The recent article published in the Liberian Observer on the citizenship of former Coca Cola executive Alex Cummings and the public reactions brought to the fore an issue that Liberia has been grappling with since its foundation. First, the American former slaves who founded the country put limitations as to whom could be a Liberia. According to Professor Patrick Burroughs, one of the criteria was to be a Christian. As the colony acquired more land and assimilated more natives, so expanded the citizenship. People of Non-negro descent were excluded and are still excluded as per the constitution. People with Muslim names still have to prove that they are not Guineans, Ivorian or Malians whenever they attempt to accede to high political position.
As the result of the military coup of 1980 that ended the century-old Americo-Liberian oligarchy and the civil war of the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Liberians sought refuge outside of the country, many taking up foreign citizenship. Unlike many former African colonies, Liberia never adopted dual-citizenship. That meant that those looking to return “home” and engage in the political process, either had to give up their new citizenship (most often American) or simply lie or bribe their way into high political positions reserved for Liberians.
Since the end of the war and the instauration of democracy, there have been many cases of disputes about citizenship. The first minister of Public Works, Luseni Donzo admitted of having an American passport but somehow was confirmed by the Senate. The only second person to admit to a foreign citizenship was the president of the Tubman University, Dr. Elizabeth Davis Russell was rejected when nominated to the position of Minister of Education. She subsequently withdrew her name for reconsideration for the position. The rule of the thumb seems to be “don’t ask don’t tell.” Very few seemed bothered by standing in front of the Senate and swear that they are Liberian citizens when actually they have willingly given it up to reap the benefits of their host country. In the few cases of admission, the wording is deceptive because it comes out as in: “I carry an American passport,” as if they stumbled on a passport somewhere and picked it up for convenience.
To end this situation, the Constitutional Review Committee, after consultations around the country in view of making amendments to the 1986 constitution, has put dual citizenship among the issues to be decided upon in a referendum to be held sometime next year.
Dual citizenship would allow many Liberians of the Diaspora to have the opportunity to go “home” and partake in the political process. In the US, with the largest Liberian exiles, it is a burning issue. Many long to return to the land of their ancestors but are hesitant to give up the American nationality that provides. In Liberia, there is a clear divide on the issue. During hearings conducted by the Governance Commission to the recent town hall meetings of the constitutional review commission, many Liberians at home seem to oppose the notion. Maryland Senator Dan Morias once said that “we do not want a two-class system,” where those coming back from America would have a clear advantage over those who stayed home. The Senator was also quoted as saying that here preferred Anglo-Saxons being citizen of Liberia, instead of Liberians citizens who have naturalized in other countries. Liberians in the Diaspora do not hesitate, and rightly so, to claim that when there was no functioning government, they kept the country alive through their remittances, which, at some point, amounted to close to $50 million a year.
Liberians in the Diaspora, especially in the Europe and the US have remained very connected to the country. They have affected political changes during the past two decades. Until the introduction of graduate studies in Liberian universities a few years ago, every Liberian with a masters or a PhD had studied abroad. It was therefore no surprise that when forming her first government, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recruited heavily in the Diaspora. During legislative breaks, the great majority of Liberian lawmakers fly to the US to meet their “constituents.” Only a minority of government officials, in all three branches do not have some kind of family with residence in the US.
However, whenever the issue of dual citizenship is raised, there is negative reaction at home. “They come, take the big jobs, send the money to support their families in the US and when they commit crimes of corruption, they fly to America,” said a radio talk show host recently. Many point to the case of US citizen Ellen Cockrum, who was accused by government of embezzlement but could never be brought to court because she fled “home.”
Sadly, the host and some Liberians do not think that stealing the Liberian people's money to build a mansion in Monrovia with the stolen for you and your family is stealing.
Yes, Cockrum left Liberia and came to the U.S. But what happened to the other indictees, alone with Ellen Cockrum, who are currently in Liberia? The opposition to dual citizenship seems to be like job security for the opponents – the fear that more qualified Liberians will return home to rebuild their native land.
The issue of citizenship is symptomatic of the state maturity of Liberia as a nation still in transition. Among the clauses to be considered among the amendments, Liberians will decide whether to make the country officially a Christian nation, although no other religious group has ever challenged the notion that the country is run by Christians and every emblem of the country carries the seal of Christianity. It is like an elephant carrying a placard saying “I am the biggest animal of the bush.”
For the dual citizenship clause to pass in the amendments, the Diaspora will have to mount a serious campaign, not in the US but in Liberia and reach out to their lawmakers.
Here are some of the dual citizenship countries in Africa: “Angola, Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tunisia, and Uganda. Eritreans, Egyptians, and South Africans wanting to take another citizenship need a permission to maintain their citizenship. Eritrea taxes its citizens worldwide, even if they have never lived in the country. Lesotho restricts dual citizenship, but observes jus soli” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple_citizenship).