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Why Mandingoes in Liberia are Labeled "Foreigners"
Arthur B. Dennis

The xenophobia crisis over Mandingoes in Liberia, which erupted recently at the voter registration in Monrovia, has been around for over two centuries now. However, since Cllr. Taiwan Gongloe has addressed the citizenship question, this article will seek to address the reasons why the Mandingoes are labeled foreigners.

Historical Profile of the Mandingo Ethnic Group in Liberia

As Gongloe rightly indicated, the Mandingoes in Liberia are also in Guinea, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Niger, Algeria, and Mauritania, Guinea Bissau and several other countries in Africa and the world, including the United States. According to history, they all migrated from Mali in pursuit of better life.

In our stereotype language in Liberia, we refer to Mandingoes as "Dingos" whereas in Mali, Guinea, and other countries they refer to them as "Mandinka." In Ivory Coast and elsewhere, they refer to them as "Malinka." The Mandingoes are the Founding Fathers of Mali. The first legendary hero of the Mandingo Dynasty, who built Mali into a great Empire was King Sundiata Keita, a native-born Mandinka by ethnicity. King Keita (1210-1260 A.D) introduced Islam in the Malian Empire, and by the turn of the 13th century, Mali was one of the first African states (South of the Sahara) to embrace Islam.

King Keita was later succeeded by his grand nephew Mansa Musa (1312-1337). King Musa was a devout Mandingo Muslim, and it was under his rule that Mali became the first country in Africa to make Islam a state religion. He built several mosques as well as Islamic universities and converted public officials as well as members of his own Mandinka tribe to Muslims. In the decades that followed, Mali turned out to be known as "Mandinka Islamic Empire." At the end of King Musa's rule, living standards eroded and forced Mandingo Muslims to migrate to other countries in Africa, including Liberia, to trade for living. Those who migrated to Liberia between 1500 and 1600 settled in Bopulu on the west coast and in the hinterland which later became part of Liberia in 1908.

Origins of the "Foreigner Label"

The olden-day rivalry amongst religious factions gave birth to the foreigner label and a number of other labels that exist today. In the early Christian world, Christians regarded Islam to be a foreign religion and referred to non-Christians (including Muslims) as unbelievers. For them, 2nd Corinthians Chapter 6:14 of the Bible urges Christians not to associate with unbelievers. In the early Muslim world, Muslims too viewed Christianity to be a foreign religion and referred to non-Muslims (including Christians) as infidels. Liberian Mandingo Muslims refer to non-Muslims as "Karflees. According to them, their Muslim tradition forbids inter-marriage between Muslims and Karflees. At the same time, in the early period of Africa, when traditional religion was the dominant religion, Africans also viewed Islam and Christianity as foreign religions because they were imported from outside; and those who introduced them in Africa at the time were considered to be "foreigners.".

Islam, for example, was first introduced in Africa in the 8th century, and the foreigner label for the Muslims started in the 11th century in the Kingdom of Ghana where the Arab Muslims went to trade during the gold rush. The Kingdom was then under King Ghana (after whom Ghana was named). The Muslim traders arrived in the Kingdom with their Muslim doctrines where traditional religion was the dominant religion. These Muslim doctrines were totally opposed to the culture and beliefs of the local people. Instead of denying the Muslim traders residence permit, King Ghana divided the Capital City into two distinct parts. One for the Muslim traders, and the other for the King and his non-Muslim subjects. The residential area for the Muslim traders was known as "Strangers' Quarters" or foreigners' quarters. It was so named because the Muslim traders came from a foreign country and imported a foreign religion in the area. This is how King Ghana resolved the xenophobia crisis, and we understand this is how local people in other countries handled the Muslim xenophobia crisis in the olden days.

In Liberia, the situation was pretty much the same. As we indicated earlier, Mandingoes who migrated to Liberia between 1500 and 1600 were traders, and they settled on the west coast as well as in the hinterland. Those who went to the hinterland migrated there with their Muslim traditions and were labeled strangers, meaning foreigners. They were so labeled not only because they migrated from a foreign country but also because of the alien nature of their Muslim traditions which were totally opposed to the culture of the dominant traditional religion in the hinterland, especially Poro and Sandee Bush School culture. During the period, the hinterland tribes the Mandingo Muslims met were the Lormas, Kpelles, Gbandis, Belles, Manos, and Krahns and so on.

