The latest round of the Christian state and citizenship controversies in Liberia’s Constitutional Reform Process


By Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei, 24 September 2015
Liberian President Sirleaf with members of the Constitutional Review Committee (photo credit: Buzz Liberia)
Liberian President Sirleaf with members of the Constitutional Review Committee (photo credit: Buzz Liberia)

The much-anticipated constitutional reform, which is predicted to bring about radical political changes before the 2017 elections, has taken a controversial turn. In a recent letter, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf sharply differed with delegates at the National Constitutional Conference, who put forth recommendations on the key issues for constitutional reform:

“I have studied the suggested proposals and believe some of the proposals are in harmony with our National Vision and would foster National Unity; while others, though worthy of positive consideration, are more suited for inclusion in the statutes and in other instruments of public policy; and yet others are inimical to the best interest of the Republic”

Interestingly, the key issues of contention over the last three years since the launch of the constitution review process have resurfaced at the heart of the contestation between the President and the people.  Citizenship, property, tenure of elected officials and the Christian state proposal remain Liberia’s key constitutional reform issues to date and were identified by delegates at the constitutional conference as matters to be included in the new constitution. However, the President disagrees with delegates on the citizenship and Christian state proposals. She also found that some of the issues, like property rights should rather be left to ordinary policy and statute, despite the people’s will for the entrenchment of such rights in the constitution. How Liberian stakeholders – in particular Liberia’s legislators – approach these issues is a question that remains critical to the long-term peace and stability of the nation.

Constitutional Reform so far

From March 29 to April 2, 2015 about 500 delegates from across the country and the diaspora met at the National Constitutional Conference in the city of Gbarnga and voted on issues they considered key for constitutional reform. The Conference was organized by the Constitution Review Committee (CRC) as a grand and final consultative forum to discuss and validate 25 recurrent views that emerged from previous district consultative forums. Consultations on constitutional reform began in 2012 when President Sirleaf appointed the CRC with the mandate of working with the people through consultations to review the 1986 constitution and recommend proposals for amendment. The recommended proposal will have to be approved by the legislature before going to a national referendum.

In August 2015, the CRC presented its report with the outcome of the voting from the Conference to the President for consideration and onward submission to the legislature.

Disagreement over citizenship: Widening the division?

Citizenship remains a contentious concept, and has plagued attempts at reconciliation since the cessation of hostilities in the country in 2003. A large number of diaspora Liberians are seeking to regain their citizenship, which they lost as a result of obtaining citizenship in other countries during the war. Despite successive campaigns by diaspora organizations, led by the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, diaspora Liberians have not succeeded getting a dual citizenship bill passed since their campaigns officially began in 2007 with the introduction of a dual citizenship bill in the Legislature.

Many Liberians oppose dual citizenship as they see citizenship as a “protection of the local job market for less-opportune homeland Liberians and preservation of loyalty to the State”.  In addition to the diaspora, there is a significant amount of non-Negro foreign residents wanting to obtain Liberian citizenship. These people are barred by the current Constitution, which states that only people of ‘Negro descent’ can be Liberian citizens. Successive campaigns since the 1980s have failed to amend this provision. The campaigns regained currency however during the recent deliberations on constitutional reforms. An analyst at the CRC suggests that some donors have threatened to withdraw financial support if Liberia does not open up its citizenship requirement to people of all races. Both the dual citizenship proposal and removal of the Negro clause proposal were snubbed by delegates at the Conference.

Many Liberians are afraid that opening up citizenship to non-Negroes could pave the way for non-Negroes to take over the local economy and buy large tracts of land thereby putting natives in disadvantageous positions. The President disagrees and argues that the Negro clause is ‘anachronistic’ and ‘racist’, while the denial of dual citizenship is ‘incomprehensible’. For her, it is about time that Liberians ‘reciprocate the level of acceptance our nationals receive in foreign lands’ by allowing people of all races to become citizens and also allowing Liberians and people of Liberian origin to gain dual citizenship. This position by the President has come to clarify cloudy issues around the dual citizenship proposal which many thought was intended to allow people of other origins to gain Liberian citizenship. The discussion, from the President’s point of view should now be narrowed to people of Liberian origin.

The Unifiers - Property Rights

The Conference recognized key property rights issues as matters to be included in the new constitution, with a focus on private ownership of mineral resources on landed properties, the recognition of customary land rights and the inclusion of communities in commercial negotiations on landed properties. Claims and counter-claims over land and resources have been sources of recurrent tensions between land owning communities and the government and private investors. Local communities, especially those affected by concession projects, believe that they have been short-changed over time and their resources have been exploited without corresponding benefits. Thus, at the Gbarnga Conference they pushed for a constitutional guarantee of their rights over their lands and the inherent mineral resources.

