I read about Dr. Elizabeth Davis-Russell’s rejection by the Senate on the grounds that she is an American citizen, and was immediately concerned. Even though I have reservations about dual citizenship for Liberia, I was stunned that a woman of Davis-Russell’s credentials, competence, and track record could be cast aside so easily for the sake of political expediency.
While I recognise the need to maintain the rule of law in Liberia, I am worried that this latest rebuff was more politically motivated than based on any deep, abiding adherence to constitutionality.
As a case in point, there is a fundamental contradiction between Article 27 of Liberia’s 1986 Constitution, which states, “All persons, who, on the coming into force of this Constitution, were lawfully citizens of Liberia shall continue to be Liberian citizens,” and Section 22.1 of the 1973 Aliens and Nationality Law, which automatically revokes the legal citizenship status of Liberia-born nationals of ‘Negro descent’ who naturalise in, declare formal allegiance to, enter into the armed forces of, vote in the elections of, or formally renounce their Liberian citizenship in a foreign state.
Until this contradiction is resolved, the Senate has the wherewithal to use its own discretion to confirm nominees like Davis-Russell who are more than qualified for particular cabinet positions. I have seen too many unsuitable people breeze through the confirmation process, so can’t understand the Senate’s hardball stance this time around.
But I was reminded recently that this is election season, so politics rules supreme.
Lest we forget, however, the Senate has a record of botched confirmations. During the course of my doctoral research on the historical and contemporary factors that have influenced both the introduction and postponement in passage of Liberia’s dual citizenship bill, I encountered a number of anomalies in the legislative confirmation process and Davis-Russell is the first case of a barred confirmation based on citizenship status. For instance, Luseni Dunzo, former minister of public works, was questioned about his US citizenship, but later confirmed on a technicality. And I know a number of former and current cabinet officials, based on anecdotal evidence and personal knowledge, whose other citizenships did not stop them from passing through the same Senate that rejected Davis-Russell.
If we say we are a country of laws, then we need to uphold those laws consistently without fear or favour. As far as I’m concerned the Senate has two options: recall all the confirmations of those who have other citizenships to maintain legality or issue a moratorium on senate confirmations based on citizenship status until after the Constitution Review process is complete and the matter of dual citizenship officially resolved.
A precedent has already been set on suspending decisions based on constitutional matters. For instance, when the Liberian people voted ‘No’ in the National Referendum of 2011, it was clear that the 10-year residency clause for presidential candidates should have been upheld. Instead, that particular Referendum item was forwarded to the Supreme Court and they decided it would be tabled until the 2017 elections.
Why not overturn Davis-Russell’s rejection in a similar fashion and enable her to serve until 2017, on the grounds that she is capable of reviving an education system that is clearly challenged?
But alas, I understand that Davis-Russell has done the honourable thing and asked the president to withdraw her nomination. I can’t help mourning this loss, especially since many with less integrity are in positions of authority across all three branches of government and failing the Liberian people in the process.
Come next elections, whenever that will be, I hope we will choose wisely.
Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author based at SOAS, University of London.