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Lessons and Reflections on the Past Present and Future from Liberia


Citizenship and Regional Integration

-Liberia and the West African Sub-Region


By Alhaji G.V. Kromah

(BA, LL.B., LL.M., MA, MAIR, SJD (cand.)


Presented at the National Seminar on Regional Integration

UNESCO’s Movement of Social Transformation (MOST) Program Monrovia, Liberia

January 2008



A Citizen is considered, among other descriptions, a "person owing loyalty to and entitled by birth or naturalization to the protection of a state or nation."(1) Traditional characteristics of the nation-state, such as a permanent population within a defined territory in the study of international relations, establish a direct relationship between the citizen (national) and the state. Determining how the individual is identified within or accedes to this definitional status of citizenship has had fundamental implications for population integration and politico-economic stability.

Where psycho-socio factors have featured strongly in the evolution of a nation-state, growing, for example, out of experiences of servitude or colonialism, the challenge has involved the establishing of constitutional safeguards against racial domination from the outside, in one part, and then the need to harmonize coterminous but different ethnic and class collectivities. In the case of Liberia, where Black emigrants mostly from the Western World formed the first government, the vestiges of racial alienation in their places of former habitat showed up in the Constitution, which declares that only people of Negroid descent can be citizens. The Liberian American experience is still taking time to benefit the nation in integrating its own diverse citizenry. Persistent ethnic/religious and attitudinal exclusions in the oldest Republic, a phenomenon present in a number of other nation-states in the sub-region, have taken their toll on integration and political steadiness.

This paper undertakes a brief survey of the effects of colonial intrusion into the socio-cultural and political growth patterns of West Africa, and the effect of the history of external racial discrimination on the character of citizenship in the sub-region, using Liberia as a pointer. The study examines the legal and attitudinal structures of post-independence nationality and the impact on political stability and the prospects for economic growth and development.


The 19th century colonial dividing of Africa posed a dual challenge for the peoples of Africa in dealing with the question of who is a ‘citizen.’ Cultural Nations were geo-politically partitioned into colonies, an artificial attempt to create pockets of the same ethnic group spanning territorial boundaries. Self-rule advocates recognized the ethnic configuration that obtained within the colonial territories during their political campaigns for post independence leadership. They however evidently did not prioritize the complexities ethnology versus nationality would pose after independence. Fear of racial dominance from their overseas and colonial experiences constituted the most significant motivation when national laws were crafted to address the issue of who passes as a citizen in the new nation-states. Legacies of pre-independence events, the skewed portrayal of certain socio-cultural norms and reactions to religious affiliation tended in important ways to emasculate the capacity of the values ethnicity.

The concept of citizenship has for the most part of history been subordinate to the concept of nations of people. The state and its nationality precept emerged in Europe between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries following the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, notwithstanding the vibrant impressions portrayed by the status of the citizen in ancient Greek and Roman city-states. Up to and for many years after the Berlin Agreement of 1884-85 partitioning Africa as colonies among European powers, cultural nations and not national boundaries continued to identify peoples in Sub-Sahara Africa. Ethnic/linguistic groupings dictated territorial patterns. Sundiata Keita and Mansa Musa and their Malinke Ethnic clusters ruled the Mali and Songhay Empires up to the 13th century, rising to international fame.

Proponents of an African "superculture" even generously designate the ethnology of the Continent as nothing but one race – Black. They refer to distinctions among the numerous ethnic/languages as artificial. The African Unity Front organization advocates that Africa is one ‘nation’ and that the continent is a product of an old process of ancient national alliances.(2) This African nation, the group argues, has remarkable internal consistency, despite the many manifestations of its culture, with complementary linguistic and genetic profiles. Black Africans soon show these distinctive traits when placed in non-African communities. The AUF proposes that the major language categories of Africa are all generally extensions of one language source - the now extinct proto-Kordofanian. (3).

Colonial decimation of the continent geographically, using rivers and other topographical ranges as points of separation, clearly bypassed the burden of dealing with the diverse and yet complimentary socio-cultural configuration of the African nation(s). Britain and France were engrossed in a rat race for control over the landmass and its resources. Anthropological and sociological considerations were only relevant where they emboldened the capacity to win the race.

The founding of Liberia as the oldest Republic on the continent in 1847 occurred nearly four decades before the Berlin partitioning, but European colonizers were already in the sub-region. The British had set up the colony of Sierra Leone and handed it to the Crown for control in 1807 (4).

Early African stakeholders might have been justifiable for putting Negroid descent as a requirement for citizenship in the constitutions of the new nation-states. They were mindful of Caucasian domination in the two settings of slavery outside the continent and colonialism in the region. The African leaders are neither blamable for the drawing up of territorial boundaries on the continent that ignored socio-cultural configurations. Past and contemporary stakeholders are however accountable for the third element, which entails the developing of legal instruments and socio-political strategies to tackle the problems bequeathed by the first two. Africa must accordingly stop creating artificial polarity within the citizenry. This third element constitutes the greatest challenge to the peace and prosperity population integration can adduce.

