By Augustine K. Ngafuan
Now and then, the contentious issue of dual citizenship makes its way to the front-burner of national debate. Obviously, since President Weah proclaimed his support for dual citizenship and called for the amendment of our Constitution through a referendum to allow for dual citizenship, the nation has been abuzz with active debate, pros and cons, on the issue. I too have been contacted by many pundits and journalists seeking to glean my thoughts on this topical issue. Interestingly, my views on the way forward on the dual citizenship debate are encapsulated in a speech I delivered on September 21, 2013 in Columbus, Ohio, USA when I delivered the keynote address at the 39th Assembly of the Union of Liberian Organizations in the Americas (ULAA). I still espouse those views and proposals. I am therefore re-posting hereunder excerpts of my speech as my contribution to the current debate.
Mr. President and Fellow Compatriots, for the remaining few minutes of this address, I will endeavor to proffer my candid views on this hot-button issue that is among the top concerns of many Liberians in the Diaspora. The dual citizenship debate both in Liberia and in the Diaspora has been heavily charged as both the proponents and the opponents of dual citizenship advance their various perspectives with deep passion and sentiments. Trying not to swing to either end of this emotional pendulum, I shall set forth my views as honestly and as frankly as I can and take full responsibility for what I say.
It is well known fact that before the Liberian civil war, Liberians did not have a huge appetite for leaving their homeland and settling permanently abroad. However, the 14 years of war uprooted the whole society and triggered the massive exodus of Liberians to foreign parts including the United States and Europe. At the time, the overarching pre-occupation of Liberians in the Diaspora was to seek better opportunities for themselves so that they could assist their struggling relations scattered in displaced and refugee camps in Liberia and other parts of West Africa. Climbing to the height of the professional ladder was seen by many Liberians as a way of empowering themselves so that they could stabilize their own livelihoods in the Diaspora, while continuing to remit higher sums of money to relatives in Liberia or in a refugee camp. Additionally, as the Liberian civil war protracted, many Liberians who were holed up in refugee camps in West Africa did not view returning to Liberia as a wise option; they instead longed to be resettled abroad, more preferably in America or Europe. Accordingly, Liberians in the US, for example, viewed the acquisition of American citizenship as one effective means of accessing equal opportunities in America , and also filing for a family member to relocate to the US and to taste the American dream. Those who graduated from the refugee camp at Buduburam in Ghana can bear us witness. We concede that there were many and various motivations behind the acquisition by Liberians of the citizenship of a foreign country, but the predominant motivation has arguably been the intrinsic desire to be of better help to oneself, one’s family, friends, and country.
I still remember vividly the sight of Liberians during our Civil War in long queues waiting their turn to enter Western Union or Money Gram branches across Monrovia for the much needed remittances that helped in procuring food, settling rental expenses and paying the tuition of their children. The individuals who sent their hard-earned resources back home to provide succor for their families were then considered true Liberian heroes and heroines. But as our brothers and sisters abroad became consumed with leveraging all the opportunities citizenship of a host nation could bring including the much desired possibility of filing for the relocation of a family member, many of them did not stop to research whether there was something called “The Alien and Nationality Law of Liberia,” that stipulates that they automatically lose Liberian citizenship when they become citizens of another country or Article 28 of the Liberian Constitution which effectively shuts the door to dual citizenship.
Some could argue that innocence of the law is no excuse and these Liberians should have known better. But be that as it may, the reality is that the strict interpretation and application of the Law would mean that many persons who call themselves Liberians are in reality aliens, or to put it more crudely, impostors. In fact, if we were to do an honest accounting for the number of persons in this room who call themselves Liberians but have assumed American citizenship, I will not be surprised that the number of “aliens or impostors” here is very huge. However, as legal as it may be, it is terribly unfair to look somebody in the eye, someone born and bred in Buzzi Quarters but once upon a time traveled to the US and assumed American citizenship, to call such a person a non-Liberian, a foreigner. What has compounded this problem is that many of these “Liberians by identity and non-Liberians by law” have parented thousands of children in foreign land, children who, flowing from the premise that their parents are considered “non-Liberians”, have themselves lost any claim to Liberian citizenship. Unfortunately, this group of persons in the Diaspora is getting increasingly large. Many of these persons possess valuable skills that could be harnessed in reducing the huge skills deficit in post-conflict Liberia, but Liberia may not have the opportunity of benefitting from their skills merely because they are considered foreigners. Tons of other illustrations could be proffered to demonstrate the unfairness of our mono-citizenship legal regime. No wonder why Liberians in the Diaspora have combined forces in pushing for the repeal of our laws in order to provide for dual citizenship.
