George Weah’s agenda for constitutional reform in Liberia: The incentives for prioritizing citizenship
President Weah has expressed strong support for the legalization of dual-citizenship for Liberians and the possible granting of Liberian citizenship to non-Negroes. While he might have personal and political incentives, the urgency his administration gives to these issues presents perhaps renewed opportunities to reopen debates on constitutional reform broadly- writes Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei.
In his first State of the Nation address on 29 January 2018, new President George Weah proclaimed that the constitutional reform process will be revisited and particularly singled out reforms regarding the constitutional citizenship clause as demanding urgent attention. In 2012, Liberia launched a major constitutional review process with the establishment of a Constitution Review Committee whose mandate was ‘to examine constructively the Constitution of the Republic and lead a process that will produce appropriate constitutional amendment(s)’. The Committee’s work was carried out over a three-year period (2012 - 2015) and included consultations across the country with local citizens, seminar with experts, and diaspora consultations in Europe and the United States. A national conference was held in 2015 to decide on the key issues for referendum. The national conference, like some of the consultations, was marred by contentious arguments over issues of citizenship and the proclamation of a Christian religious identity for the state. While there were salient issues regarding political and service delivery reforms, religion and citizenship remain the most contentious and polarizing elements of the constitutional reform discourse in Liberia.
The state of the reform process: stalled or deferred?
After three years of public consultations, including a major national conference at which delegates decided on issues that will form part of the constitutional reform, a report was forwarded to the legislature by then President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, following which a Referendum Bill was drafted and passed by the House of Representatives in 2016. The Bill still awaits the concurrence of the Senate more than a year after its approval in the House. Liberia’s bi-cameral legislative process demands that every bill is endorsed by both houses and approved by the President before becoming a law.
The fact that the former president was not a candidate was a great political capital in her favour to push much needed constitutional reforms.
Since the process remained inconclusive up to the 2017 general and presidential elections, the much anticipated changes to the years of tenure of elected officials and the election of local government officials did not take place during the 2017 general and presidential elections.
Advocates had proposed earlier that the 2017 transition be the opportune moment to achieve these proposed changes since then President Ellen Johnson-Sirelaf was no longer eligible for re-election. The fact that she was not a candidate was a great political capital in her favour to push much needed constitutional reforms. But it remains unclear why much priority wasn’t attached to constitutional reform even when the country was about to experience a major transition and a milestone in its post-war development. There was an apparent lack of political will at both the Presidency and the Legislature. Besides the bad state of the economy, which ultimately became her key priority, President Sirleaf was also arguably avoiding further controversy in her last days regarding the polarizing elements of the reform.
The legislature was also perhaps apathetic to certain constitutional reform proposals. A number of them were apparently threatened by proposed reduction in their tenure, leading to prolonged debates on this issue. While Senators and Representatives currently serve nine-year and six-year tenures respectively, delegates at the constitutional conference proposed a tenure of six-year and four-year for the Senate and House respectively.
At the National Elections Commission (NEC), there were capacity and resource constraints. Already burdened by the huge task of organizing Legislative and Presidential elections in 2017, a senior member of the House of Representative announced that the NEC was unable to conduct a referendum alongside these elections due to financial constraints.
It remains a puzzle why the constitutional reform did not feature as key electoral issue for the major parties during the 2017 electoral campaign.
By the end of Sirleaf’s 12-year rule, the constitution referendum bill was still held up in the Legislature. But considering their polarizing nature and the extent to which opinion was divided on the issues for constitutional reform from 2012 through 2015, it remains a puzzle why the same issues did not feature as key electoral issues for the major parties during the 2017 electoral campaign. With the country overshadowed by debates for a new President and House of Representatives, a faltering economy and declining living standards, public discourse on the constitutional reform issues were outshined and the general momentum for a new constitution faded slowly. But plans for constitutional reform in President Weah’s first State of the Nation Address may open possibilities for broad constitutional reforms.
President Weah’s agenda for constitutional reform
The newly inaugurated government of President George Weah seems prepared to reopen the debate and perhaps support the conduct of a referendum in the short-to-medium term. During his first State of the Nation Address before the joint-sitting of the Legislature, Weah revealed his plans to support the constitutional reform exercise by calling on the Legislature to ‘re-visit the work of the Commission [Constitution Review Committee] in light of new, and existing, realities, in the best interest of our people and Nation’. He seems particularly interested in dealing with the question of citizenship, which for the most part has featured prominently in contemporary political discourses in Liberia. For President Weah, the allowance of dual citizenship and possible granting of citizenship to non-negroes are the ‘most urgent and imperative agenda’ of his presidency.
Dual Citizenship: The political and personal incentives for Weah
President Weah has expressed strong support for the legalization of dual-citizenship for Liberians, in particular those in the diaspora who due to certain circumstances such as civil war back home were forced to acquire foreign citizenship. Under the Alien and Nationality Law, anyone who ‘upon his own application’ takes up foreign citizenship loses their Liberian citizenship. Thousands of Liberians in the diaspora are affected by this law, and over the years they have led numerous campaigns locally and internationally to regain their Liberian citizenship while retaining the citizenship of their host countries. Attempts by the government since 2007 to ease this restriction failed several times at the Legislature. There was also strong resentment against the allowance of dual citizenship during the constitutional reform exercise and delegates at the constitutional conference voted against the proposal.
