Thursday, January 27, 2011

Prejudice of Ethnicity and the Disenfranchisement of the Mandingoes

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

We begin this edition of the series with cautionary notes on the devastating consequences humanity has suffered resulting from either emotional or physical expression of ethnic prejudices. In the Great Lakes region in Africa, Rwanda and Burundi have continued to suffer ethnic differences expressed violently. In Sri Lanka, differences between the Tamils and Sinhalese led to years of civil war with the Tamil leaders forced into exile repeatedly calling for a separate Tamil state. In Liberia, we need not mention of the tragedy of the 1990s when rebel forces launched an invasion and specifically targeted Krahns and Mandingoes for elimination. With over millions of Tutsis and Hutus killed in Rwanda and Burundi, the two ethnic groups continue to live together. And with the attempted genocide against the Mandingoes, they are still around and progressive than ever before. This is meant to remind us all that no one group can completely eliminate any other group in a country or anywhere. If this was possible there might have been no Jew after the Holocaust.

We lay the above historical premises to draw attentions to what seems to be a recurrent provocation of the Mandingoes in Liberia. Let it be known that the peacefulness members of this ethnic group have exhibited in the midst of trials and tribulations, even from state authorities, cannot easily be borne by other ethnic groups in some places. In the 1990s, there was a genocide attempt that failed miserably. Today discrimination against this ethnic group have manifested itself in many ways including provocations, public denials, and harsh questioning of their citizenship; and now, it seems a real opportunity has come for their ‘nemeses’ to disenfranchise them from the forthcoming elections. This by extension is to effectively deny them their citizenship. Individuals assigned at voter registration centers have acted as though they were trained to be critical of only elements of the Mandingo ethnic group. This, they do by questioning the citizenship of people who carry names associated with this tribe. There are several factors that should be considered in the Mandingo case which many Liberians do not understand. The only postulate they have used is that Mandingoes are from Guinea, and therefore anyone bearing name associated with this ethnic group is from Guinea. How weak or intellectually strong is this postulate? We declare the debate open.

A point of clarity to make here is that Mandingo is not the only Liberian tribe found in other countries. An understanding of the political concept of transnationalism can answer many questions around ethnic groups found in multiple countries and regions, and how they have maintained their ethnonational identities without interfering with their individual citizenship. In the Mano River basin alone, the Kissis, Mendes, Lormas, Kpelle, Gios, Krahns etc, are transnational ethnic groups with members bearing different citizenship. Scholars have attributed some of these to the creation of artificial boundaries as a result of Western colonialism in Africa. Another point we need to clarify here is that the attempted genocide against the Mandingoes in the 1990s forced them into exile and children born to those exiled families in refugee camps in Sierra Leone, Guinean, Ivory Coast and elsewhere are returning home with limited knowledge of this country. They are entitled to Liberian citizenship like any other Liberian born inside or outside of the country. Unfortunately, and very preposterously, immigration officers, and voter registrars judge people’s citizenship by their accent in English or the standards of English they speak. What’s about those Liberian government officials who speak like Americans or Europeans? Can that be used as a measurement of citizenship? Of course not! (A second debate is left opened). Sadly, As a result of growing prejudices against the Mandingoes in Liberia, the stereotype has been constructed in a way that a Guinean Kpelle or a Sierra Leonean Kissi for examples, can easily be considered a Liberian than naturally born Liberian Mandingo citizens.

Reports from around the country, mainly Bong County and around Monrovia speak of continuous denials of the Mandingoes in the voter registration exercise, and that those successful face thorough scrutiny than any other registrants. Denial of a person in an isolated community is not limited to that person, but constitutes a target of a larger community with hundreds of thousands of people. We must know that we are at the crossroad in determining the next direction of this fragile, but ‘stable’ country, therefore we must continuously remind ourselves of our bitter past. What we achieve as a nation during the fourteen years of internecine feud must be the best lesson for us if we are to move forward. A short term employee or contractor with no advance training is wrongly suited in determining someone’s citizenship, or by extension disenfranchising a person. I mean the citizenship of a person should not be determined at the discretion of a contracted voter registrar.

Liberians will have to call themselves to order, and be reminded that the grievances from unbearable prejudices against ones ethnic group can be responded to terribly, and that the toll such grievances have had on humanity are too tragic to be stated here.

We see the current trends of ethnic differences as issues crossing over from the civil war that remains unaddressed seven years after the war. It is hard time for our country to begin to address critical issues concerning national identity, citizenship and the use of ethnic, sectarian and religious differences as forces of development rather than forces of division. Ethnic prejudice against any single ethnic group in Liberia must be discouraged because they are sources of chaos. As I conclude, I am filled with hopes that one day the diversities in this country will collectively strengthen us to build a nation that will value individual worth rather than ethnic or religious affiliations.

- In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry