GLOBALCIT Review Symposium of Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa, Robtel Neajai Pailey


Jo Shaw, University of Edinburgh

This introduction briefly presents our symposium on the recently published monograph by Robtel Neajai Pailey entitled Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa: The Political Economy of Belonging to Liberia (Cambridge University Press, 2021). Readers also wanting to be viewers or listeners can access several online discussions of Pailey’s book, including an extended presentation and discussion organised by the Development Studies Association or read other reviews elsewhere in the academic literature, which engage with many different aspects of this rich and well-written book than the ones covered in this symposium. Overall, the book contributes to a wide range of academic literatures on issues of citizenship, the political economy of African countries, the nature of development, post-conflict and post-violence transition and diaspora/transnationalism studies.

The book focuses on the citizenship regime of Liberia. As a republic founded as a project of the American Colonization Society to offer a future of freedom and prosperity to repatriated freed slaves from the United States and the Caribbean, Liberia was the first African state to declare ‘independence’ in the modern sense and to establish its autonomous citizenship regime. The historical focus of much of Pailey’s book establishes that this citizenship regime was always the site of contestation and cleavages. For example, in the early years these contestations focused on the exclusion of indigenous peoples from citizenship. More recently, in the wake of significant emigration, some of which was for educational reasons but much of which related to periods of authoritarian government and to civil wars within the country, contestation now focuses on the issue of dual citizenship. Should Liberia, like many countries in Africa and worldwide, allow dual citizenship both for emigrants and immigrants (and their descendants)?

The conceptual core of the book lies in an expansive definition of citizenship, which can be understood in triadic form (see p. 230). It incorporates elements which are passive (citizenship as identity), active (citizenship as practice) and interactive (citizenship as a set of relations). Pailey’s rich primary data, based on interviews conducted in West Africa, Europe and North America, provide extensive evidence of bottom-up attachment to each point in the triad, when interviewees are asked to define what citizenship, and especially Liberian citizenship, means to them (see Table 2.1 on p. 53 and Chapter 2 more generally). Within that conceptual framing, the legal framework of citizenship or ‘nationality’ law, is just one aspect of the broader framing of the ‘political economy of belonging’, which is the descriptor which Pailey attaches to the Liberian citizenship regime. This framing is in turn reflected in detailed chapters on the relationship between land and citizenship, on migration patterns (which are hard to assess given a sparse base of data and statistics) and on ‘diasporic developmentalism’, a condition which Pailey uses to examine closely the period since the end of the civil war and the restoration of civil governance (and eventually the peaceful transition of power in early 2018). The history of Liberia, and substantial bodies of material about its politics and its economy, are woven into the various chapters, as well as information about relations in the near and further ‘abroad’ (especially as seen through the eyes of interviews with diaspora informants).

There are a number of questions which Pailey does not deal with in detail or with a direct focus. So the book does not relate the current political cleavages or the state of electoral democracy in Liberia or even give a blow-by-blow recitation of the fate of the 2008 parliamentary bill which forms the backdrop to much of the discussion and to the interviews conducted in 2012-2013, but which was eventually abandoned and replaced by other parliamentary and referendum initiatives. Finally, the book engages relatively sparsely with the so-called ‘negro clause’, which is contained in Liberia’s 1986 constitution, which limits access to citizenship to those who are of negro descent, thus excluding from citizenship Liberia’s longstanding Lebanese community, as well as more recent communities of immigration from elsewhere, such as China. Liberia shares this provision only with its neighbour Sierra Leone. However, Pailey highlights in her conclusion that the contested meanings and effects of this provision are the focus of a new project, which picks up from the point where this project leaves us. This new project, which is attentive to histories of colonialism and slavery which frame the ongoing narratives of belonging and citizenship in Africa, is foreshadowed in the current book by Pailey’s insistence on rejecting some aspects of misleading and arguable colonialist terminology, such as the idea of ‘Americo-Liberians’. She suggests that this term should not be used as this group never enjoyed full rights in the US (whether as slaves or ‘freedmen’) before settlement in Liberia.

Our symposium kicks off with a review focusing on the core messages of the book, by Kofi Takyi Asante, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research at the University of Ghana. This review highlights the limitations imposed by the urban focus of Pailey’s fieldwork. We narrow the focus down to the issue of land and land rights and their relationship to citizenship status and rights, with a review by Ambreena Manji, Professor of Land Law and Development at Cardiff University, a socio-legal scholar with a focus on issues of land tenure and reform. The last two reviews focus directly on the issue of citizenship. They adopt perspectives of comparativism and legal normativity, which contrast in useful ways with Pailey’s own sociological perspective. First, Maarten Vink of the EUI and GLOBALCIT considers in detail the issue of dual citizenship (and the contestation of dual citizenship both in Africa and globally), which is one of the core empirical focuses of Pailey’s book. Finally, Bronwen Manby, an independent scholar and consultant attached to GLOBALCIT, explores additional citizenship law related questions which are raised by Pailey’s book, and assesses whether the future of Liberia will lie inside or outside the dual citizenship ‘camp’. It is worth noting that this latter is a question deliberately left open by Pailey, given her need to conclude the text of the book at the end of 2019, and the challenges she faced in trying to fix a moving target. Moreover, in the book, Pailey freely acknowledges the strong arguments presented each way by proponents and opponents of dual citizenship.

As will be evident from these reviews, and the others to which we have linked in the first paragraph of this introduction, Pailey’s work is hugely appreciated by scholars coming from a range of different disciplines, because of the important opening it provides to an enriched understanding of citizenship in Africa, from both contemporary and historical perspectives. Pailey justifies her citizenship focus on the grounds that ‘citizenship represents a space of contestation and convergence’ (p. 14) and is a ‘process wherein norms, meanings, and identities are constantly negotiated by individuals and social groups’ (p. 14). To that end, it is less important to focus on the end point of the journey along which a country such as Liberia is travelling, although from the perspectives of economic prosperity, political stability and adherence to rights and duties within a framework of law, this is also vital for human wellbeing and environmental sustainability. On the contrary, we also need to know more about how citizens and non-citizens understand the nature of the journey and it is these insights which form the strongest and most distinctive contribution of Pailey’s exciting new book.