However, the local tribal people did not turn them away; instead, in order to resolve the xenophobia crisis, they adopted King Ghana's isolation policy and made Mandingo Muslims to live in separate areas of the town which they named "Stranger Quarters." The term "Quarters" refers to a separate residential area where one ethnic group sharing common family ties, common language, and common culture live as one family. These stranger quarters are known today in most towns and cities as" Mandingo Quarters."

Mandingo Muslims were made to live in isolation and be excluded from decision-making in local affairs, because in those days only chiefs and traditional spiritual leaders of secret societies known as Zoes were in charge to make decisions in local matters, and the source of their authority was centered around established traditions, which were totally opposed to the Muslim doctrines. According to oral history, at times some Mandingoes used to live in isolation on their own without being advised to do so. Because at that time, the local people considered Mandingoes not only as foreigners but also as "sinners," while the Mandingoes perceived the local people as "Karflees" a term used in Mandingo to also mean "sinners" or non-Muslims. Today, most local citizens are still using this age-old exclusion policy to alienate Mandingoes in matters of local affairs.

Christianity, for its part, was first introduced in Liberia by the settlers following their arrival in 1822. In keeping with the U. S. Policy on Liberia declared September 25, 1843 by the U. S. Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, the primary mission of the settlers to Liberia was to introduce civilization and Christianity in Africa. At that time, Islam was the dominant religion on the west coast, while traditional religion was the dominant religion in the hinterland. For this reason, the settlers who introduced Christianity in that period were considered to be strangers, or foreigners, while the Christians in those days viewed Islam and traditional religions as foreign religions. Because of this view, the settlers also perceived the local people as foreigners. However, in the end, the basic strategies used to solve the xenophobia problem were as follows.

In starting their mission, the settlers adopted King Ghana isolation policy by dividing the coastal zone into two territories. One for the local tribal population, and the other for the settlers. Only native Christian converts as well as natives who attended mission schools were allowed to live in the settlers' territory. The settlers built churches as well as mission schools in the coastal zone and educated local tribal children with Christian values and western education. By the time Liberia extended its territory in 1908, the settlers had succeeded in Christianizing a large number of tribal people within the 40-mile zone. Most of the Vais, who were also Muslims, later abandoned Islam for Christianity. In the end, the largest tribal Muslim group within the coastal zone, who remained committed and faithful to their Islam religion were the Mandingoes.

The settlers did not stop there. Under Article 1 of the 1847 Constitution, they adopted Christian religion upon which Liberia was ordained to be established, thereby proclaiming to the local people and the world that Liberia was a Christian Nation.

What followed was the big surprise. During independence in 1847, Liberia's territorial boundary was limited within 40-mile coastal zone, and those living within these coastal zones who were Liberian citizens in keeping with the Constitution were the settlers, Mandingoes, Vais, Golas, Deis, Bassas, and other local tribes. But that was not the case.

In 1862, the Supreme Court ruled that because of the inability of the aborigines to understand the working of a civilized government, they were subjects required only to abide by the laws of the State but not entitled to citizenship. In other words, western civilization, which was associated with Christian values, was the basic criteria for citizenship. It means before President William Tubman declared his Unification Policy in 1944 to allow indigenous citizens in government, the only foreigners in Liberia in keeping with the 1862 Court ruling were the Mandingoes since they were the only large Muslim group who refused to abandon their faith for Christianity or western civilization.

After Liberia extended its territory to the hinterland, the settlers also built churches as well as mission schools in major towns and later introduced western education and Christianity to the local population. In the decades that followed, the local people started turning to Christianity in record number. Instead of the Mandingo Muslims doing the same to win membership in order to maintain Islam's dominance over Christianity, they focused on migrating from place to place doing local and cross-border trading.. By the time Liberia turned 100 years old, Christianity, which was the minority religion, turned out to be the dominant religion with more than 70% population. Today, Liberia is composed of 75 % Christians; 20% Muslims; and 5 % traditional religion.