With the current legal restriction on the holding of dual citizenship for Liberians, close political allies of Weah and members of his immediate family are legally unqualified to benefit from privileges reserved for Liberians.
But according to George Weah, many Liberians in the diaspora have heard his ‘clarion call to return home and bring their energies, skills, talents, and expertise to join us in the building of a New Liberia’. He has sounded out what is perhaps his first cri de coeur that people of Liberian descent wishing to regain their Liberian citizenship ‘be welcomed back home with open arms’.
Besides his agenda to benefit from the skills and talents from diaspora Liberians, there are also some political and personal incentives driving this issue as a pressing priority for his administration. Weah’s party, the Congress for Democratic Change, was founded by Liberians in the diaspora with the aim of returning home with a new generation of political leaders inspired by Western ideas of government and free market economy. The CDC has maintained a strong tie with its diaspora base since its establishment in 2004.
Personally, Weah himself has repeatedly been haunted by allegations of holding foreign citizenship. During the 2005 election, he was accused of being a naturalized French citizen, and during the 2017 election, a naturalized American citizen. He denied the accusations. But his close relatives are now under the radar for holding foreign citizenship. His wife is an American of Jamaican descent, while one of his sons has signed up to play soccer for the United States of America. Given that his wife is of Negro descent, she is eligible to apply for Liberian citizenship after meeting immigration requirements, which includes denouncing all other nationalities.
Weah: The ‘Negro Clause’ of the Constitution is ‘unnecessary, racist, and inappropriate’ to contemporary realities.
With the current legal restriction on the holding of dual citizenship for Liberians, close political allies of Weah and members of his immediate family are legally unqualified to benefit from privileges reserved for Liberians such as appointment to cabinet positions and other political offices, and owning a Liberian passport.
The Removal of the ‘Negro Clause’: What’s in it for Weah?
Citizenship in Liberia is restricted to only people of Negro descent, and this restriction traces its roots to the circumstances under which the country was established as a haven for liberated black men and women previously enslaved in North America. During the Constitutional Convention of 1847, delegates decided that ‘none but persons of color shall be admitted to the citizenship of this Republic’. This principle, popularly known in Liberia as the ‘Negro Clause’, was reaffirmed in the 1986 Constitution which provides that ‘…only persons who are Negroes or of Negro descent shall qualify by birth or by naturalization to be citizens of Liberia’. This provision has polarized debates between Liberians who insist it remains as a protectionary clause against foreign occupation and those who see it as openly racist and outdated.
President Weah has taken a side declaring the ‘Negro Clause’ of the Constitution ‘unnecessary, racist, and inappropriate’ to contemporary realities. According to him, the conditions that led to its inclusion in the founding constitution no longer exist. In addition, he also seeks to remove restriction on the right to own land which the constitution reserves as an exclusive right for Liberian citizens only.
Weah enjoys a huge wave of support across the country and a legislature led by his supporters.
Weah’s ideas appear to be driven by his proclamation of a free market policy and are consistent with his initial call to foreign investors to seek opportunities in Liberia. With the Liberian government heavily reliant on rents from foreign investors in mining and forestry and plantation agriculture, there are opportunities in his new agenda to generate more rents for government in these sectors, and to sell large swathes of public land to generate revenue for government in the short-term. Hence, according to Weah, the ‘Negro Clause’ and the restriction on property ownership are ‘serious impediments to the development and progress of this country’.
But advocates for the Negro clause argue that the threats of foreign dominance persist through the economy and could be severe if non-negroes with comparative financial advantage are granted citizenship and the right to buy and own large tracks of land and other properties. Some critics also argue that citizenship is not the most urgent issue affecting development and the economy in Liberia.
The opportunities for broader constitutional reform
The current government’s ‘urgent and imperative agenda’ to answer the citizenship questions through President Weah’s proposals presents perhaps renewed opportunities to reopen debates on constitutional reform broadly. With his expressed commitment to these issues and the renewed political will, it is likely that Weah would use this legislative sitting to ensure the Referendum Bill is passed by the Senate - currently led by Weah’s supporters - and approved by his office. This could take the country to a referendum sooner than expected.
How Weah leverages his current political capital to successfully get through a popularly resented citizenship reform would prove a major test of his leadership.
Weah has also openly supported decentralization of power and authority to local tiers of the state. Indeed, during the State of the Nation Address, he indicated that he would request the drafting of ‘legislation that will focus on the decentralisation of institutions and systems of governance. Proposals for the election of local officials, and the reduction in years of tenure for the president and legislators, were also popular during the constitutional reform deliberations. Adding these issues to the ‘urgent and imperative agenda’ and campaigning for their enactment could generate some level of support for Weah’s citizenship reform agenda within the civil society movement who advocate more for decentralization and reduction in years of tenure.
To his advantage currently is a huge wave of support across the country and a legislature led by his supporters. How Weah leverages his current political capital to successfully get through a popularly resented citizenship reform would prove a major test of his leadership.
Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei is a Liberian activist, political commentator and blogger. He is currently a PhD Candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.