The paradigms thus for the discussion of Citizenship and Regional Integration within the Context of Liberia infra, are threefold: 1) Colonial partitioning of Africa disregarding socio-cultural configurations, 2) The legacy of racial discrimination in the West and 3) The need for Post-Independence leaders to spearhead the psycho-socio and political realignment of the peoples within the imposed nation-states.

Colonial Formatting

The historicity of colonialism in Africa suggests that this occurrence, more than any other event, had the most pervasive effect on identity transformation among the cultural nations of Africa and the resulting nation-states. European permeation was systematic, motivated first by economic objectives and then the desire to consolidate the economic gains with political control. European success in their bid to take over Africa could not have justifiably presupposed a barren region without civilization.

Europeans, before their colonial advent, were already interacting with the great Kingdoms of West Africa, which had developed trade zones in succeeding Kingdoms starting as early as 700 AD (5). Improved methods of transportation, replacing the horse with the enduring camel across the Sahara, enabled viable trading with other parts of Africa as well as Europe and Asia. The Ghana Kingdom (not geographically synonymous to present day Ghana) became known as the "land of gold" for its ability to facilitate the gold trade from the South to the North. Perfected stone, clay and metals in three kingdoms traded as viable part of the Trans-Sahara commerce.

In shifting between periods of rule, West African Kingdoms became famous for transforming the area into thriving political, cultural and religious centers.(6) More than two centuries before the arrival of colonial Britain and France in West Africa, the art of government was operating at proficiency in the Songhay Empire. King Askia Mohammed is credited with opening the ranks of government offices, establishing an organization that laid the basis of today’s concept of professional civil service.(7) Military science under the King prioritized skill and discipline.

The history of the African Kingdoms underscored the existence of a viable civilization that demonstrated political ability for the management of the sociological diversity of the inhabitants. Commerce was undertaken with creativity and diligence, and the era saw the emergence of religious and learning centers attracted international scholars.

The Advent

European explorers and traders witnessed the cumulative, flourishing West African civilization before the advent of the two principle colonizers, Britain and France. The African achievements evidently did not form part of the equation when Britain and France prioritized political and economic control in their rivalry in Africa. The French were scarce in Africa before the 19th century, leaving Britain to steadily strengthen its colonial ambitions. The scramble for Africa heightened when France, panting from defeat in the Napoleonic War, wanted to make up for the loss by inciting Germany against Britain in North Africa.( 8) The Anglo-French rivalry became naked when the two sides military faced each other in what became known as the Fashoda event in southern Sudan. Final orders for attack were never issued.

Britain and France’s movement downward below the Sahara was a continuation of the North African showdown, but with the focus shifted on getting as much territory as possible without engaging each other militarily. While Britain already had a presence with the establishment of the colonies of Sierra Leone in 1808 and The Gambia in 1816, it was only in 1854 Louis Faidherbe conquered the Senegal Valley for the French. In the next ten years, France went on to take hold of what are today Benin, Guinea, la Cote d’Ivore, among others. By 1956, the two European powers had colonized the entire sub-region, except for the Portuguese holding of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.

Perception of Colonial Citizenship

British and French penetration illustrated that indeed Europe was no longer satisfied with circumstantial trading at African commercial outposts. They were now taking full charge with administrative systems that placed the Europeans at top in Africa. Cultural nations after the 1884-85 Berlin partitioning had in some cases remained within boundaries, but for the most part fell under the dice of geographical separation. Conflicting ethnic cultures, political systems and long-term competing groups had been placed together in territories defined by decisions from Europe.

Could colonial perception and policy of citizenship diffuse the confusion? The two European colonizers adopted distinct approaches of politics and culture toward the territorial inhabitants. The British referred to the Africans as "subjects" and gave no illusion that Africans could become Britons. The British were supposed to be perceived as "racist" from this stance. The British considered independence as breaking away, not relying on the former colonial master. The support to colonies therefore would be reduced as the people moved toward independence. This accounts for the relative decentralization of administration in the British territories.

France posited that the African could rise to French citizenship upon meeting certain conditions. The French appeared as liberals courageous to accept Africans as ‘equals.’ But the "devil was in the detail" for what appeared to be an open-minded disposition in the French. They required that the candidate for citizenship from the territories must be sophisticated in the French language and education, demonstrate a high level of assimilation into French culture.

A number of West African intellectuals and politicians did not only qualify as French citizens, but were accepted in French institutions as unprecedented events. Blaise Diagne represented Senegal in the French parliament (French National Assembly) in the early 1900’s. His compatriot and future President, Leopold Sedar Senghor, was accepted as a Senior Classics teacher at the Lycee in Tours, France, another unprecedented occasion in France. Another future President, Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, represented his country in the French Parliament.

