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


Kofi Takyi Asante, University of Ghana

Citizenship and the politics of belonging have been subjects of lively academic and popular debates for decades, but increasingly frequent economic and political crises around the globe have intensified contentious politics and made citizenship one of the burning questions of our time. As governments across the world struggle to respond to multiple and overlapping risks – including migration and refugee crises, stock market volatility, and more recently, public health and climate emergencies – questions about national belonging have gained increasing urgency as the boundaries of belonging also determine who is included or excluded from the protection and largesse of the state.

Accordingly, recent scholarly debates in African studies have focused on the conceptualisation of citizenship and belonging, struggles to expand or contract the terms of belonging, and the politics of claims-making (Akyeampong 2006; Asante 2020 a,b,c; Kobo 2010; Geschiere 2011; Nyamnjoh 2007). While this literature has largely focused on the traditional model of ‘bounded’ citizenship that is territorially grounded, Robtel Pailey’s richly researched Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa makes an important contribution to the literature by exploring these questions within the context of struggles over dual citizenship. By so doing, Pailey contributes to the emerging body of knowledge on citizenship in Africa by developing a model of Liberian citizenship rooted in history and political economy.

By focusing on the configuration of factors that influenced the introduction in 2008 of Liberia’s dual citizenship bill and its stalled legislative processing, the monograph grounds debates about the bill in what it describes throughout as ‘Liberia’s political economy of belonging.’ This political economy arena, shaped by broad historical forces, such as conflict, migration, and post-war recovery, sets the context within which Liberian citizenship continues to undergo multiple transmutations since its introduction in the nineteenth century. Within this context, the decades-long (2008-2018) dual citizenship debate ‘serves as a contemporary manifestation of those spatial and temporal reconfiguration processes’ (p. 226). Pailey highlights the importance of material conditions by showing how (violent) conflict, migration, and the demands of post-war recovery shapes interpretation of Liberian citizenship by different categories of Liberians.

While many studies in the citizenship literature have examined the impact of migration on host country citizenship, Pailey’s book breaks new ground by looking at the impact of transnational actors on their home countries. Moreover, it makes a novel contribution by focusing on African diasporas in the global North as well as diasporas within Africa. The main arguments of the book are presented in the introductory and concluding chapters, and six substantive chapters that undertake in-depth explorations of specific themes.

Chapter One provides methodological, theoretical, and biographical reflections. Opening with a striking contrast between a respondent interviewed in her slum dwelling in Accra and another in his luxurious office in Freetown, the chapter shows that far from being a monolithic bloc, ‘homelanders’ and diasporas constitute a heterogenous collection of people with different educational, income, and occupational characteristics. The author convincingly demonstrates that Liberians’ distinct life-worlds shapes both their ideas about citizenship and their attitudes towards dual citizenship. The author conducted in-depth interviews with 202 Liberians in Monrovia, two other African cities (Freetown and Accra), and two cities in the global North (London and Washington). Respondents include ‘homelanders’ and returnees in Monrovia, Liberian migrants, former refugees, and embassy officials in the four cities, as well as government officials in Liberia.

While the extensiveness of the book’s multi-sited methodology is admirable, one wonders how the arguments and conclusions would have changed if Pailey also interviewed residents of rural areas. The author seems to recognise this flaw and cites Saskia Sassen and others who frame ‘cities as the most appropriate sites to measure contestations around citizenship and belonging’ (p. 48). However, the politics of migration and belonging in global cities in host countries that Sassen examines is different from the political economy of citizenship in the homeland where notions of customary and ancestral rights are implicit in the struggles over belonging. Given the emphasis on access to material resources, the book could have paid attention to whether and how the remoteness of rural dwellers from better resourced cities had any impact on their conceptions of belonging to the nation and whether this shaped ensuing struggles over identity and resources. To be sure, the historical chapter addressed parts of this question in the context of conflicts between indigenes and black settlers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but was not integrated into the broader discussions of the political economy of belonging.

Moreover, just as homeland and diaspora conceptions of citizenship interact at ‘the interface,’ it is reasonable to expect that rural and urban conceptions within the homeland also do interact in their own interface. In fact, the author’s acknowledgment of the importance of rural-urban migration in the post-war context suggests that much could be gained by adding ‘rural’ as an important spatial dimension to the urban homeland and diaspora dimensions. Of course, one book cannot answer all questions, so this is not really a critique but rather a pointer for a potentially fruitful avenue for future research.

In Chapter Two, the book emphasises the fluidity of the notion of ‘Liberianness’, manifested in the varied experiences of the respondents interviewed for the book. This fluidity reflects complex combinations of ius soli and ius sanguinis principles of citizenship, which, moreover, were constantly being negotiated and renegotiated – the dual citizenship bill being the latest iteration of such negotiations. Here, the author develops a three-dimensional conceptualisation of citizenship around the nodes of identity (passive), practice (active), and relations (interactive) in which ‘the multiple meanings of Liberian citizenship can thus be visualised as a continuum coupling passivity with identity and activity with practice’ (p. 53).

Using the experiences of the Mandingo, she shows how legal stipulations of citizenship are inflected by social practices that could undermine legal provisions. At the same time, social practices can also expand the space granted by legal codes of citizenship. While this conceptualisation is admirably sophisticated, it is surprising that the book frames identity as ‘passive.’ This framing is inconsistent with the author’s own constructivist approach, a paradigm in which ‘identity’ is more often understood as an active process of ‘identification’ rooted in constant conflicts and social negotiations. In this chapter, the author richly documents how Liberians at home and abroad invoke and affirm their identity through action in a way that belies any characterisation of the status as ‘passive’.

Chapter Three examines the attitudes towards the dual citizenship bill while Chapters Four, Five, and Six show how these attitudes are shaped by broad historical factors, specifically conflict, migration, and post-war recovery. Respondents’ reactions to the dual citizenship bill, Pailey shows in Chapter Four, must be understood within the context of ‘the discontinuities and continuities in their lived experience of being Liberian’ (p. 85). This general context includes historical contestations over citizenship since the country’s founding in 1847, ‘reveal[ing] a crisis of citizenship dating back to Liberia’s state formation beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and, therefore, underpin[ing] contemporary claims for and against dual citizenship’ (p. 111). The impact of these historical dynamics is rendered even more complicated by the dynamics of migration to and from Liberia, a theme which is taken up in Chapter Five.

Chapter Six critically examines the notion of ‘diasporic developmentalism’ or diaspocracy (p. 181), the idea that post-crisis reconstruction requires the technocratic and financial resources of the diaspora. This chapter shows the flaws in this thinking by pointing out how acts of grand corruption perpetrated by diaspora Liberians such as Ellen Corkrum undermine the very reconstruction efforts that they were brought into support. The failure of diasporic developmentalism further complicates the politics of dual citizenship by fuelling popular stereotypes about Liberians who have naturalised in host countries as disloyal or sell-outs. While diaspora Liberians were very instrumental in responding to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, ‘those engaged in corruption [came to be regarded as people who] can never truly be considered Liberians “by heart” regardless of their legal citizenship or residence status’ (p. 219).

Robtel Pailey has made a significant contribution to the literature on the politics of citizenship and belonging in Africa. The book is exemplary in its masterful combination of rich qualitative analysis and careful historical narrative. Its detailed and highly accessible methodological, theoretical, and biographical reflections make it an excellent resource for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Scholars with varying specialties, including citizenship, transnationalism, and post-war recovery would find much of value in this book, as would policy makers grappling with the thorny issues of dual citizenship and diasporic engagement.