Resolving the Issue of Dual Citizenship in Liberia

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For the last decade, I have practiced primarily United States Immigration and Nationality Law.  I have read and analyzed the 1973 Aliens and Nationality Law of Liberia as well as the 1986 Constitution of Liberia.  As part of my immigration law practice, I have counseled and advised a number of clients of different nationalities and ethnicities on the issue of dual citizenship and maintaining the citizenship of their respective countries.  I have followed closely with great interest the dual citizenship debate in Liberia.   It is reported that Liberian Senate hopefuls Robert A. Sirleaf and George M. Weah are citizens of the United States.  Critics argue that the Liberian Constitution and statutory laws do not allow for dual nationality and if Mr. Sirleaf or Mr. Weah American citizens, they cannot hold public offices in Liberia. Supporters of dual citizenship argue that due to the Liberian civil crisis, many Liberians were forced to acquire foreign nationalities in order to survive and take care of their families in Liberia and overseas.  Supporters argue that it is against Liberia’s national interest to deny natural born Liberians the chance to participate in the reconstruction of the Liberian society solely on the fact that they acquire foreign citizenships.  The purpose of this article is to briefly discuss in what scenario does the Constitution allows for dual citizenship and laws affecting the automatic loss of Liberian citizenship. I will briefly discuss whether a United States citizen stands to lose her American citizenship if she serves in a foreign government.

What does Liberian law say about the automatic loss of citizenship?

Sections 22.1 and 22.2 of the 1973 Alien and Nationality Law of Liberia lists several acts that results in the automatic loss of Liberian citizenship by a Liberian national. A person loses his Liberian citizenship automatically when she (1) obtains naturalization in a foreign state, (2) takes an oath or declares allegiance to a foreign stat, (3) enters the armed forces of foreign state unless the President authorizes it, (4) votes in a political election in a foreign state or (5) formally renounces her Liberian nationality before a diplomatic or consular officer of Liberia in a foreign state.  The Government of Liberia is under no obligation to institute any proceedings to nullify and cancel a person’s citizenship in regards to the aforementioned acts.

In 1984, four years after the military coup d’etat and the suspension of the 1847 Constitution, a new Constitution was adopted. This new constitution became effective in January of 1986 after President Samuel Doe took office.   The 1986 Constitution at Article 27(a) stated any that person who was a Liberian citizen when the constitution came into force continued to be a Liberian citizen.  Most importantly, the Constitution provided that no Liberian shall be deprived of life, liberty, security of the person, property, privilege or any other right without due process of the law. Due process means that before any person is deprived of a right or before that right is taken away, the Government must provide the citizen with notice that informs the person of the decision or activity that will affect his rights, must give her the opportunity to contest or complain and the provide her the opportunity to appeal the decision if she is not satisfied with the grievance procedure.

It is here that the 1973 Aliens and Nationality Law and the 1986 Constitution clash.  The Aliens and Nationality law provides no due process for those Liberians who are adjudged to have lost their Liberian citizenship when they acquired foreign citizenships.  This is contrary to the provisions of the new constitution regarding due process.  Article 95 of the 1986 Constitution states that “Notwithstanding this abrogation, however, any enactment or rule of law in existence immediately before the coming into force of this Constitution, whether derived from the abrogated Constitution or from any other source shall, in so far as it is not inconsistent with any provision of this Constitution, continue in force as if enacted, issued or made under the authority of this Constitution.” (emphasis added).  Therefore, where the 1973 Aliens and Nationality law is inconsistent with the constitutional provision of due process, then is no longer valid or enforceable.  However, any determination of whether or not a law is constitutional is made by the Supreme Court of Liberian.  Therefore, unfortunately for supporters of blanket dual citizenship, until the law is struck down by the Supreme Court or until the Liberian legislature repeals or amends it, the President has to enforce the law.  I am of the opinion that the 1973 Aliens and Nationality law is unconstitutional and should be struck down by the Supreme Court.

In what context does dual nationality exist in Liberia?

Contrary to many reports, dual citizenship exists in Liberia within a limited context. The Constitution provides no requirement for the renunciation of Liberian citizenship where both parents at the time of a person’s birth are or were Liberian citizens and that person acquired another citizenship as a result of birth in that country. So, in the context of individuals born in the United States to Liberian parents, the Liberian Constitution does not require them to renounce their American citizenship acquired by birth.  Article 28 of the Constitution only mandates that if a person acquires another citizenship by virtue of the other parent’s citizenship, then they are required to renounce the other citizenship at the age of 21 in order to keep the Liberian citizenship.

What happens to Liberians who acquired foreign citizenship when the Liberian Constitution was suspended?

