Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.
Many waves of forced migration took Liberians to different nations during various periods of history, prominently, after the 1980 coup and during the 1989 civil war, coupled with subsequent insurgencies. Most of these people had urgent need to assimilate in their host nations. This meant regularizing their legal statuses to avoid being indentured labor during their time of displacement. These persons of Liberian origin, at least some of them, have the desire to return and resettle in their homeland. Without doubt, there are other Liberians who left for further education or in search of better opportunities and may have taken citizenship in their host countries since they could not return home under the destructive and agonizing warring conditions. They are all lumped and depicted here as Diaspora Liberians. In the aftermath of these forced migrations and subsequent attainment of citizenship in their host nations, their status in Liberian law is now that they renounced Liberian citizenship.
The Debate Revisited
The dual citizenship debate is whether or not these Liberian nationals should be allowed to retain or regain their Liberian citizenship. This was an involuntary decision principally driven by socioeconomic pressures to acquire the practical conveniences and advantages of citizenship in their host nations. Equally so, many, if not most, have maintained strong ties with people in the homeland. They wish that their descendants will forge emotional and cultural bond with the Liberian society, even if they fail to acquire Liberian citizenship. Love for Liberia and their pride in Liberian heritage drives their quest for dual citizenship. It is also believed that this measure would facilitate the contribution of the Liberian Diaspora to the homeland’s social, economic, and technological transformation and recovery. But there are Liberians at home who resent dual citizenship on grounds that it is the same as rewarding national disloyalty. Many ideas have been proffered on the issue of dual citizenship, but another perspective on this critical policy question is needed – one which seeks to examine the humanitarian dimensions of the subject. Only by adding this human perspective can policy makers shape solutions which achieve the most good in the short-run and create policies that are themselves most stable in the long-run. The reintegration dimensions of the dual citizenship debate are therefore the focus here.
Dual citizenship is a grave nation building matter that affects the lives of a considerable size of Diaspora Liberians. Not only that, it has profound implications for rebuilding the fabric of the post-war Liberian state. Any serious discussion of the implications of dual citizenship for Liberians must take into account a fundamental fact of contemporary Liberian political, social and economic life. There is a growing diversity of Liberian citizens living in the Diaspora who have immense need for reintegration into the social fabric that was torn asunder during periods of instability. Many children of Liberian descent born abroad have no knowledge and ties to the country. Such a growing human resource needs to be harnessed for the benefit of the country. First, two critical questions are important to begin the discussion. What are the benefits to each side of the dual citizenship debate? Is it ethical to use the dual citizen debate as a political tool, while minimizing or denouncing the human suffering that Diaspora Liberians endured in their displacement and settlement or refuge just merely for anti-dual citizen advocates to gain political capital?
The Displacement Experience Described
The reason for forced departure and actual lived experiences of displaced Liberians often does not matter to some anti-dual citizenship advocates. But one has to acknowledge the severe strain displacement puts on affected persons including unemployment and gruesome social adjustment challenges. Involuntarily leaving a nation where you have been fully established and must begin life anew in a foreign state can be psychologically overwhelming in many ways. But the one underlying motivation for their decision to leave is simply to survive, escaping from danger and death. Displaced persons move to pursue opportunities that their homeland denies them and dreams that their homeland thwarts. Imagine for a moment living in a highly vulnerable state, suffering from discrimination, facing significant suffering and even being impoverished. Newcomers leaving warring societies are often marginalized within their host nations, while facing extreme grief and trauma associated with their forced displacement experience; the death and/or protracted absence of relatives and friends whose whereabouts are unknown. It is no secret that as newcomers into their host countries, these displaced people suffer from immense collapse of cultural identity, interruption of work and school activities, and even high material poverty levels. Children who are part of the displaced populations feel the pain even more acutely alongside elderly and disabled relatives. Indeed, when discussing dual citizenship, it is important to remember first and foremost, the harsh life experiences of those Liberians who are the prime subjects of the discussion. To simplify and objectify the issues does not serve any useful purpose. Information and discussions on dual citizenship should be honest conversations, where the interests, agendas and concerns of all members of Liberian society are addressed in the context of the nation’s collective humanity. It is important to fully understand the reasons for making the difficult decision to choose another citizenship before we endeavor to pass judgment on Diaspora Liberians.
Liberian Law disenfranchises its nationals: children and adults spread all over the world that involuntarily migrated due to the protracted warfare and acquired foreign citizenship. They are now excluded from citizenship in their country of origin. When the war was raging, externally displaced Liberians had no automatic access to residency and/or citizenship rights in the nations where they sought refuge. However, by virtue of acquiring foreign citizenship, critics argue that these Liberian refuge seekers were disloyal and thus automatically erased their legal rights and entitlements to their homeland. To the contrary, while they naturalized as citizens of other nations, many maintained their Liberian culture, language, values, and character whilst in the Diaspora, coupled with linkages to families and friends. It is a fact that in most host countries, the legal citizenship requirement meant renouncing all allegiances to one’s country of origin. But foreign naturalized citizenship is not an automatic expression of national disloyalty toward Liberia. It is a legal procedure required to regularize one’s status and to procure better livelihood not only for themselves, but also for relatives in the homeland. Without citizenship, opportunities for upward mobility in the host nation are restricted. This has direct negative consequences for the amount of remittances that they can send to the homeland and it limits their capacity to facilitate the immigration of other family members in the homeland to the host nation. Foreign citizenship by most, if not all refuge seekers is a gesture required to ease the enormous burdens of navigating very litigious even racist terrains in the host country, without which you become an indentured laborer.