But as uncomfortable as it may sound, the number of Liberians both at home and abroad who vehemently oppose dual citizenship is also very huge. They too cling passionately to an interesting strand of the debate. As naively as it may sound, some Liberians who did not flee the country during the height of the Civil War espouse the view that those who fled did not fully pay their dues in terms of experiencing first-hand the agonizing pain that Liberians at home were subjected to. Now that the War is over and job opportunities are opening in Government, the opponents of dual citizenship opine that it is unfair to “give our jobs to the very people who chickened out in search of greener pastures when we remained on the ground during hell or high water.”
In fact, the present Government headed by Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has come under tremendous criticism for giving government jobs to Liberians from the Diaspora who some critics have disparagingly labeled as “repatriated bureaucrats”. The performance of these relocated Liberians has been a mixed bag of good news and bad news. While some have brought home much needed expertise and contacts and have diligently and honestly worked for the forward movement of our dear country, others have behaved arrogantly and engaged in unsavory and unwholesome practices that have only compounded the local antipathy towards dual citizenship.
Sadly, the number of Liberians recruited from the Diaspora who are entangled in corruption accusations is not insignificant. Some Liberians back home put it in these simple terms, “They learned their book abroad to come to steal our money.” The complications that may arise in prosecuting an official/professional who allegedly embezzles government money and flees to the sanctuary of the country where he/she has citizenship, has been cited by opponents of dual citizenship as one reason why Liberia should not recognize dual citizenship.
Another argument cited by opponents of dual citizenship is the issue of conflict of interest. On whose side will an official of the Liberian government, who is a citizen of another country, lean when the strategic national interest of Liberia and Liberians clash with that of the other country? Indeed, whether we agree or not, the opponents of dual citizenship could produce many arguments that cannot easily be dismissed as shallow and unrealistic.
For instance, in spite of our sympathy for dual citizenship, the conflict of interest concern and the concern about the difficulty that may arise in the prosecution of a government official who is a dual citizen are two concerns that cannot easily be dismissed. However, these concerns are relevant mainly in situations involving top level political appointees and elected officials. But let’s face the fact: How many top level appointed or elected positions do we have as compared to the thousands of persons whose Liberian citizenship have been taken away or will be taken away as a result of what evidently is our anachronistic and draconian Alien and Nationality Law? The top level positions are just a handful.
Therefore, in light of the current state of hostility against dual citizenship back home, I propose that we move in a stepwise, pragmatic manner in our approach. Let us pass what is palatable and passable now and, if in the future resistance reduces and appetite improves, take on the most difficult provisions in the dual citizenship package and pass them. This approach will entail doing as was done in Ghana and many other African countries that have dual citizenship regimes: provide for dual citizenship in the Constitution and statutes but explicitly state that, for certain government positions, no one with dual citizenship is eligible. In Ghana, for instance, positions such as Chief Justice and Justices of the Supreme Court, Ambassadors, Chief of Defense Staff of the Armed Forces, Inspector General of Police, Director of Immigration, Chief Director of a Ministry, etc cannot be occupied by anyone who possesses dual citizenship.
Given my experience in the public sector from serving as Budget Director to Minister of Finance and now Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Liberia, I too espouse the view that persons occupying certain top level positions should not have to worry about the potential negative consequences that may befall them personally if, while pushing the interest of Liberia, they undermine the interest of another country whose citizenship they also possess.
Secondly, I do believe that top level officials should bear the full consequences of their actions and/or inactions. If the actions and/or inactions of any official will lead to a situation where our people will have to go to the American compound at Greystone for refuge, I think it is grossly unfair for the woman from Clara Town to be directed to an open square while the official is ushered onto a helicopter sent in by the American Government to repatriate American citizens back to the comfort and safety of the United States. In such a situation, the dual citizenship status of the official actually works as an insurance policy against his/her bad behavior in Liberia.
As to which specific positions to set aside in such an “except for” clause, extensive consultations involving all relevant stakeholders in this debate can sort that out. In the meanwhile, the prudent course of action is for Liberians in the Diaspora to continue to relate to the country in positive ways so as to gain the increasing goodwill of their brothers and sisters at home for the repeal of our Alien and Nationality Law and the amendment of the applicable provisions of the Liberian Constitution.