Liberians who acquired foreign citizenship during the years the Constitution was suspended (1990-1997 & 2003 to January 6, 2006) can argue that the laws affecting citizenship did not and do not apply to them.  In 2011, in the case of MPC et. al, v. NEC et al, the Supreme Court of Liberia addressed the issue of whether the drafters of the Liberian Constitution intended to exclude otherwise qualified Liberians, who through no fault of their own, were forced to leave Liberia because of war and conflict only to become refugees in other countries or who left Liberia prior to the civil war but were forced to remain outside the country because of the conflict, from seeking the Presidency. 

Speaking for the Court, Chief Justice Johnnie L. Lewis opined that none of the drafters of Liberian Constitution, especially as it related to Article 52(c) residency requirement for a presidential candidate, could have known, let alone considered the intervening cause of the devastating armed civil conflict and its implication on the lives of Liberian citizens.  The Court found that it would have been illogical to insist that the writers or drafters of the Constitution contemplated or intended that Liberians, faced with the devastating civil war, would remain in Liberia, because, at some point in the future they may want to run for the office of President or Vice-President.

The Court also noted that between 1990 and 1997 and from 2003 to January 6, 2006, the Liberian constitution was suspended. The suspensions occurred because the running of an orderly government system became a practical impossibility as a result of the various civil wars and crises.  Liberian citizens should not be barred from contesting the 2011 presidential elections on account of the suspended Article 52(c), a non-governing law during the periods of war as well as constitutional suspension without offending the principle of ex post facto articulated under Article 21 of the Liberian Constitution.

This same legal rationale can also be applied to Liberians who acquired another nationality or citizenship as a result of the unforeseen civil crisis and during the periods of suspension of the Liberian Constitution and Liberian laws.  After all, how can the provisions of the 1973 Aliens and Nationality Law and the 1986 Constitution be applied to them when the laws of Liberia were suspended.  The same arguments raised before the Supreme Court and were found convincing can be used to argue that the the1973 Aliens and Nationality Law, a non-governing laws during the periods of war as well as the constitutional suspension without offending the principle of ex post facto articulated under Article 21 of the Liberian Constitution.

Does the United States allow dual citizenship and can a natural born or naturalized United States citizen serve in the government of Liberia, without loosing her United States citizenship?

The United States has generally looked with disfavor upon United States citizens maintaining dual nationality.  Several United States Supreme Court decisions have raised the age old concerns of that dual nationality or citizenship brings.  However, the United States Supreme Court has also recognized that dual nationality is “a status long recognized in the law” and the “mere fact that he asserts the rights one citizenship does not without more mean that he renounces the other”. Thus, a United States citizen (natural born or naturalized) is not precluded from dual nationality that is obtained:

  • Through naturalization in the United States when the foreign state does not divest its citizens of their citizenship upon naturalization in a foreign country;
  • Through birth in the United States to nationals of a foreign country that follows principles of jus sanguinis (citizenship by blood); or
  • Through naturalization of a United States citizen in a foreign state that does not require the United States citizen to renounce United States citizenship or the United States citizen was found not to be expatriated.

Now, assuming that Mr. Sirleaf or Mr. Weah are United States citizens and one of them is elected as Senator, do they lose or forfeit their United States citizenship? No.  The United States Immigration and Nationality law provides that a United States citizen, whether by birth or naturalization, shall not lose his United States citizenship if she serves in a foreign government and acquires the nationality of the foreign state or takes an oath or form of allegiance to the foreign states, if she did not intend to relinquish United States citizenship.

Conclusion

In order to obtain closure on this matter, Liberians affected by the application of the 1973 Aliens and Nationality Law, or Liberians challenging the failure of the National Elections Commission to enforce the 1973 Aliens and Nationality Law, should pursue this matter to the Supreme Court of Liberia.  However, regardless of how this current dual citizen debate plays out in Court or in the public square, Liberians must find a more permanent resolution on this issue.  We can begin by looking at how other nations, such as Israel, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, dealt with the issue of dual citizenship.  For example, the nation of Israel recognizes dual citizenship but requires dual nationals to first revoke their foreign citizenship under the laws of that country before serving as Ambassadors, Knesset members or in other sensitive posts. The Republic of Ghana recognizes dual citizenship and like Israel restricts dual nationals from being appointed to specific offices until she first renounces her foreign citizenship.  A South African who by formal and voluntary act acquires a foreign citizenship, automatically loses her South African citizenship unless they apply for, and receive permission to retain their South African citizenship before acquiring the citizenship of another country.  However, in the case of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Nigerians holding dual citizenship are not barred from contesting elective posts in Nigeria provided that the person holding the dual nationality acquired their Nigerian nationality by birth.  These are just a few of many examples that we as Liberians can study, and analyze as we begin to chart our own course. 

* Citizen of the Republic of Liberia. Admitted as an Attorney and Counselor-at-Law in the United States Supreme Court; the Court of Appeals of the State of Maryland; the United States Courts of Appeals for the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits; and the United States Federal District Court for the District of Maryland.

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