Liberia has a political structure that closely resembles that of the United States. As the country prepares for its next election, which will be held in 2017, Liberians in the country and the Diaspora are closely monitoring each presidential candidate to assure that the best leader for their country is chosen. The best leader for the country would be one who utilizes the talent, skills and work ethic of the Liberian people to propel the economy in the direction of educational, technological, and economic advancement. In addition to the aforementioned qualities, said leader would also have to address the sensitive topic of dual citizenship.
Dual citizenship, also known as multiple nationalities, is a term used to define the residency status of any individual who is lawfully considered a citizen in two countries concurrently. Having dual citizenship status enables an individual to live and travel freely between their native and naturalized countries without the restraints of immigration policies. Dual citizens have two passports and sometimes are granted privileges such as land ownership and voting rights.
Dual citizenship is a controversial topic within various Liberian social groups, because many Liberian natives in the Diaspora would like to regain their citizenship status while keeping the current citizen status of their naturalized country. However, the Liberian constitution does not permit dual citizenship and those that left the country as a result of the years of civil war and gained citizenship elsewhere cannot regain citizenship unless they renounce their current naturalized citizenship status. Many Liberians fled the country during the 14-year civil war which began in 1989 and ended in 2003. They long to regain their citizenship status. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that, of the 2.8 million people living in Liberia in 1989, half of the population fled their homes. The UNHCR estimated that 17,000 people sought refuge in Ghana, 160,000 people in Cote d’Ivoire, 14,000 people in Sierra Leone and 235,000 people in Guinea. There are also thousands of Liberians who sought refuge in the United States, Australia, Europe and other countries.
Those in bordering countries like Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire returned home to Liberia when the war was over. Others in the Diaspora, like the Liberians in the United States, uncertain of the future of Liberia pursued U.S. citizenship to provide stability for their families. With the ever changing U.S. immigration laws, seeking citizenship was the best route to stability. The type of stability that was provided through American citizenship included federal education benefits, home ownership and employment opportunities. With stability, Liberian-American citizens were able to advance their education and gain employable skills. Some worked two to three jobs to help their families in their naturalized country as well as back in their native country of Liberia with the new skills and education they received. With their efforts, Liberians in the Diaspora sent over 1 billion U.S dollars back to family, friends and loved ones during the Liberian civil war. To date, hundreds of millions of U.S dollars are sent back to Liberia annually to take care of family, friends and loved ones; and according to MGAfrica, 26 percent of the GDP of Liberia comes from foreign transfers.
In fact 26 percent of the GDP of Liberia comes from those in the Diaspora – the same individuals lobbying for dual citizenship. However, the opponents of dual citizenship are under the assumption that if dual citizenship is established in Liberia, punishing criminals with dual citizenship status will be difficult. If an individual commits a crime, opponents of dual citizenship believe it will be hard to prosecute said individual because that individual could flee to their naturalized country and flee the punishment of their actions. On the contrary, with dual citizenship, Liberia will have the right to hold their citizens accountable even if they hold naturalization somewhere else. Ignorance of the law will not be an excuse for those dual citizens because those individuals will be required to uphold the nation’s laws whenever in Liberia. If not, they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the laws of Liberia. Therefore, said individual will be fully charged under Liberian laws with little intervention from their naturalized country to include jail time, fines and loss of their citizenship privileges.
Another opposing view is that if dual citizenship was established, those in the Diaspora would flood back to Liberia and take all the jobs because of the job scarcity in Liberia. As a result of the civil war and plagues like Ebola, numerous infrastructure and job opportunities were taken out of the country. The assumption is that those in the Diaspora are more educated than native Liberians and will be more qualified for job opportunities. While that is a valid argument we must understand that job prospects are not the motivation for dual citizenship. Native Liberians are competing with their peers and those from other countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Lebanon, China and India for the jobs in Liberia. Sometimes development contracts are given to other countries to develop Liberia. Instead of hiring the native Liberians, these countries import their own workers for those positions which take jobs and growth opportunities away from the average Liberian worker. Liberians in the Diaspora are more likely to create businesses in Liberia than those from other countries. They are also more likely to create employment opportunities for their fellow Liberians.