France viewed the colonies as tentacles of its sovereign domain and therefore saw no need to decentralize its administration. It accepted the reality of self-rule grudgingly in 1958, threatening Sekou Toure’s Guinea with absolute and comprehensive break in relations if Toure did not accept continued colonization. "Non" is the famous response from the African politician that set off continuous Charles de Gaulle rebuff up to the death of the French President.

Issues of hypocrisy arose when despite their differences of approach to the inhabitants of their controlled territories, Britain and France massively recruited West Africans into their national armies in Europe to fight Germany in the World Wars. Requirements for mastering the French language and becoming "French" were conspicuous. Britain’s declaration that the "subjects" had nothing to do with British citizenship laid nervously in the wake of the recruitment of these subjects to carry out citizenship duties for Britain. Even when the UK quickly demobilized African soldiers after the war and in contrast, France maintained many of them in French cities, the combatants were never accepted as full citizens or equals. A monument in the Mali capital of Bamako in commemoration of the African soldiers who fought in the French Army does not portray the declared equality. A few African soldiers surround a white commander who is holding up the flag. As for the British, their African soldiers were quickly demobilized after the war.

Gregory Mann elaborates on the vision of French military planners when the massive recruitment of African and other colonial recruits occurred. He explains that the planners believed that the conquest of large portions of Africa and parts of Asia… "paid immense dividends a generation later when the empire provided hundreds of thousands of men to the metropole during World War I,…. While Southeast Asia and North Africa sent both workers and soldiers, the sub-Saharan Africans were almost exclusively soldiers assigned to combat units."(9) Mann claims that more than 30,000 of the African soldiers died from combat or battle-related illness fighting for the French army.

For the African politicians under French rule, participation in the Parliament in Paris was insufficient. They could not climb to what the European French enjoyed. They eventually revolted, opting to lead the struggle for independence than to exercise diminished citizenship abroad.

The Final Message

Declaration of independence and the elections never placated the void created by the failure of the colonial stakeholders to consider fundamental socio-cultural implications for citizenship

Colonialism, in the end, left one major stream of choice for African nationalists and other Independence advocates – deal with the cultural nations inherited within the confines of the territorial nation-states imposed. The fight could not afford a diversion. Where the populace was fortunate to have balances in the ethnic and religious configurations, politicians focused their campaign on the strength of those balances. Where the landscape was ethnically or religiously polarized, varying methods of appealing to a sense of national unity became necessary..

The sub-region has been relatively free from the Christian/Muslim divide that has plagued former colonies like Sudan and Chad in the central north of the continent with unending civil wars. The potential of lasting ethnic/religious conflict that could have ensued from Africa’s most populous and ethnically diverse nation – Nigeria – was quickly consumed in a civil war that lasted for only three years between the mostly Ibo Easterners led by the secessionist military leader, Col. Odumekwu Ojukwu, and the rest of the country under the Federal Government of Military Head of State Yakubu Gowon. (10)

Conflict has yet arisen in neighboring states’ attempts to forcibly solve the problem of geo-ethnicity. Nigeria and Cameroon have had to submit to the International Court of Justice to settle the Bakassi border dispute, still lingering; the Aozou strip remains a potential conflict zone between Libya and Chad; and there are still memories of Ethiopia and Somalia in battle over the Ogaden region. The Western Sahara is an ongoing problem with Morocco.

Liberia - Race and Ethnicity

Slavery and the official ending of it in the United States and Britain posed a problem for the opposite ends of the race ladder. The rulers faced a dilemma – they granted freedom to a group, but were unwilling to share the fruits of freedom with that group. Settlers, who spearheaded the founding of the Liberian Republic beginning 1822, were part of the Negroid nation within the United States of America. Britain’s Blacks, referred to as ‘Creoles,’ stood in the same twilight.

The solution had the common strand of expatriating the Black to Africa, but the broader objectives had dissimilar characteristics. Though the earlier settling of the Creoles in the British colony of Sierra Leone influenced the American expedition, the US government withheld direct involvement, leaving the affair with the American Colonization Society, a non-profit organization of White American public figures and prelates. The British Blacks were not so endowed. They left Europe under racial domination and returned home to an African territory under the same rule. Along with the indigenes making up the population, it was only descendants of the Creole settlers who saw an independent Sierra Leone nation-state 150 years later in 1960.

The declaration of Liberia’s independence was substantially induced by the visible European crave to swallow the territories that would later constitute the Republic. There was simmering British movement from Sierra Leone and the French did not hide their ambition from the North and the East in what would turn out to be Guinea and the la Cote d’Ivoire. It was not difficult for the settlers, having escaped from racial suppression in the United States, to recognize that in a matter of time, another version of non-Negroid supremacy would be imposed on them if the European territorial encroachments continued. With little need for the United States government to encourage them, they courageously declared an Independent Republic, hoping to forestall European ambition.

