, Liberia has already been host to an entire group of foreign investors for decades - the Lebanese community.

While Weah wants Liberia to live up to its name, many point to the close ties between the country’s political establishment and the Lebanese community as evidence that the tiny group is already pulling the strings behind the scenes. Critics maintain that giving non-Africans citizenship will only finalize the country’s takeover by outsiders.

Despite being denied citizenship, the Lebanese community has worked hard to create many of the country’s most successful businesses and brands. This success has led to suspicion and scapegoatism, as fears about foreign usurpers run to the core of Liberian identity. Weah’s proposal to scrap the country’s long-standing racial prerequisites on citizenship is an effort to make the country more inclusive and thereby allow all residents to realize their full potential.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.