The Minister in Liberia ( Walton ) to the Secretary of State
[Received April 3.]
Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge receipt of the Department’s telegram No. 6, February 4, 4 p.m., requesting a full report by mail on the recent Executive Order revoking privileges of free entry for personal and other effects granted American missionaries in Liberia.
In this connection I first wish to state that the present misunderstanding primarily exists because of the obvious ambiguity of the present tariff law dealing with mission importations under Schedule 35 (d) passed by the Liberian Legislature in 1935. This law was drawn up by the Economic Adviser. The only reference contained therein to the subject herein discussed reads: “Free gifts missionary and charitable”. No corollary follows setting forth explicitly and definitely when missionaries are not to enjoy the privileges of free entry.
Previously the Government operated under the Customs Tariff Act of 1922–23, relating to materials for school houses, colleges and churches, and reads: “Materials, clothing for free gifts for missionary purposes. Note: Separate entries are required for goods imported for the use of the Government of Liberia. Such entries will be attested by head of the Department for which the goods are intended. Similar conditions apply to the importation of goods for educational establishments and churches. Goods for the personal use of missionaries, principals and teachers of colleges and schools are not free of duty.” (the underscoring is mine).
Following the passage of the new tariff act of 1935, because of its lack of clarity relative to missionaries, interpretations varied as to the full import of: “Free Gifts, missionary and charitable.” It might [Page 813] have meant: (1) Gifts to individual missionaries, regardless of use to which they were to be put; (2) gifts to Missions, whether for general use or for personal consumption by missionaries; (3) gifts by Missions to Liberians in connection with schools, hospitals, et cetera.
The Collector of Customs at the Port of Monrovia was of the opinion that since salaries and all funds for missions are gifts from churches and individuals, even though such funds come through a Mission Board, all importations for missions and missionaries were free of duty regardless of whether articles were for personal use or for general mission purposes. This ruling, later declared too broad and inclusive, especially in the light of previous legislation on the subject, occasioned much rejoicing among missionaries. At other ports in the country, however, different interpretations were rendered resulting in inevitable inequality of treatment.
This lack of uniformity of interpretation created so much confusion for all directly concerned that the Financial Adviser was appealed to for clarification. In March 1936, he held that goods for general mission purposes will be admitted free; that gifts to individual missionaries would be admitted free, but that goods ordered by individuals were dutiable and to be paid for from their personal funds.
This ruling was productive of numerous unforeseen complications between Collectors of Customs and missionaries, and in December, 1936, the Acting Financial Adviser was called on for further elucidation. His views, in the main, were similar to those of the Financial Adviser. However, before issuing written instructions he deemed it advisable to secure the approval of the President of Liberia, who was implacable in his maintenance that all articles for personal use of missionaries, whether gifts or purchases, should be dutiable.
In conformity with the President’s ruling, the Acting Financial Adviser issued Administration Circular No. 5, which is enclosed herewith.
The circular aroused a storm of protests from American missionaries, some of whom called on me and registered their emphatic disapproval. The head of one educational institution at Monrovia threatened to resign, and I persuaded him, before taking such a step, to communicate with his Board of Trustees in the United States, and I gave assurance I would engage in conversations with the representatives of the Liberian Government regarding the circular. Another missionary pointed out to me that $94.62 had been recently paid to the Collector of Customs at the Port of Monrovia for foodstuffs received, of which amount $48.06 was for duty under Schedule 35 (d) and $46.56 for emergency tax; and that on a quilt sent as a gift $6.40 had been paid.[Page 814]
In consequence of these and other protestations, I consulted the Acting Financial Adviser, who was good enough to explain fully the situation.
It can be said without fear of successful contradiction, that Administrative Circular No. 5 is also lacking in perspicuity. It is difficult to determine whether certain articles, such as groceries, are for general mission use or for the personal use of the staff. When the head of the mission declares that groceries, building material, school supplies, medicine and hospital supplies are for general use, they are entered free. Even Customs officials at times are puzzled as to the entry of medicine. Most of the hospitals charge fees; however, it is reasoned by the authorities that such small fees are collected, they do not change the general character of the hospitals as charitable institutions.
The unalterable position assumed by the Liberian Government, at least since 1922, is that goods for the personal use of individual missionaries are dutiable. I am cognizant of the President’s intransigency on this moot issue. Under the circumstances, I question the advisability and the opportuneness of missionaries pressing their claim for a more favorable interpretation of the Custom Law.