Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Xenophobia Crisis In Ivory Coast: A Lesson For Liberia

By Arthur B. Dennis - MPA, MSW

In the context of mental health, the term “xenophobia” refers to people who fear strangers. However, when used in a broad political context, the term “xenophobia” refers to people in a given community or country who, motivated by patriotism, fear sharing their citizenship, land, or other vital collective interests with foreigners. In this article, the term “xenophobia” is used to refer to the latter definition.

The Crisis in Ivory Coast

The crisis in Ivory Coast is a drama of political leaders playing the xenophobia card to divide the tribes and rule. According to the story, presidential aspirant Alassane Ouattara and his supporters hail from the North, which shares common borders with Burkina Faso. There are claims that they are foreigners because (1) their ancestors originated from Burkina Faso; (2) they share the exact same names with people in Burkina Faso; and (3) they hold strong family ties with people in Burkina Faso. Yet, no reference is made to people at Dianne borders who also share family ties with people in Nimba County. No reference is made also to people in Giuglo, Juloblee and other border towns who share similar family ties with people in Eastern Liberia.
According to an Ivorian exiled Activist, Kamagate, since independence in 1960, the nation’s citizenship laws have been changing under the slogan “Ivority” designed to distinguish between native-born Ivorian citizens and foreigners. At independence, applicants for citizenship were required to have one parent who must be a native Ivorian or the applicant must be in residence in country for a minimum of five years. Later, another provision was added, granting citizenship to children born to aliens residing in Ivory Coast. Thereafter, every Ivorian was required to carry a citizenship card.

But soon after Konah Bedie became President, fearing Ouattara’s popularity, he altered the constitution, requiring that one of the parents of a presidential candidate must be at least a native born-Ivorian. In effect, Ivorians were required again to carry new citizenship cards. In the process, people whose names were associated with the North must provide birth certificates and other genuine medical documents to prove citizenship or be treated as foreigners. Even lands owned in the South by Northerners were seized on the ground that they were foreigners. Kamagte said at times security officers would destroy citizenship cards bearing names associated with people in the North.

To make matter worse, when General Robert Guei seized power, Kamagate said, he altered the constitution again maintaining that for a person to run for president, his parents must both be Ivorian citizens born in Ivory Coast. For his part, Ouattara has maintained that he was born in Ivory Coast and that his parents are both Ivorian citizens. Observers believe if Ouattara had pushed for a dual citizenship law when he was Prime Minister (1990-1993), the xenophobia ghost would not have hunted him today. However, we hope public officials in Liberia will learn lessons from this critical error of judgment.

A Lesson for Liberia

Liberia's xenophobia crisis began August 31, 1822; when armed hostilities erupted between the vernacular-speaking natives and the Americo-Liberian settlers. In that war, the natives claimed that the Americo-Liberians were foreigners and therefore they should leave their land. During the constitutional convention in June of 1847, the natives were marginalized on the ground that they were foreigners not only because of their hostilities towards the settlers but also because the doctrines of their local religions were totally alien to Christianity - the religion of the settlers.
In 1862, the Liberian Supreme Court ruled that the natives were not citizens of Liberia. At the time of Liberia’s independence in 1847, the 40-mile coastal zone was adopted, constituting the nation’s territorial limits; the rest of the landmark, comprising Bong, Loaf, Nimba, and Grand Gedeh counties today, was probably believed to be inhabited by people declared foreigners by the 1862 Supreme Court. In the 1932 Sasstown rebellion, the Krus claimed that the ruling Americo-Liberians were foreigners and forcing the natives to pay taxes to a government in which they had no participation.

However, much to the surprise of historians, the native Liberians were also playing the xenophobia card among themselves, using the same arguments used in Ivory Coast to stereotype the Northerners. For example, members of the Mende ethnic group in Liberia are being stereotyped as foreigners from Sierra Leone, while the Mandingoes are being regarded as citizens of Guinea, not Liberia. There are claims that members of these ethnic groups bear foreign names and hold family ties to certain ethnic groups across the borders. Yet, no reference is made to members of the Kissi ethnic group who hold family ties in Sierra Leone and Guinea. No reference is made also to members of the Lorma and Mano ethnic groups who family ties in Guinea; and no reference is made to members of the Gio, Krahn and other tribal groups in Eastern Liberia who family ties in Ivory Coast. However, history differs with these claims and provides the following for reference.

