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Last Updated: Friday, 22 July 2005, 08:24 GMT 09:24 UK
Lebanese demand Liberia poll rights
By Jonathan Paye-Layleh
BBC correspondent in Monrovia

Liberian election billboard
The Lebanese want to be allowed to take part in the historic 2005 poll
As Liberians prepare for their first elections after 14 years of war, the influential Lebanese community is pressing to be allowed to take part.

Liberia's economy is dominated by the 4,000-strong Lebanese community, many of whom were born in the country.

So strong is the Lebanese community that it is likely to influence major political decisions.

And yet, they are not allowed to vote in October's crucial elections, which it is hoped will mark the end of war and instability and mark the start of a new era.

Liberia's staple food, rice, is imported by two Lebanese companies, while at least one giant mobile phone company is Lebanese-owned.

And they also own printing presses, stores, companies, real estate and leading car-import companies.

If we give landownership rights to Lebanese, they will enslave this country; they will take us back into the days of slavery
Liberian UN employee

Because they are not citizens, they are not allowed to own land - one reason why many Lebanese routinely transfer abroad huge amounts of money generated in Liberia.

Tony Hage, a wealthy businessman and farmer who has resided in Liberia for 38 years and heads the Lebanese community, thinks that the Lebanese who were born in Liberia at least should be allowed citizenship.

"I see no reason why they cannot be citizens," he said. "Even I who grew up here, I would be honoured to be granted citizenship."

But many still feel strongly that granting Lebanese citizenship would be a disadvantage for the economically-weak Liberians.

"If we give landownership rights to Lebanese, they will enslave this country; they will take us back into the days of slavery; they have the economic power; and this will be used to the disadvantage of the poor indigenous," said a Liberian employed with the United Nations.

"This is not racism; this is simply a matter of policy," he added.

Citizenship ban

The ban on citizenship goes back to the mid-19th Century when freed black slaves declared Liberia an independent nation in 1847, after being repatriated from the US.

They decided then that only blacks could become citizens of the country.

UN peacekeepers in Liberia
Some 15,000 UN peacekeepers are disarming former combatants
The decision may have arisen from the ill treatment meted out to black slaves by white slave masters and communities in the United States, says Sheikh Kafumba Conneh, a respected Muslim leader.

"Even though they were taken into slavery and were freed, they never had land to live on because of their colour; and for that reason when they came back to Africa, under the concept of Africa for Africans, they decided to have this clause in our constitution," he said.

Mr Hage says granting the Lebanese citizenship will not only develop Liberia, but will also stop the flight of capital, as the Lebanese will make long-term investments instead of sending money abroad.

"Definitely they will be involved in more land and agriculture programmes; they will be operating farms; this country has many resources," he says.


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