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The colour of racism

By Russell Grenning - posted Monday, 14 May 2018

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. 

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About the Author

Russell Grenning is a retired political adviser and journalist who began his career at the ABC in 1968 and subsequently worked for the then Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph and later as a columnist for The Courier Mail and The Australian.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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