By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé & George H. Nubo
Will the Liberian Iron Lady Provide the “bully pulpit” for Dual Citizenship?
A recent article published in the Liberian Observer on the citizenship of former Coca Cola executive Alex Cummings and the public reactions reignited the issue of citizenship, something that Liberia has been grappling with since its foundation. In the beginning, the American former slaves who founded the country put limitations as to whom could be a Liberian. According to Professor Patrick Burroughs, one of the criteria was to be a Christian and another was to be of Negro descent. As the colony acquired more land and assimilated more natives, it also extended citizenship. People of Non-negro descent were excluded and are still excluded as per the current constitution.
It is worth noting that although Liberia never adopted dual citizenship, high officials and affluent members of the ruling class always made sure that their children were born in the US, thus ensuring them of American citizenship they got at birth while they enjoyed the Liberian citizenship which no one could deny them.
As the result of the military coup of 1980 that ended the century-old Americo-Liberian hold on power and the civil war of the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Liberians sought refuge outside of the country, many taking up new citizenships. Unlike many former African colonies, Liberia never adopted dual-citizenship. That meant that those opting 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 deputy minister of Public Works, Luseni Donzo, admitted of having an American passport but was somehow 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. Dr. Russell was rejected when she was 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 former Liberians seemed bothered by standing in front of the Senate and swear that they are citizens of Liberia when actually they have willingly given up their native citizenship to reap the benefits of naturalization 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, when they actually went through a gruesome process to acquire it. Morally and legally, breaking the law seems acceptable until one runs contrary to some special interests. Then pictures of the foreign passports are put on newspaper pages. More bribes and the issue is laid to rest.
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 number of professional 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 citizenship. They invested in their new lives and they have children growing up in an educational system and with opportunities unattainable in Liberia.
In Liberia, there is a clear divide on the issue. During hearings conducted by the Governance Commission on land issues – also tied to citizenship - and the recent town hall meetings held by the Constitutional Review Commission, many are opposed to the notion. Maryland Senator Dan Morias once said, “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 he would prefer Anglo-Saxons becoming citizens of Liberia, instead of Liberians citizens who have voluntarily 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. Many families in the country are still supported by Diaspora money. However, contrary to public belief, the majority of “returnees” do not enter government but go into private practice.
Liberians in foreign lands, especially in Europe and the US have remained very connected to their country of origin. They have impacted both the politics and economics of the nation during the past three decades. Until the introduction of graduate studies in Liberian colleges 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 can boast of not having 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, like corruption, they fly to America,” said a radio talk show host recently. Many point to the case of US citizen Ms. Ellen Cockrum, who was accused by government of embezzlement but could never be brought to court because she fled “home.”
Perhaps and sadly, the host and some Liberians think that stealing the Liberian people's money to build a mansion in Monrovia is not a crime. People with salaries of not more than US $6,000.00 are building million dollars mansions, sending their children to the most expensive schools in Europe and America but nobody wonders where the money comes from or cares. As long as they are not from the Diaspora, as long as everyone chops, their stealing deranges nobody.
Ms. Ellen Cockrum left Liberia and came to the U.S. but nothing happened to the others who were indicted along with her and who are still walking the streets in Liberia and called “honorable”? The opposition to dual citizenship seems to be more about job security for the opponents – the fear that more qualified Liberians would 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 in constitutional 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 only in the US but also in Liberia and reach out to their lawmakers and the ones who vote and who received the monthly “control number.” There are lots of professional honest Liberians who want to go home and help but are not ready to give up their US citizenship nor lie to the Senate to get a job.
There is another fear, deep in the subconscious of Liberians, inherited from the colonial founding days by freed slaves, and that is the fact that dual citizenship could pave the way to the admitting people of non-Negro descent into Liberian nationality.
Many countries in Africa have adopted dual citizenship and it never let to an invasion by “foreigners.” Such countries include 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).
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and a few members of the Legislature have expressed their support for the dual citizenship amendment but the Diaspora will have to mount pressure to make it a reality. But, as one politician put it, the President needs to provide a “bully pulpit” for advocacy on the dual citizenship issue as she has done in the past on other issues near and dear to her heart.