Effects on Livelihood Outcomes
Why does the symbolism of disloyalty matter so much to anti-dual citizenship advocates? Does it make better public policy sense to facilitate the return of Diaspora Liberians to the homeland, help them regularize their status, and to enable them to become tax-paying citizens and significant contributors to the nation’s economy and well-being? Would the brain-gain that such a change promise make more sense than the rather xenophobic reception that keeps emanating from some sources? Would social equity be enhanced and pluralism valorize by the government recognizing and accommodating the needs of these Liberians who have come to constitute a minority class of their own? Would the government be promoting social cohesion and adding social capital to our rather divided political landscape? Would the government be promoting a sense of common identity and preventing the kinds of segregation and radicalization that caused the civil conflict? It is important to remind readers that Liberia is grossly dependent on economic remittances from its nationals living in the Diaspora. These remittances are the lifeline for a large number of chronically poor and working poor Liberians. Investments by Diaspora Liberians in the economy and infrastructure are also growing. Diaspora Liberians provide homeland residents much needed foreign exchange and tend to cushion them in hard times. It is not hidden that the war took a toll on national human capacity and the local workforce needs significant capacity enhancements particularly in technical areas. Globalism has made the world highly competitive and as the conditions stand, the skills of many Liberian professionals are mediocre compared to even counterparts within the sub-region, least to say those living and working in Western nations. Diaspora Liberians bring added value to the labor force.
Effects on Social Outcomes
It is a fact that Liberia is a culturally disintegrated society, recovering from effects of the civil conflict. The war tore the social fabric asunder along ethnic, class, religious, and many other lines. A requirement for a new society is forging the reintegration of all Liberians along these divided lines. Building a multiethnic and multicultural society is important for Liberia’s future. Dual citizenship will play a role in bringing about this much needed cultural blending, hence, fostering an integrated society. It will help mend the cleavages that were exploited by predators to start and sustain the civil conflict. Homeland residents do not stand to lose anything because their relatives return and are allowed to regain Liberian citizenship. Dual citizenship might put an asterisk next to the names of some Liberians, but definitely not automatically make them disloyal to the nation. If democracy is built on meaningful informed citizen participation, dual citizenship especially for Liberians living in western democracies may add a value to our emerging democracy. They might be more practiced at civic engagement and inclusive politics than Liberians in the homeland since these host nations are far ahead in terms of how ingrained civic norms are.
The Stake in Society Measure
The asterisk will be erased by the newcomer having a stake in the society, putting down roots on the ground – which gives them an investment in things going well in the society because they will benefit, if conditions improve. But this should not only apply to the returning Liberians. All Liberians must be given a stake in the society to prevent repeat of the conditions that led to the civil war, which caused the forced departure of Diaspora Liberians from the country. When people do not feel that they have a reason to protect the society from rampant destruction or exploitation, the consequences can be devastating and evidence is everywhere in our society ranging from the war to the violent rages by the perpetrators of the various vigilante riots that have plagued the nation in recent years. True, the notion of dual citizenship can become divisive, if the newcomers decide to use Liberia as a pawn and not invest in or own a stake in the society. But there are ways to guide against this. Dual citizenship must then be based on a show of stake in the society, perhaps by setting a certain property or economic threshold, time-limit on living and re-immersing in the society without being involved in a criminal action against the state. Additionally, dual citizenship might present a security issue, whereby classified state information could be divulged to the new national’s other country of naturalization. But in these events, security clearances might be used to address this worry, if a dual citizen must have access to classified information. Similarly, single citizenship Liberians can also enact criminal acts and betray the public trust.
Liberians are now ethnically, religiously, culturally diverse than any time in history. Liberia is now a transnational society. Social interactions are occurring across variety of borders involving intermarriages, interethnic and interreligious friendships. Physical presence in Liberia no longer defines Liberian national identity. There are advantages to such multi-sited or transnational identity. Inclusion and integration are not only an important, but necessary factors in this regard. If we make it easier for Diaspora Liberians who have acquired foreign citizenship to get dual citizenship, it would definitely lure these Liberian nationals to return and invest in their homeland. By liberalizing Liberian citizenship law, this will be the greatest show of appreciation to Diaspora Liberians who literally carried the warring country on their shoulders through formal and informal remittances for almost two decades, and continue to do so today. Dual citizenship should be built on the foundation that both Liberians with single and dual citizenships will face the full weight of the law should they commit any crimes in Liberia. The ease of flight, when one is holding an important office is worrisome, but dual citizenship cannot be the scapegoat for the lack of strong law enforcement. Concrete policies, laws, and regulations, including a reparation agreement between Liberia and all Diaspora Liberian sending nations would easily resolve this matter. This will allow potential criminals to be deported back to Liberia, if they flee. But there is no way that one can say in good conscience that a dual citizen is more prone to betray the country than those with single citizenships. Instead, the state should encourage strong nationalism amongst its citizens and residents. In democracies, contentious legal issues are resolved by the voters bringing political pressure to bear on their lawmakers to serve their interests. But our highly restrictive citizenship laws are out of step with the reality of Liberian society today as it seeks to attract talents and resources to rebuild the nation. Dual citizenship will help the society to overcome its divided past. While there are some risks associated with dual citizenship, they are not enough to disenfranchise a whole segment of the population or unborn generations of Liberians for. Pluralism fosters the coexistence of diverse populations, and dual citizenship fosters pluralism. Although our political mainstream does not welcome dual citizenship at the moment, the case has to be made that Diaspora Liberians are products of demographic changes that stemmed from forced migration, and discriminating against them for actions that they took to secure their lives and livelihoods should not be held against them. The ethics of forced migration requires us to accept dual citizenship rather than rail against it. Policy makers must now look way beyond the domestic sphere of the debate to find its greater purpose, scope, and impact on Liberian society.
The Author: Emmanuel Dolo is the President and CEO of the Center for Liberia’s Future, an independent think tank based in Duazon, Liberia.