The declarers of the Republic’s Independence adopted a constitution virtually a copy of the organic law of the United States, with all the paraphernalia of democracy. A risk the returnees were prepared to take, however, was to let Washington D.C. know that the seed of non-Negroid rule would not be planted in Liberia. The 1847 Liberian Constitution and succeeding amendments clearly stated that only people of Negroid descent were eligible for citizenship in the new nation-state.

The declaration of the Liberian nation-state by Blacks from America as early as twenty four years of their reaching Africa seemed an advantage over their Sierra Leone counterparts, who were further subjugated to their former rulers, though they had returned to Africa. Two strings of realities are parallel in considering the fortunes and misfortunes of early and delayed independence in the contiguous states.

Sympathizers may consider it unfortunate that the British did not place the Creoles at the helm of power in the Sierra Leone territory, though the returnees were exposed to Western civilization implying knowledge in administration and other fields. The delay in Sierra Leone independence gave sufficient time for the assimilation of the Creoles into the polity of the Sierra Leone nation, thus eliminating chances for the emergence of a privileged class of rulers. This outcome was incidental and not a colonial design.

Like Liberia, the indigenes of Sierra Leone were in the majority, but unlike Liberia, political control rested with a foreign authority. The minority Liberian settlers exercised control from the start. The Liberians were admired worldwide for being the first Blacks to establish an independent Republic in Africa. When Britain departed, Sierra Leone included the ‘Negroid descent’ caveat in its constitution for citizenship eligibility. By Independence time, the returnees in Sierra Leone, unlike Liberia, had politically integrated with the indigenes, the country’s majority.

Misapplying the Experience

How the Liberian settlers, victims of human degradation in the United States and concurrently witnessing the state of affairs on the continent, could miss the chance of producing a different society is nothing less than a sociological phenomenon. Africans anticipated that Liberian leaders would be enlightened and incited by the inequities they were subjected to, and would therefore pursue true democracy in Africa. Instead, the Republican Party of First President Joseph Jenkins Roberts carried on the governance of the new nation-state with mulattos dominating. The party consisted mostly of the offspring of interracial cohabitation. The situation remained the same for more than a decade with mulattos serving as the next three successors to President Roberts, who along with his colleagues were born in the United States.

The mostly dark-skinned members of the True Whig Party wrestled power in the early 1860’s with E.J. Roye becoming President. It turned out to be only an interruption. By the end of his two-year term, he was literally overthrown by street mobs, accused of embezzlement and wanting to illegally extend the presidential term of office. He died under circumstances that have remained mysterious. President Roberts as "Father of the Nation" managed to get elected again as President. The dark-skinned returned to power with their True Whig Party a few years later and ruled for more than a hundred years when the military consisting of indigenous people overthrew the government ending Americo Liberian minority rule up to 1980.

A fundamental problem was that the perimeters of the settlers’ universe for the exercise of suffrage did not include the tribal majority,(11) indigenous to the area. The settlers, in the preamble of the 1847 Liberian constitution, restricted Liberians to former inhabitants of the United States. The indigenes were not part of the Blacks constitutionally eligible to be citizens of the new Republic. The ‘Americo-Liberians,’ as the settlers came to be known, monopolized the government and enacted laws that entrenched their control over the indigenes until they were overthrown in the military coup of 1980. (12 )

Contacts with Ethnicity

The arrivals of the settlers met several clusters of African leaderships among the African ethnic groups both on the coast and in the interior. The various ethnic groups, now categorized in the three major linguistic categories of the Mende, Kwa and Mel, migrated from other parts of Africa between the 13th and 17th centuries. The African leaders established trade relations with Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, German and British traders along the coast for more than a century before the arrival of the white and black Americans. ACS agents made the case for cooperation and gave tobacco smoked fish, salt, and other items and thought these were in exchange for tracts of tribal land on the Monrovia coast. Armed conflict ensued and the Dei and Mamba tribes in the Monrovia are made it clear that selling land was not part of their custom, and they thought the items were gifts.

The conflict intensified, prompting the intervention of the powerful King of the Condo Confederacy, which covered points from the seacoast into northwestern pre-Liberia. King Sao Boso (usually called Boatswain) of the Mandingo ethnic group, warned his fellow indigenes against making war against the settlers, for they were all brothers and sisters. A truce was achieved, and King Sao Boso returned triumphantly to Bopolu, the capital of the Condo Confederacy. William R. Tolbert, Jr., the last Americo Liberian President before the 1980 took over the country in 1971, renamed a major street (Front Street) in Monrovia after Sao Boso.

Ethnic Territorial Identity

As indicated earlier, European colonial divide of Africa put the same ethnic groups on two or more sides of national territorial boundaries, thus undermining ethnic unity and the necessary sense of national belonging. Huge parts of populations continue to interact with each other more on ethnic basis, than nationality, particularly in the border areas. And the further removed one part of the country is from the other, the farther the tribes tend to deal with each other.