History of the Liberian People

Liberia is a land of immigrants, and the four immigrant groups recognized in world’s history as “Liberians” include the Mel Group, comprising Gola and Kissi ethnic groups, which migrated to Liberia by way of Sierra Leone. The Kwa Group, whose origins can be traced to Mozambique in pre-dynasty times, consists of the Dei, Kru, Krahn, Grebo, Gbee, and Belle. The Mande Group, which migrated from Sudan, Mali, Senegal and Guinea, comprises the Vai, Mandingo, Gbandi, Kpelle, Lorma, Mende, Gio and Mano ethnic groups. The Settlers Group, which arrived from the United States, comprises liberated African- American slaves as well as freed slaves from Barbados.
The first ethnic group that arrived and settled in Liberia were the Deis. The second to arrive were the Golas followed by the Vais and Mandingoes. The Krahns, Gio, Grebos, Krus, Bassa and others came to Liberia by way of Ivory Coast. The Lorma and Mano ethnic groups came to Liberia by way of Guinea. The Mendes, Gbandis, Kissis and other ethnic groups migrated to Liberia by way of Sierra Leone. The last people to arrive in were the Americo-Liberians and freed slaves from Barbados. According to the science of genetic genealogy, those who are born today to parents of each of these ethnic groups are descendants of their ancestors who migrated to Liberia. Thus, by status of citizenship, each descendant is a citizen of Liberia by birth and also a citizen by descent in the country of his ancestors. For example, if the ancestors of the Kru ethnic group originated from Mozambique, then every Kru man today holds dual citizenship - that is, he a is citizen of Liberia by birth and by genealogy he is a citizen of Mozambique by descent.

Bearing Foreign Names

Most Liberians bearing foreign names may have acquired those names from their ancestors or one of their parents in a family who is a foreign citizen. A family in which one parent is a foreign citizen and the other parent is a local citizen mushrooms out of cross-border and inter-state marriages. Cross-border marriages take place between citizens in border towns linking Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. In tribal culture, such marriages begin with dating between males and females on both sides of the divide who meet at special occasions such as market days, festivities, wedding and funeral ceremonies. People in border towns of other countries are involved in the same inter- marriages, and the practice has been around since human beings were created.
In contrast, inter-state marriages mostly take place between people living in large cities of countries. For example, some Liberians prefer getting spouses from other countries or from the countries of their ancestors. At the end of the day, children born to such parents have always ended up with dual citizenship along with similar names used on both sides of the divide.

Family Ties to People in Foreign States

According to the genogram of each immigrant group in Liberia, members of the Vai, Gola, Mende , Kissi, and Gbandi ethnic groups have family ties in Sierra Leone because history believes they and similar ethnic groups in that country are descendants of the same ancestors. The same is true for members of the Kissi, Mandingo, Belle, Kpelle, and Mano ethnic groups who have family ties in Guinea and other countries. The same is also true for members of the Gio, Krahn, Grebo, Bassa, and Kru ethnic groups who have family ties in Ivory Coast and elsewhere. The Americo- Liberians also have family ties in America because their ancestors migrated from there and probably left families behind. Now, with these hard realities, is there any indigenous Liberian at home or abroad who holds a unitary citizenship with no foreign connection? Please speak out now or hold your peace forever.

Concluding Comments

It is clear that “citizenship” is at the heart of the Ivorian xenophobia crisis, and we hope it would be a lesson for Liberia. The starting point is to remember that by virtue of our genealogy, all of us hold dual citizenship. Moreover, since dual citizenship can be acquired by treaty, we should also remember that all of us hold multiple citizenships under the ECOWAS Treaty. Under this Treaty, ECOWAS citizens have the rights to stay or travel freely in ECOWAS member states. Therefore, the dual citizenship proposal is only intended to guarantee our protection under the law. Under the Dual Citizenship Law, members of the local ethnic groups who hold dual citizenship by descent or foreign parentage as well as Liberians who now hold dual citizenship in the Diasporas will be duly protected against future xenophobia stereotype which has long been the source of ethnic rivalries in Liberia.

“MAY GOD BLESS LIBERIA.”

Note: The Author has no more ambition of returning to public service. Therefore, his support for dual citizenship is not motivated by any political agenda.

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