By Rev. Dr. Samuel E. Vansiea
Liberia was founded as a Dual Citizenship nation. In the early 1800s almost all of Africa was colonized except the land now called Liberia. The natives traded with Europeans but did not allow them to own land. They however agreed to share land with Negro settlers from the United States of America in the spirit of Negro solidarity. It was through the political genius of the settlers that Liberia became a sovereign state in 1847.
According to The American Journal of International Law (Vol. 4), former U.S. Secretary of State Williams Evarts affirmed in a February 2, 1880 communication that the settlers sent to Liberia were actual United States citizens.
Several former presidents and government officials were foreign born. For example, President Joseph J. Roberts was born in the United States and President Arthur Barclay was of West Indian origin. Considering all that and, including the natives, it can be argued that Liberia was founded as a republic of Dual Citizenry. Therefore, the creation of the anti-dual citizenship law in 1956 (amended in 1973) raises some fundamental questions such as:
- What prompted the government of President William V. S. Tubman to make that law in 1956?
- Why would the Americo-Liberian ruling class for the first 133 (1847-1980) years reject Dual Citizenship when being called Americo-Liberians signifies dual nationality and their own children were going to school, getting married, and having children abroad?
To understand that phenomenon, we need to look at events of the1900s.
During the period between World War II and the Cold War, European powers were extremely protective of their interests in the countries they colonized. One way to protect that interest was to make the colonies adopt citizenship laws similar to laws of the colonizing country.
The U.S. did likewise in Liberia. According to Harrison Akingbade, author of U.S. Liberian Relations During World War II, the U.S. exerted much influence on the Liberian government during that time to protect the Firestone Rubber Company and their military bases at Roberts International Airport and the Freeport of Monrovia. Though Liberia initially maintained a policy of neutrality in the war, the U.S. pressured her to declare war on The Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan on January 27, 1944.
In early 1950, in what seemed like diplomatic pressure to prove further loyalty to the Liberia-America relationship, President Tubman had to ensure that no Liberian will bear arms for any other country except the U.S. and Liberia. In 1952 the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia Mr. Edward R. Dudley, acting on behalf of President Tubman, solicited the expertise of Cornell University professor Milton R. Konvitz to create a legal document for Liberia which included the Title 3 Citizenship and Naturalization Law of the Republic of Liberia of 1956 (amended in 1973) that is in question today.
Of cause they used American naturalization law as template and included what looked like an “anti-dual citizens” section. The original term used in the 1956 law was “Repatriation.” It stated that any Liberian who transfer residence to another country or join another army will be punished. Thus, it is fair to state that the citizenship law seems more like a cold war strategy to secure America’s interest more so than to deprive Liberians of citizenship. This is significant because there were no needs for such laws for the first 111 years (1847-1956) of Liberia’s existence and beyond.
Citizenship Laws and African Governments
As mentioned earlier, colonial powers imposed their citizenship laws on their colonies of which the interpretation became problematic for the Africans. After independence, instead of fixing the laws for national unity, most African governments used the laws as a tool to silence and ostracize other citizens who they suspected of threatening their political ambitions. Two classical examples are when the Zambia Movement for Multiparty Democracy Government construed their citizenship law in 1996 in what was openly known as a strategy to disqualify their own first and former president Kenneth Kaunda (president from 1964-1991) from contesting in the 1996 election because his parents were missionaries in Malawi. He was deemed no longer a citizen of Zambia until the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights intervened. His citizenship was restored, but elections were over. Likewise in 2001 and 2006 the Tanzanian government used nationality laws to terminate the citizenship of several journalists and the country’s own ambassador to Nigeria, Timothy Bandora all because the ruling party felt they were threats to their regime (Bronwen Manby, The Struggle for Citizenship in Africa).
Toward Dual Citizenship
Progressive countries in Africa, Europe, and Central and South America embraced the dual citizenship concept. According to the International Migration Review, more than half of all African countries have accepted and permitted their citizens to naturalize abroad without losing original citizenship. Those countries have the edge for economic prosperity and political stability compared to countries that do not. They also see dual citizenship as an extension of their influence beyond their borders. They use that influence as leverage in fostering tangible international relationship and partnership in a cost-effective manner. It also enhances the country’s presence on the modern globalization platform.
Senegal: Senegalese embraced dual citizenship from independence in 1960. Their first president Leopold Sedar Senghor was a French citizen. Senegalese don’t lose citizenship when they naturalize abroad. In 1995 the government created the High Commission for Senegalese Abroad to ensure the best interest of Senegalese diaspora. It is established that this approach to Dual Citizenship is contributive to the peace, stability, and economic prosperity of Senegal (The International Migration Review, Vol. 45).