This makeup in Liberia is particularly visible with how the Mende ethnic cluster of tribes in the north and southwest think of the Kwa-speaking group of the south and southeast and vice versa. The Mende group of tribes (Lorma, Gbandi, Mandingo, Vai, Kpelle, Lorma, etc.) is generally ignorant of tribal distinctions among the Kwa (Kru, Bassa, Krahn, Grebo, etc.) Similarly, most Kwas and others outside Lofa County, for example, sincerely believe only the Lormas constitute Lofa County, the largest political subdivision in the country. They are surprised to learn that in fact, the county has eight tribes – Kissi, Gbandi, Mandingo, Kpelle, Gola, Belle, Mende and Lorma.


Generally though, certain tribes are markedly identified with specific regions or counties of the country. The Krahns generally come from Grand Gedeh County which has landmarks with Krahn names; the Gios and Manos from Nimba County; the Bassas of Grand Bassa County are the same (though they are found also in Margibi and Rivercess Counties, and in the Korkoya District of Bong County), and so are the Krus and Greboes in Sinoe and Maryland Counties, and the Vais in Grand Cape Mount County. Due to intermarriage, business and other reasons, communities of the various tribes can be found in parts of the country they are not originally from. (13 )

Successive Liberian governments, ignoring the outcome of the practice in neighboring territories under colonial rule remained impervious to the need for integration with the indigenous population. This practice was extended to Back-to-Africa advocates who appeared controversial by Monrovia’s estimation. The Marcus Garvey episode was illustrative. (14)

The Mandingo/Islam Factor

The Mandingoes, who have the largest population across Africa among the original Liberian tribes, have a special case among some of their compatriots who sometimes refer to them as "strangers" in the seemingly complex population mix of only 3.5 million within 43,000 square miles. The reasons lie in a variety of factors, including geography, politics, religion, culture, and ignorance.

The Mandingoes go beyond Guinea and Liberia as the land of their nativity. There are nearly 10 million of them in West Africa when all the subgroups are put together. (15) Within the ten West African countries they are found, they are known as Mandingo and Maniyan (Maniyan) in Liberia; Maninka, Malinke, and Jahankan in Guinea; Bambara, Maninkan, and Djoula in Mali; Djoula in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso; and Kurankor and Mandingo in Sierra Leone. Many other versions (dialects) of Mandingoes can be found in these countries as well as in the Gambia, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and Mauritania.

The huge Mandingo ethnic spread across borders in the sub-region is the same story with the other Liberian ethnic groups. Mende, one of Liberia’s 16 officially listed ethnic groups, found in the Vahun District of Lofa County, has only 19,500 people in the country as compared to about 1,460,000 in neighboring Sierra Leone ( Similarly, Liberia’s 115,000 Kissis found in the Foya District of Lofa County are dwarfed by their 286,500 cousins on the Guinean side in Kissidougou and Gueckedou, while Sierra Leone is native to more than 120,000 Kissis. The Lormas of Lofa (Tomas in Guinea) have about 140,000 on each side of the Liberia-Guinea divide. And the nearly half million Kpelles, the largest spoken language in Liberia, have 386,000 of their people called Guerze in Guinea. The Manos of Liberia’s Nimba County can also be found in the Lola and Djecke townships of Guinea. (16)

Liberia has only about 200,000 Gios (Dan) as compared to its neighbor’s 800,000 Yacoubas, as they are called in the Ivory Coast’s Prefectures of Man, Danané, Biankouma and Touba ( These are Ivorian districts opposite Nimba County in Liberia. The Ivory Coast also has a large population of Liberia’s Manos and Greboes, as well as Krahns, called Guerres in the Toulepleu region of the French-speaking neighbor. Many relatives of the late Liberian President Samuel Doe spoke only French, besides the Ivorian version of Krahn. They freely moved between Tuzon, their Liberian home, and their villages across the border. ( 17)

Despite the similarities in ethnic-cross movements within the West African corridor, the case of the Mandingoes has significant Liberian historical roots. Accounts of Liberia’s foundation refer to the involvement of Americans, some of them former slave owners, who were enthusiastic about sending freed blacks back to Africa, among other things, to help "civilize and Christianize" the Africans, they often described as "heathens." This psychology was easily passed on to the returning Africans, who declared Independence and formed the government of the first republic on the continent in 1847. But up to the mid 1900’s, it was difficult to culturally or even politically conquer the indigenous tribes. The government structure and productive activities were closed around the settlers, and that backfired as the indigenes too decided to live protectively and often waged war to resist control.

