The nationwide debate on the claim to legitimate ownership of Liberia continues to be tested with zeal, heightened by the controversial dual citizenship clause proposed for Liberia. In recent years, the Constitution Review Committee (CRC) toured the country and sought the views of Liberians on changes or amendments to certain clauses in the Constitution and came up with a list of 24 propositions for referendum – among them, dual citizenship and the right of people of non-negro descent, to be allowed to attain Liberian citizenship.
In what was described by other Liberian academics as ‘a very meaningful contribution to the dual citizenship debate’, a young Liberian scholar, Dr. Robtel Neajai Pailey, presented her doctorate thesis on the topic on Wednesday, April 20, at the University of Liberia auditorium, with some fellow Liberian scholars and other members of the Liberian society in attendance. Her thesis research work which was done at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, is entitled “The Love of Liberty Divided Us Here” and cataloged factors leading to the introduction postponed passage of a dual citizenship bill in the Liberian Legislature.
The postponed status of the proposed bill happens to sum up her thoughts about the matter, given her findings from interviews of 209 Liberians residing in Europe, the United States of America and West Africa. In a nutshell, according to Dr. Pailey, a decision on dual citizenship is nowhere near the top of the list of priorities for most Liberians, at the present time. Moreover, her study sheds light on the respective journeys of several other African countries on the very dual citizenship issue, and what Liberia could learn from those experiences.
Dr. Pailey scrutinized in her thesis the “markers” of citizenship narrowly defined in Liberia’s current Aliens and Nationality Law; how citizenship is currently conceived and practiced domestically and trans-nationally; and the symbiotic relationship between (dual) citizenship and post-war recovery.
According to her, “Liberia, not formally colonized and more recently emerging from 14 years of armed conflict, represents a stark case study in citizenship construction, because of its idiosyncratic (distinctive, individualistic) history of black settler state formation.
“Liberian citizenship has historically been a tool of exclusion, one barring women, non-settlers, non-Christians, and non-blacks, and it remains a violently contested space of inquiry with newer forms of citizenship now developing in Liberia and within transnational spaces.”
She argued that conflict, migration, globalization and postwar recovery have configured Liberian citizenship across space and time, thereby influencing the introduction and postponement in the passage of a dual citizenship bill proposed in 2008.
Her argument continued that the “bill is used as a point of entry to evaluate Liberia’s long-standing struggle to construct a unique brand of citizenship that is totalizing, tactical and timeless.
“The rationale behind my research and contribution to this cardinal proposition is for us to practically fill in the empirical gaps, make informed policies, influence public discourse and begin wider discussions about what Liberian citizenship is and why should people of non Negro descent become citizens of Liberia.”
She categorized Liberians into three main classes, namely: Homeland Liberians or citizens who are born in Liberia, reside in Liberia and have all their activities in the country; Permanent returnees or Liberian citizens who live in other countries that return to Liberia and settle; and Circular Returnees or Liberian citizens who are in and out of Liberia frequently due to transnational or global opportunities.
She called on her fellow Liberians to stop the multilayered, gendered, aged, racial and ethnicized politics of citizenship.
“This leads to the conflict-related expression that, for example, ‘Mandingoes are foreigners or strangers in Liberia’. Let us remember that Liberia is a signatory to many international conventions on global human rights, and that Liberians are citizens in other parts of the world,” she added.
“Citizenship definition goes beyond legality. Being a Liberian rationally means having Liberia at heart by making meaningful contributions to its development by the use of one’s talents, time and energy.”
Liberians all across the nation will be going to the polls in a referendum expected to take place before the presidential and legislative elections in 2017 to decide a number of critical issues, which include the reduction of presidential and legislative tenures, state religion, among others.
Meanwhile, Dr. Pailey intends to publish her study on the matter to inform the Liberian decision on the topic, as well as to contribute to the global discussion on the matter.
In attendance to hear the presentation were people from various vocations and persuasions, intelligently engaging the Dr. Pailey with many poignant and thought-provoking questions. The final question, which aptly concluded the question-and-answer session, was asked by the moderator, Norris Tweah, vice president for public affairs at the University of Liberia: “Is dual citizenship in Liberia an eventuality and, if so or if not, why?”
“Given the global trends,” Dr. Pailey responded, “I think it is an eventuality in Liberia, but I will say as a caveat that perhaps… this particular moment may not be the right time. If you ask a typical Liberian what are [their] priorities, dual citizenship is not going to be at the top of their list of priorities. There are other bread and butter issues around making sure they have a living wage; that they are able to support their families; that the people they vote into power represent them adequately. They are not necessarily paying attention to what would-be dual citizens could achieve. They respect and appreciate the remittances, but are also concerned about people coming back and disenfranchising them. Whether those concerns are valid or not, they are concerns that I think should be appreciated and they should be reconciled.”
She also said that there is a growing trend of dual citizenship being embraced across the African continent: one-third of African countries, she found, have varying forms of dual citizenship, some more restrictive than others. “And Liberia will follow that trajectory,” she said. “But at the moment, given the interviews that I have done and the push-back… I am not convinced that it is a priority now or that it will be passed now.”