If you have an innocent, trusting and wholly believing mind you could be forgiven that since the white government of old Rhodesia was toppled and the apartheid regime in South Africa was forced to surrender that the vile stain of racism had been erased in Africa.
So if you happily exist in this blissful state it may well come as a considerable shock to learn that the BBC – not a notably extreme right-wing outfit – recently ran a story headed, “The country where citizenship depends on your skin colour”.
The country is Liberia. Ironically, the country’s name derives from the Latin word liber meaning free.
Facing the north Atlantic in western Africa, Liberia is surrounded by the former British colony of Sierra Leone and the former French colonies of Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). It has a population of about 4.5 million and occupies about 111,369 square kilometres. The official language is English.
Unique among all African countries, Liberia was founded by the American Colonisation Society in 1821 as a place for freed African slaves in the USA and some 10,000 emigrated there. The country declared independence in 1847 and managed through the 19th century and early 20th century to resist the voracious appetites for colonies by European nations because of its links to the USA. The capital, Monrovia, is named after the 5th US President James Monroe (1817-1825).
But that is where its unique history in Africa ends.
In recent years it has been wracked by a savage civil war which cost at least 250,000 lives – not to mention the many hundreds of thousands who fled – rampant corruption, brutal dictatorships, military coups and, if that wasn’t enough, the deadly Ebola epidemic in 2014. The current unemployment rate is 85% and, in a recent survey, about 90% of people said that they had to pay a bribe to government officials, police or the military just to have a relatively peaceful life.
Sadly, this has been the pattern of history through post-colonial Africa. But what prompted the BBC to condemn the country as racist?
When the country was founded and its constitution was created, a clause was inserted restricting citizenship to just those of African descent and to create “a refuge and a haven for freed men of colour”.
More than 170 years later, that constitutional clause still stands. However the new President George Weah who was only inaugurated in January has described the clause as “unnecessary, racist and inappropriate” and has vowed to try and remove it. According to the BBC report, “the pronouncement has sent shockwaves through some parts of Liberia”.
The BBC reporter spoke with successful businessman Tony Hage who has lived in Liberia all of his life. He loves the country he calls his home and it is where he met his wife and established his business. But he is barred from becoming a citizen because of the colour of his skin and his family’s links to Lebanon.
Back in the 1970s before the country’s descent into civil war the Lebanese community was 17,000 strong – today it is barely 3,000 – yet this resourceful small minority owns some of the country’s best businesses and keeps its fragile economy barely alive. Despite a wealth of natural resources, Liberia is ranked 225 out of 228 countries when it comes to average annual income per person – about $AU1,000.
President Weah certainly has his work cut out if he wants to change the constitution or even make life somewhat easier for non-African residents. His critics point out that this sudden policy announcement came after his election and not before which they find anywhere between surprising and disgraceful.
A new and growing advocacy group, Citizens’ Action Against Non-Negro Citizenship and Land Ownership has been formed to fight the President.
The group’s leader Fubbi Henries told the BBC, “Every nation has a foundation on which it was built – if you undermine that foundation, the nation will definitely crumble. Right now the prime focus is how to get our businesses on track, our agricultural and educational sectors on track, not citizenship or land ownership to non-Negroes.”
Mr Henries believes that changing the law would be like putting a two-year-old boy – Liberians – and a 45-year-old man – outsiders – in a boxing ring and seeing if they could have a fair fight. “He will take undue advantage over that little child,” he said.
Black businessman Rufus Oulagbo, a strong opponent of the President, told the BBC, “White people will definitely enslave black Liberians” and that any move to change the existing Constitution would “damage Liberians’ chances to develop their own country.” It would be “dangerous” to allow people from other countries to own property.
Just why he thinks that whites – or anybody else for that matter – would want to live in his dangerous and ramshackle country was not explained. Perhaps the BBC was too sensitive or shy to ask.
Before the country’s slide into hell, the International Hotels chain built in 1960 and then operated the famous five-star Ducor Palace Hotel in the capital. It had 106 rooms on eight floors, tennis courts, swimming pool and a celebrated French restaurant complete with a Chef from Paris. It attracted tourists from around the world.
In 1989, as unrest spread it was closed. During and after the long civil war it was extensively damaged and then looted and then occupied by squatters. Today it is an overgrown and crumbling wreck and half-hearted attempts to restore it have failed.
And to add just another unhappy layer of racism in the country, there are Africans and there are Africans. The descendents of the original freed slaves now comprise about 5% of the population and regard themselves more or less as the aristocracy and hold a tight grip on key assets and positions.
The Ducor Palace Hotel is a metaphor for the whole sad country. As the BBC reports, “Corruption is rife, and unemployment and illiteracy are endemic.”
The Australian Government via Smarttraveller.gov.au advises that prospective visitors should exercise a “high degree of caution” due to the “unpredictable security situation and high crime rate” which is public-service-speak for “Stay the hell away”.
Who could disagree?