In his vast writing on the history of Liberia, Gus Libenow particularly cites the stubbornness of the Golas, the Krus, and other tribes. According to Libenow, The Golas felt their mastery of the Poro Secret Society was superior to the religious and political message of change their brothers and sisters from overseas had brought along, under the guidance of their overseas sponsors. But through political intrigues from Monrovia, the Golas would be later incited to revive their military rivalry against the Mandingoes of the Condo Confederacy of the Warrior King Sao Boso. These Mandingoes were Muslims and could read and write in Arabic. Except for Edward Wilmot Blyden later, the settlers and their sponsors were surprised that the Mandingoes were literate, particularly in a language that was "strange" to the Americans. This immediately posed not only a cultural threat, but also a political challenge.

"If the Mandingoes were not Muslims and did not have a prominent warrior king who was a Muslim, perhaps the settlers may not have considered them as ‘strangers,’ marking them as a potential threat." (18)For Dualu Bukele of the Vai tribe invented an original script about the same time as the settlers were pondering the implications of King Sao Boso and his people being literate. It was later through assimilation with the Condo population that the Vais adopted Islam. Bukele’s script was many years later used by the Germans as part of their military codes during World War II, according to the Massaquoi family, which has close connections with Germany.

Siryon explained that the early administrations in Monrovia had heard of even farther thriving Mandingo Kingdoms beyond Bopolu in what is Beyla and Musardu in today's Guinea. The settlers at the time called themselves interchangeably as "Americans" and "Liberians" and referred to the indigenes as Africans or the tribal people. The reference to the Mandingoes by name was particularly associated with their territories and activities. And as these Liberians interacted with the Mandingoes of the Condo Confederacy and heard of Musardu far away, the comparisons became "the Liberians and the Mandingoes." Descendants of the settlers passed that common reference on to other tribes about the Mandingoes. And even at that, the other indigenes were never considered as Liberians until voting rights were granted to indigenous people, including Mandingoes, along with women, as late as 1945. Only a handful of indigenes had gotten assimilated and in one instance, the Grebo man H. Too Wesley actually attained the position of Vice President of Liberia before universal suffrage was granted. But the reference the Liberians and the Mandingoes survived intermittently.

Accounts of the journey to Musardu by Benjamin J. K. Anderson are supportive. An Americo-Liberian government employee whose perception sharply contrasted with the rest of the establishment in Monrovia, Anderson regretted that his bosses, probably out of fear, never responded to the offers of the Mandingoes of Musardu, capital of the Western Mandingoes as Anderson called it, to become part of Liberia. The area constitutes a third of southeastern Guinea today.

Anderson traveled through the Liberian interior twice, going through Bopolu the first time in 1868 and then the second time six years later to reach Musardu. In his published story on the travel he regretted how he was embarrassed on the second trip when he could not explain to King Varbulay Dorley (spelt differently by Anderson) why President Daniel B. Warner and his administration had not responded to the letter of cooperation and friendship sent through Anderson during his first trip. (19)The inaction of Monrovia led to the French adding the area to the rest of Guinea during the European colonial scramble in Africa, consummated at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. The Liberian government later made feeble, unsuccessful claims to parts of the territory. Anderson showed frustrations that his government never took advantage of the offer for extension into Musadu. (20 )

The more the "Liberians" from Monrovia interacted with the Mandingoes and all that this ethnic group represented, the more the Mandingoes were referred to as "strangers." The independent composure of the Mandingoes and their refusal to change their religion constantly posed a challenge to Monrovia. Christianity was the "religion" of government and the status quo, and where the official language, English not Arabic, was used at all levels of formal education in the country, at least where the settlers resided. (21)

For many decades, Mandingoes and the rest of the indigenous population, irrespective of religion, however, were excluded from the administration of government. It was particularly in the late 1900's that desire to participate in the government saw an increasing number of indigenes who had to meet the social requirements of becoming Christian, and adopting Western names and behavior. The majority of the Mandingoes preferred to remain traders and farmers. Not even their close business relations with American and French partners abroad later, change their image in the eyes of the ruling Liberian class at the time.

This history may have created some social differences between the Mandingoes and some tribes, but it never grew into party politics and national focus until the invasion of Liberia in 1989 by Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia rebel forces. (22)


The devastating impact of the failures sustained under colonialism and the post-independence era to integrate peoples is manifested in the unstable political character of the individual countries in West Africa.

European powers posturing as a superior civilization that would be the harbinger of positive change and prosperity in Africa turned out to be a recipe for the corrugation and destruction of African institutions and value systems. The decimation of the landmass into political territories had little regard for ethnic cultural communities. While a whole cultural nation was broken up, conflicting ones were forced together in territories that became independent nation-states.

The two key colonizers, Britain and France, moved masses of Africans to fight their wars during the World Wars. This action took place despite Britain’s declaration that its colonial objective was commerce and political control and had no intention of making British citizens out of the colonists. France wanted direct control of the African peoples in their territories basically teasing them with a citizenship requirement that involved replacing their African identity with French values and education.

The dehumanizing effects of colonialism and slavery provoked a sense of political protectionism among Africans, leading to the crafting of national constitutions that required African descent for citizenship. The Independence struggle rejected any form of Caucasian domination. Problems inherited from colonialism were quite sufficient.

