By Robin Dopoe, Jr and Gloria T. Tamba
President George Weah has said his administration will propose changes to the Constitution to offer citizenship to people of non-Negro descent who have been denied such privilege since the founding of the country.
President Weah in his state of the Nation Address yesterday at the Capitol building said since the founding of the country in 1847, there have been restrictions on citizenship and property ownership that – in his view – have become serious impediments to the development and progress of the country.
“These restrictions include the limitation of citizenship only to black people, the limitation of property ownership exclusively to citizens, and the non-allowance of dual citizenship.
“The framers of the 1847 Constitution may have had every reason and justification to include these restrictions in that historic document. They, as freed slaves, were fleeing from the oppressive yoke of slavery imposed upon them by white slave owners. They therefore wanted Liberia to be a safe refuge and a haven for freed men of color, and so they restricted citizenship only to black people.
President Weah expressed his willingness to grant non-Negros citizenship through a referendum that will be submitted as an additional proposal to the seven accepted among the propositions that were submitted to the Constitution Review Committee last year.
According to the President, the restriction of land ownership exclusively to citizens in Article 22 (a) of the constitution impedes progress and stunt growth and development.
Article 27 (c) of the constitution said: “In order to preserve, foster and maintain the positive Liberian culture, values and character, only persons who are Negroes or of Negro descent shall qualify by birth or by naturalization to be citizens of Liberia.”
The President said this nationality law is a contradiction to the definition of Liberia, which is derived from the Latin word “liber,” meaning “liberty.”
Meanwhile, another issue of concern to President Weah is the restriction placed in the constitution forbidding dual citizenship which, he said, should not be so in the 21st century.
On dual citizenship, President Weah said: “I believe that most Liberians who are also citizens of another country probably acquired the additional nationality as a means to escape from the terrible atrocities which characterized our civil conflict, and for economic survival in their new countries of residence.
“If, as a condition precedent for other countries to grant citizenship to these persons, they had to dis-avow their loyalty to Liberia and pledge allegiance to the laws of another country, then it could have been out of necessity, rather than a matter of the heart.
He added that natural born Liberians who have obtained citizenship elsewhere, were Liberians first, and he believes that they should be welcomed back home with open arms.
“Whether or not they are required to renounce their adopted nationalities should be a matter of their consciences and the laws which govern their naturalization in their respective domiciles. They should be free to make those choices and decisions,” President Weah noted.
President Weah however did not comment on public concerns about his dual nationalities which according to sources includes French and U.S. citizenship. Legal analysts however hold the view that President Weah’s previous acquisition of French citizenship and then U.S. citizenship in 2013 automatically annulled his rights to Liberian citizenship.
Legally speaking, according to analysts, President Weah’s tenure is illegitimate because he swore allegiance to the United States of America and has not since renounced his U.S. citizenship even though he took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of Liberia. Analysts recall for instance the case of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori who fled to Japan after being accused of involvement in corruption and human rights abuse.
While this situation may not necessarily obtain in the case of President Weah, according to a former legislator (name withheld), it only highlights the problems associated with dual citizenship particularly with regards to individuals desiring to contest political office. It must however be observed that this is not the first time that such an idea has been bandied about. It was more recently rejected in the 2005 national referendum. Moreover, the idea was discussed quite extensively but failed to make it to the 2011 national referendum.
Under Liberia’s alien and nationality laws, any person who is a citizen by birth or by naturalization shall lose his citizenship by (a) Obtaining naturalization in a foreign state upon his own application (b) Taking an oath or making an affirmation or other formal declaration of allegiance to a foreign state or a political subdivision thereof: (c) Exercising a free choice to enter or serve in the armed forces of a foreign state, unless, prior to such entry or service, such entry or service is specifically authorized by the President (d) Voting in a political election in a foreign state or voting in an election or plebiscite to determine the sovereignty of a foreign state over foreign territory; or (e) Making a formal renunciation of Liberian nationality before a diplomatic or consular officer of Liberia in a foreign state in such form may be prescribed by the Secretary of State.
Additionally, legal analysts maintain that President Weah’s wife, Clar Duncan Weah may have also been in violation of the law when she voted in the 2017 elections as there is no record anywhere showing that she applied for and was granted Liberian citizenship which would have conferred upon her the right to vote in Liberian elections.
Under Subchapter B Section 21.30 of Liberia’s Alien and Nationality laws “A woman of negro descent who marries a citizen of the Republic shall not become by virtue of such act of marriage a citizen of Liberia. Such woman may be naturalized if she is qualified in conformity with all of the provisions of section 21.1 of this title and complies with all the procedural requirements for naturalization set forth in this chapter.
As President Weah has stressed that the Constitution will be his principal guide for leadership and governance throughout his tenure as President, it remains to be seen how he is going to address issues about the constitutionality of his tenure or the legitimacy or relevance of the country’s Alien and Nationality laws.