Why Mandingoes in Liberia are Labeled Foreigners

There are several reasons why Mandingoes are labeled foreigners in Liberia. But in my view, four basic reasons top the list. Firstly, the foreigner label that is haunting Mandingoes today was inherited from their ancestors who first introduced Islam in Liberia and elsewhere in Africa. It originated from the olden-day rivalries amongst Christians, Muslims and followers of traditional religions, and this label turned out to be a stigma on the entire Mandingo ethnic group.

The second reason has to do with certain identities the Liberian Mandingoes share in common with Mandingoes in Guinea. On the Map of Africa, Guinea shares a long-stretch of common borders with Mali, and it has the largest Mandingo population in the sub-region than any country sharing borders with Liberia. For this reason, Lofa, Bong and Nimba counties, which share common borders with Guinea, also have the largest Mandingo population than any other county in Liberia. We believe that probably this why most of the Mandingoes living in these counties share common language, common ancestors, common names, common family ties, and common Muslim traditions with the Mandingoes living in Guinea; and probably this is why if and when a Mandingo man is accused of being a foreigner in Liberia, people would conclude that he is from Guinea.

Some may disagrees, but here are the facts. Firstly, Mandingoes started international migration over two hundred years ago, whereas no Liberian tribe has such history. Secondly, given their population distribution in Africa, Mandingoes are in more countries in greater number and have more connections in most of these countries than all the Liberian tribes combined. The only time Liberians traveled to other countries in large number was during the war. But prior to the war, only Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Guinea were having more Liberian tribes in greater number than other African states.

The third reason why Mandingoes are labeled foreigners has to do with the absence of credible immigration data that will distinguish between the Liberian Mandingoes from the non-Liberian Mandingoes. As we indicated above, Mandingoes in Africa and elsewhere in the world migrated from Mali, and most of them share common generation of family ties, common language, common names, and common religious culture. These commonalities make it very difficult to distinguish between the Liberian Mandingoes and the alien Mandingoes from Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and elsewhere.

We agree that Liberia is a founding member of ECOWAS and must respect the immigration Protocol of that body, providing for free movement of people and goods in the West African sub-region. Yet, our Immigration Agency still needs to have data for each citizen and alien in the country so that in case the question of national identity is raised, such as the one at the voter registration, the data can be used to settle the dispute.

The fourth reason why Mandingoes are labeled foreigners is that they do not have a special county in Liberia. Some may disagree, but here are the facts. The criteria for granting a county to a tribe is that they must be a homogenous ethnic group sharing common language; common culture; adequate population, and be centralized in a territory. If two or more tribes are in the same territory, the focus of these criteria will be on the major ethnic group. In any case, the Mandingoes meet all the criteria to be assigned a county, but they are not centralized. If they were centralized and had their own county, no one would have denied them resettlement today in their county after the war.

However, by career Mandingoes are known in history as migrant traders, meaning people who do cross-country and cross-border trading. Cross-border traders, now defined under International Migration Convention as "Economic Migrants," are foreigners, who travel from country to country doing business or working for living. Besides cross-border trading, Mandingoes are all over Liberia migrating from place to place trading. They are also found everywhere in the country in greater percentage than most migrants from the other ethnic groups in Liberia. Where ever gold or diamond breaks up, they would be there only to leave when the gold or diamond disappears; and where ever there is market day in any town in Liberia or across the borders, they would be there. In my view, such an unrestricted migration makes them a floating population without borders, and there is no vocabulary in the English dictionary to sugar-coat this hard reality.

Concluding Comments

In sum, the xenophobia crisis over Mandingoes today grew out of the olden-day rivalries amongst Christians, Muslims, and disciples of traditional religion. These rivalries also created other labels such as infidels, unbelievers, karflees, and sinners. Therefore, today's leaders of these religions should meet so that they can find a solution to the problem since it was their founding fathers that created these labels. THE END