The escape from racial subjugation in the United States and the subsequent constitutional insulation from direct white rule in did not translate into the preservation of African values in Liberia. The freed slaves who organized the first African Republic in the midst of the European scramble for Africa ironically elected to pursue a policy of pigmentation discrimination. They did not only exclude whites from citizenship but also the majority African population they met in the vicinity upon arrival in 1822 on the West Coast. It appeared as a colonial mentality proxy when the American Liberians in some instances felt that they were also on a mission to ‘civilize’ their ‘tribal’ brothers and sisters in Africa. The disposition produced a brand of politics that helped colonialism to subjugate the African culture. For Liberia, the consequences of discriminating against the indigenes undermined the possibility of the first Republic transforming into the first industrial state in the sub-region, and probably in Sub-Sahara Africa. Liberia became a classic case of growth without development. Inserting racial protection in the Constitution never prevented taught a lesson against discrimination, and problems of ethnic identification and citizenship still continues to plague the political life of Liberia. The controversy over the Mandingo ethnic group is illustrative.

Other West African states have under circumstances of colonial legacy displayed incapacity to deal with ethnicity and citizenship. It was anticipated that the departure of the colonizers would have given political space for the Africans to put their house in order. For the first part, it became a matter of ‘damage control’ in dealing with the colonial realities left behind. Decades have past and yet the nationality controversy has only deepened, robbing the populations of the chance to prosper. In the case of la Cote d’Ivoire, a once prosperous nation, issues of nationality have brought war, dividing the country into two administrative halves.

Post-colonialism and slavery should have been the period for leaders in the sub-region to promote a sense of collective nationality in each of the nation-state. Instead, mismanagement and exploitation of the socio-political cracks continue to turn citizenship into an instrument of political instability.

What is the way forward? The capacity of the individual nation-states is already overburdened with a variety of vexing economic problems. While prices of exported goods are falling, import prices are astronomically climbing. Unemployment is on the rise causing urban population influx. Domestic currencies continue to weaken. The economies have never produced a manufacturing base, nor have their been practical efforts to utilize economic comparative advantage within member states of the Economic Community of West African States.

These problems cannot be surmounted in an unstable political environment. The populations have to be inspired toward national unity and a sense of common destiny. Deliberate policies for integrating the citizenry are required for national economic development. There must be sustained public promotion programs to emphasize the advantages of intra and inter ethnic peaceful co-coexistence. The political structure must be functionally democratic and practices of ethic and class alienation must be discouraged.

The Economic Community of West African States must become proactive in getting member states to formulate collective plans for citizen integration. Several nation-states in the Sub-region stand at the opposite ends of nationality issues, where socio-cultural mediators could help provide the answer. These measures can take place under the auspices of ECOWAS. Smaller multilateral arrangements like the Mano River Union comprising Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea should be reactivated and encouraged to play leading roles in the integration process.

The peoples of ECOWAS must realize that the programs of implementing the objective of economic prosperity can be realized only in environments of peace and stability. Integrating the nationalities irrespective of culture or religion must be prioritized.


  1. Answers.Com,, 11-01-07

  2. GREGORY MANN Locating Colonial Histories: Between France and West Africa.

  3. 11-15-07

  4. Ibid.

  5. Liberia and Sierra Leone presented a contrasting ethno-political scenario where freed slaves from the West were established as neighbors in West Africa, one under a colonial hold ultimately assimilating into the indigenous majority, and the other continuously free but with dismal failure to integrate, discussed below.

  6. The Story of West Africa, BBC

  7., 11-12-07

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Gregory Mann, While Southeast Asia and North Africa sent both workers and soldiers, the sub-Saharan Africans were almost exclusively soldiers assigned to combat units. The colonial federations of French West and Equatorial Africa provided over 200,000 soldiers, known collectively as tirailleurs Sénégalais…deployed in Europe, Africa, and Anatolia…serving as front-line infantry. Locating Colonial Histories: Between France and West Africa, American Historical Review, Vol. 110, Vol. 2, April 2005.

  12. Ojukwu led a secession of Eastern Nigeria calling it the Republic of Biafra. Supported by France and the Ivory Coast, Ojukwu was defeated in 1963, and he successfully sought Asylum in the Ivory Coast.

  13. The indigenous population, made of sixteen major ethnic groups, has invariably constituted 97 percent of the population. The ethnic groups are Bassa, Dei, Belle, Gbandi, Gio, Gola, Grebo, Kissi, Krahn, Kpelle, Kru, Lorma, Mande, Mandingo, Mano and Vai.