Recent policy and legal reforms on land rights have recognized  customary land ownership rights; for example the Land Rights Policy (2013), and Community Rights Law (2009), place a premium on the inclusion of communities in investment negotiations. Yet, the President rejected the delegates’ attempt to ensure a constitutional guarantee of those rights fearing future repeal of statutes and policies. In as much she concurred with the recognition of rights, she believes that mineral resources, unlike land surface rights, should remain the preserve of the state from which the government usually obtains rents, and that existing rights provided for in statutes and policies should remain in their respective places. The failure to have a clear constitutional article on the land rights of local communities, particularly those with potential for investment, will continue to pose threats to the tenure and security of those communities as successive governments since the 1950s have amended land rights laws repeatedly for the purposes of expropriation and commercialization.

Rejecting Christian Nation: Could this silence the extremists?

The highly controversial campaign to define Liberia in the new constitution as a ‘Christian Nation’ was also opposed by the President, who in her letter to the Senate described the proposal as ‘antithetical’ to the interest of the nation and ‘could foment division amongst our people based on religious belief’. This adds to the numerous criticisms this proposal has triggered from across the board, including by key Christian leaders and leading politicians. The key points of departure on citizenship would continue to haunt the reform process in Liberia, and on the issue of ‘Christian Nation’, considering how this proposal has been beleaguered by Muslims and Christians alike, it is likely that the dust will soon set, finally nailing what key opinion and religious leaders have termed ‘divisive’ in support of a more inclusive constitution.

Tenure of elected officials

Lastly, an issue where the President shares the views of the people concerns the tenure and election of local government officials. The President concurred that the tenure of the Senate should be reduced to six years, the House of Representative to four years and the President to four years and that local government officials should be elected in support of the country’s National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance. These proposals, when passed in any future referendum, would radically change the institutional structure of the Liberian state and facilitate the creation of new channels and mechanisms for accountability. Local government officials will now be accountable to their local citizens, and the frequency of elections for public offices would give more opportunities for the people to change their officials in a short time. 

What the legislative deliberations might bring?

Initial reactions from some members of the legislature present symptoms of a rocky path ahead on the constitutional reform proposals. In a general reaction to the President, Senator Jonathan Kaipay of Grand Bassa County has accused the president of interfering with the people’s mandate and thus violating key articles of the constitution by not submitting the proposals verbatim for legislative actions, and then referendum. For example, he claimed that the President violated Article 1 of the constitution, which provides that ‘all power is inherent in the people’.

The dual citizenship bill has been tested in the past without success, but this will be the first time the Negro clause will be debated since the end of the war. However, with allegations that there are numerous lawmakers with either American or European citizenship in the legislature, and with the backing of the President, “a dual citizenship proposition is likely to pass through the legislature and be proposed in the referendum. However, there are doubts about the possibility of the success of the removal of the Negro Clause” according to Amos Tweh, Youth Leader of the governing Unity Party.

On the issue of tenure reduction, a consensus between the President and the people, a tough resistance from the legislature is expected as they are the key beneficiaries of long years of tenure, six years and nine years for members of the House of Representatives and Senate respectively. However, some political activists believe that this could also pass given the emerging pressure from citizens against long years of tenure. Jefferson Koijee, Youth Leader of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change, for instance, suggests that “some lawmakers have already began to oppose the proposal, but the majority are likely to get it to pass through, and this is because it won’t affect their current tenure, and also because of mounting pressure from the citizens”.    

The fate of the Christian Nation proposal in the legislature remains to be an open question. The Speaker of the House of Representatives first opposed the initiative in his opening address at the Conference in Gbarnga, when in a preemptive move, he told delegates that ‘Liberia was never a Christian state’. Following the Conference, key officials of the legislature, including the president pro-tempore of the Senate, also condemned the campaign for a ‘Christian Nation’. However, there are some lawmakers, who dating back to 2013, joined a campaign to fast-track a legislative process towards constitutional reform in favor of a Christian State.

As the Legislature has not begun deliberations on the content of the President’s letter, neither have there been any constitutional amendment propositions, the position of the Legislature or its respective political blocs is yet to be seen. Considering that the legislature is expected to close this sitting in October, what is now known is that Liberians will not go to vote in a referendum anytime in 2016 as was widely expected. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.

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