Israel: Martin Edelman, author of Who Is An Israeli said Israel automatically welcomes returning Jews, their children, grandchildren, spouses, etc. to full citizenship status.
Middle East: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia, all of which encourage Dual Citizenship, rely on economic support from their diaspora citizens to save the country in time of financial crisis. In 2008 when investment dropped by $22 billion, support from diaspora citizens went up $328 billion (Sameera Fazili, Middle East Report).
Democracy: Dual Citizenship helps to strengthen democracy especially in developing countries. Acceptance of Dual Citizenship is viewed as a sign of mature democracy (Beth Elise Whitaker, The Politics of Home: Dual Citizenship and the African Diaspora).
Historians have observed that Africans are strongly connected at the foot of the family tree than at the height of political affiliation. Most of the instability in Africa have been fueled by unequal privileges between citizen groups. The events of the last 40 years in Liberia attest to that. Historian Edmond J. Keller states that “Disputes over . . . differing conceptions of citizenship are at the heart of the most intractable conflicts in Africa. De-nationalizing Africans from their land of origin is a very slippery concept (Keller, Identity, Citizenship, and Political Conflict in Africa).
Since 2013 the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has been working on a protocol whereby all African countries will move toward the international norm that citizens and their descendants should continue to have equal rights of nationality in their native land (Manby, Citizenship Law in Africa).
Moral and Ethical Implications for Liberia
Commenting on the anti-dual citizenship law, Mr. Augustine Ngafuan argued that the law is the law and ignorance of the law is no excuse. But the Volume of Sacred Law, the Holy Bible warns that not everything that is lawful is expedient (1 Corinthians 10:23). This debate is one instance where “expediency” outweighs “legality.”
Furthermore, this debate is a golden opportunity in the hand of the current government to champion unity, unless it chooses to go down in history for effectuating divisiveness.
History will judge us that under Americo-Liberian rule for 133 years, (despite the 1973 law) no one dreamed about terminating another Liberian’s citizenship simply because he/she held another passport and neither did that happen under the military/civilian rule of the 1980s.
I remember during the struggles for democracy in the 1970s, how G. Baccus Matthews, Togba Nah Tipoteh, Amos Sawyer, H. Boima Fahnbulleh, and others rallied Liberians against corruption and one-party system. In fact, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) and the Progressive People’s Party (PPP) which was the precursor to multiparty democracy were based in America. At that time no one cared about which passport another Liberian had. We saw each other as one big family fighting for democracy.
Finally, we’ve got the democracy and we can go to the polls to vote for the leaders we want. Then now, we want to tear each other apart for political gains, forgetting that those who we want to reject equally fought for this same democracy. They, too, lost families, friends and loved ones just the same. Whether at home or abroad, no Liberian is more Liberian than another Liberian.
It is argued that diaspora Liberians are corrupt. That argument, like all other arguments against diaspora Liberians, is just another façade. In the1970s and 1980s when students of the University of Liberia protested even to death against corruption, they were not protesting against diaspora Liberians.
This issue of Dual Citizenship has put us at the crossroads of a moral and ethical dilemma: to choose national unity by approving Dual Citizenship or choose divisiveness by rejecting Dual Citizenship.
Let me conclude with my fictional story of “Jay-beah-muo” Island (Jay-beah-muo is a Bassa expression meaning, “Your lets go!”).
Jay-beah-muo was a beautiful island off the coast of West Africa. The inhabitants of hundreds of years accomplished nothing but mud houses and dirt roads. Eventually they got an innovative leadership that wanted to transform the island into a modern attraction. So they held meetings, made plans, and raised funds successfully. It seems they would soon begin their project.
But the demons of the sea did not want development on the island. So the chief demon called a conference of devils to discuss how to destroy the dream of the remote island people. Some said to destroy their farms and flood their island, etc. But all was quiet when one little devil said, “Give them what they want, and they will have no need for each other.” “What do you mean?” asked the chief devil. The little devil went on,
Give them Development and they will Devalue each other,
Give them Power and they will Paralyze each other,
Give them Fortunes and they will Forsake each other,
Give them Democracy and they will Demonize each other.
“How did you know all that?” the chief demon asked. “I have been working among them a long time” said the little devil.
I hope this is not where Liberia is headed.
God bless the Republic of Liberia.