  14. An indigenous group of 17 sergeants and privates of the Liberian army stormed the executive on the night of April 12, 1980 and overthrew the government of William R. Tolbert, ending the Americo-Liberia absolute monopoly of political and economic power. Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, leader of the group, became Head of State and later


  16. One reality that has never been successfully challenged despite all of the upheavals is the ethnic makeup of Liberia. Official and academic authorities alike recognize that there are sixteen major tribes in the country - Bassa, Belle, Dei, Gbandi, Gio, Gola, Grebo, Kissi, Kpelle, Krahn, Kru, Lorma, Mandingo, Mano, Mende, and Vai. One will have to falsify history to change this list. Besides this classification, there are also the so-called Americo-Liberians, descendants of the settlers, now generally referred to as ‘Congos’ along with immigrants from Barbados and the rest of the West Indies.

  17. Followers of Marcus Garvey, the New York-based Jamaican pan-African activist, said the Americo-Liberians had prevented him from securing land to use as a base for the propagation of pan-Africanism at a time he said Firestone was getting a million acres to establish a rubber plantation. Garvey founded the 1916 United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) that canvassed for massive migration of blacks back to Africa as the beginning of the process of liberating the continent from colonial hold. The campaign did not go down well with France and Britain, leading to their complaint to the United States and Liberian governments. Garvey chose Monrovia, capital of the continent’s only republic in 1920 as the ideal place for the UNIA headquarters. He was preparing to carry at least 25,000 members of his organization, mostly black Americans. This was happening when Firestone and other American tire manufacturers were in a global search for territories to plant rubber. Garvey told the Liberian government he would raise up to $2 million to liquidate the country’s troubling debt to the West, in exchange for the establishment of the UNIA base. While Firestone was negotiating the Plant Agreement four years later, the Government of President Charles D.B. King banned Garvey from going to Liberia, accusing the UNIA of preaching racial hatred. The activist countered, accusing the Americo-Liberian leadership of treating the majority indigenous population as slaves on their own soil. There is no proven evidence that Firestone was involved in Garvey’s rejection. .

  18. (1991 L. Vanderaa CRC)

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid

  21. From historical narration by Abdulaye Siryon, Author’s grandfather who died at the age of 110.

  22. Narrative of a Journey to Musardu, republished by Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., London, 1912, and 1971),

  23. In his personal description of the Mandingoes and why the Liberian government should have taken greater interest, Anderson said:"The Mandingoes have always excited the liveliest interest on account of their superior physical appearance, their natural intelligence, their activity, and their enterprise. No one has passed unnoticed these tall black men from the eastern interior, in whose countenances spirit and intellect are strongly featured. Their diligent journeys from Tallakondah have allowed no sea-coast town northwest of the St. Paul's to remain unvisited."

  24. The settlers before Anderson's time, perhaps suspicious about the Condo Muslim/Mandingoes of Sao Boso, encouraged the son of the Gola King Gbogai to wage war against Sao. Gbogai had earlier been defeated and his chiefdom absorbed in Sao's Confederacy. Despite the help against him from Monrovia, Sao Boso remained undefeated until his death. The Confederacy got smaller and Sao’s eldest son by a Gola wife, Sao Momolu, was encouraged by Monrovia to enroll in a Western school and become a Christian. He later returned to take over whatever was left of his father's territory, but it is not known exactly what religion he actually practiced. He was helpful to B. J. K. Anderson in finding the best approach to reach Musardu, in addition to assigning his men for the journey.

  25. The Islam and Mandingo "foreigner" and "stranger" tactic was used by the NPFL when it was learned that the Mandingoes had helped to organize the ULIMO militia and were evicting Taylor's forces from previously held areas. The Liberian Muslims, who are moderate and conservative, were even branded by the NPFL publicists as people coming from the Arab world to impose Islam on the "Liberians," when in fact Taylor and his men got their training in Libya.

Selected References

  • Alexander, Archibald, 1772-1851.
    A history of colonization on the Western coast of Africa. Philadelphia, W.S. Martien, 1846.

  • Clower, Robert W. ed; Dalton, Harwitz, Walters. Growth Without Development – An Economic Survey of Liberia. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1966.

  • Hargreaves, John D. West Africa Partitioned. Madison: U of Wisconsin P/ London: Macmillan, 1985 Vol. II: 'The Elephants and the Grass. ' xv+277p.

  • Hooker, J. R. Henry Sylvester Williams: Imperial Pan-Africanist. London: Rex Collings, 1975.

  • Isichei, Elizabeth. History of West Africa Since 1800. . New York: Holmes & Meier/ London: Macmillan, 1977.

  • Johnson, Marion. "On Writing African History Prematurely." Canadian Journal of African Studies. 1978.

  • Kirk-Greene, Anthony Hamilton Millard. A Biographical Dictionary of the British Colonial Governor. Brighton: Harvester P, 1980. Vol I: 'Africa. ' 320p.

  • Kraij, van der F. P. M, The Open Door Policy of Liberia – An Economic History of Modern Liberia. Bremer: Im Selbstverlag des Museums, 1983.

  • Liebenow, J. Gus. Liberia – The Quest for Democracy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.