In an interconnected global economy, it is in the best interest of Liberia to utilize the skills gained by Liberians in the Diaspora to assist in the development of the country. Liberians in the Diaspora have proven they are willing to assist in the educational improvements, technological advances, and structural development of Liberia to stimulate the economy by the millions of dollars they send home every year to support these efforts. That money is used to hire native Liberians like construction workers to build houses, farmers to grow crops and housekeepers to take care of those homes. With the funds gained from their employment, those workers are able to send their children to school, thus paying the salaries of teachers to provide a livelihood for their families. Dual Citizenship will create more job opportunities than it could possibly take away. When advocating for Dual Citizenship, Liberians in the Diaspora are willing to accept conditional dual citizenship. That means they are willing to put time limitations on their citizenship status. That includes foregoing applying for government positions, forgo voting rights or even land ownership for a period of time to include multiple years.
During the past thirty years some West African countries have established dual citizenship and their economies have grown rapidly as an influx of needed skills and knowledge entered their countries. Ghana and Sierra Leone are two of those countries that have established dual citizenship and their economy increased. The Ghana Citizenship Act of 2002 established dual citizenship for Ghanaians. Trading Economics estimates in 2002 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Ghana, which is the economic strength of a country, was 9.9 billion U.S. dollars. In 2013, only eleven years after establishing dual citizenship, their GDP amplified to 47.8 billion dollars. In 2002 Liberia’s GDP was 0.5 billion U.S dollars, and we can contribute the weak economy to the civil war. In 2013, ten years after the end of the civil, Liberia’s GDP was only 1.94 billion dollars. While Ghana’s rapid economic growth is not only due to the success of dual citizenship, there is a positive correlation with economic success and an equipped, educated and innovative population. Establishing dual citizenship will help Liberia grow that equipped educated and innovative population. Some may argue that Ghana was not destroyed by 14 years of civil war so the comparison to Liberia is invalid. For that, direct your attention to a country that borders Liberia, Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone is not only a neighboring country of Liberia, but it also shares similar climate, history and customs. Sierra Leone experienced an 11-year civil war from 1991-2002. In 2002 after their 11-year civil war, Sierra Leone had a 1.1 billion dollar GDP and was struggling to keep their economy afloat. The Sierra Leone Citizenship Amendment Act of 2006 established dual citizenship for the country. In 2006 their GDP was 1.89 billion; yet, in 2013, just seven years after establishing dual citizenship, Sierra Leone’s GDP increased to 4.83 billion dollars of total output. In those 7 years Liberia’s GDP increased from 7 (700 million) to 1.95 billion. Sierra Leone added almost 3 billion dollars to their economy creating jobs, access to education, and more opportunities for their citizens to achieve their dreams.
‘Only Liberians can help Liberia’ is a phrase that is commonly shared in Liberian communities, social media groups and private conversations. Liberians, who are a part of the Diaspora, want to help Liberia. They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy to assist in the development of the nation. In 2012, one-third of the economy of Liberia came from funds sent back to Liberia by Liberians in the Diaspora. Fortunately, Liberians in the Diaspora are willing to accept conditional dual citizenship which comes with restrictions. A survey that was done by the Dual Citizenship Committee under the leadership of Mr. Emanuel Wettee found that Liberians in the Diaspora advocating for dual citizenship are willing to accept restrictions such as limitations on holding public office. Only Liberians can help Liberia, and if dual citizenship is passed granting citizenship status to native Liberians in the Diaspora, Liberia will soar once again.
About the author: Joseph B. Sawo was born in Liberia. He and his family sought refuge in the United States to escape the Liberian Civil War. Joseph received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Ohio State University and is a first year MBA student specializing in Procurement and Acquisitions from Webster University.