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


The Politics of Dual Citizenship Contestation

Maarten Vink, European University Institute

The politics of dual citizenship contestation

As dual citizenship becomes ever more widely accepted around the world, with the recently announced liberalisation in Germany as the latest example of a country following a distinct global trend, one would be mistaken, Robtel Pailey reminds us, to assume that there is no push-back. In her rich and engaging book Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa: The Political Economy of Belonging to Liberia, Pailey takes us along a journey to discover why in Liberia the contestation of dual citizenship acceptance turned into a ‘tug of war’ (p. 108) between economically powerful transnationals pushing to expand their rights and homelanders pushing for socio-economic transformation. Pailey provides both an original narrative around three historical and contemporary factors – conflict, migration and post-war recovery – that structure dual citizenship contestation in Liberia, as well as an empirically informed warning to politicians and diaspora communities pushing for liberalisation that at least in the Liberian context, ‘radical changes’ are needed to mitigate resistance to dual citizenship (p. 227).

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa for at least three reasons. First, the book covers a lot of ground and is immensely informative not just on dual citizenship contestation, but also more broadly on the political history of Liberia since its inception as Africa’s first black republic in 1847. Second, the empirical approach of the book is truly impressive, drawing on rich oral histories from over two hundred in-depth interviews in West Africa, Europe, and North America. This is reflected in many well-chosen quotes and more generally in an original ‘actor-oriented analysis’, to use the author’s terminology, emphasising how notions of citizenship and belonging are constructed in practice. Third, and most remarkable, the book is written with a distinct voice by an author who is aware of her own positionality but does not refrain from a ‘decidedly critical stance on non-resident forms of citizenship and mainstream notions of socio-economic change’ (p. 48). As a result, Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa offers an empirically-grounded and original account of dual citizenship contestation in Liberia.

Not being an expert on Liberian politics, I have read Pailey’s book especially as a comparativist who is interested in understanding the political dynamics that drive contestation in those remaining global pockets of resistance to liberalisation of dual citizenship acceptance, especially in Africa, of which Liberia is presented as a ‘microcosm’ in this book (p. 11). I am particularly interested in two issues, which I would like to discuss in my contribution to this review symposium. First, in order to understand the representativeness of the Liberian case, how is dual citizenship acceptance understood in the book and how does Liberia relate to the broad pattern of dual citizenship acceptance across the African continent? Second, in the context of Pailey’s argument about the political economy of belonging, what is the relevance of political regime characteristics for dual citizenship contestation?

Dual citizenship acceptance in Africa

The book makes abundantly clear that within Africa, Liberia fits among those states where dual citizenship is highly contested. But how exceptional is Liberia’s position within the African continent? In order to speak to the ‘general literature on citizenship in Africa’ (p. 11) and to ‘dissect[] how citizenship is conceived and practices in a post-war African polity’ (p. 230), it is important to assess dual citizenship developments in Liberia within those of the region at large. I have two observations here.

First, a comment on terminology, in relation to what Pailey means when she talks about dual citizenship provisions, as this is not straightforward in light of existing legal provisions. In Table 3.1 (p. 90), covering the legal situation on 20 December 2019, Pailey categorises all 54 African countries into three groups: a) dual citizenship permitted; b) dual citizenship permitted/prohibited in certain circumstances; and c) dual citizenship prohibited. She is not fully explicit about how these categories are operationalised and, generally speaking, I am not sure that the terms ‘permitted’ (or ‘adopted’. p. 12), and respectively ‘prohibited’ are the most precise terms when discussing how citizenship laws regulate dual citizenship. This may admittedly seem like a bit of a technical comment, and it certainly does not prejudice Pailey’s overall argumentation, but there is a difference between prohibiting dual citizenship, on the one hand, and maintaining provisions that aim to restrict the presence of dual citizenship, on the other. Whereas the first implies penalising holding dual citizenship, i.e. facing consequences for being recognised as a citizen by two states (i.e. in terms of restrictions on the exercise of certain rights, such as holding political office or land ownership), the latter aim to prevent/reduce the prevalence of dual citizenship by specific provisions on the acquisition or loss of citizenship of a state. Typically, contemporary discussions about dual citizenship acceptance in citizenship law concern the latter type of restrictive measure, rather than an overall ban on such status (i.e. a ‘prohibition’); in other words, I would argue, the main variation between citizenship laws is the extent to which they aim to restrict the prevalence of dual citizenship, rather than a binary distinction between prohibiting/permitting dual citizenship.

Second, when comparing citizenship laws in light of the comparative typology of the recently launched GLOBALCIT Citizenship Law Dataset, which covers the legal situation on 1 January 2020, three main types of dual citizenship restrictions can be observed, which are also frequently discussed in the Liberian context (additional dual citizenship-related restrictions can be observed, but I focus here on these most notable provisions):

1. Loss of citizenship due to the voluntary acquisition of another citizenship (mode L05, in the GLOBALCIT typology)

2. Loss of citizenship due to the non-renunciation of a citizenship acquired at birth (L06)

3. Required to renounce another citizenship as condition for residence-based acquisition (A06b)

When we combine the information on the 54 African countries, this results in the picture visualised in Figure 1 which is broadly -but not fully- in line with Table 3.1 from Pailey, including countries such as Liberia, Ethiopia and Tanzania categorised as fully restrictive (i.e. having dual citizenship restrictions in place under L05, L06 and A06b); countries such as Egypt and Cote d’Ivoire as partially restrictive (some restrictions in place); and countries such as Algeria and Mozambique fully tolerant, i.e. without any dual citizenship restrictions in their citizenship law (as far as these selected modes of acquisition/loss of citizenship are concerned).

My concern here is not to observe any discrepancies with Table 3.1 in the book (which relies on 2016 data from GLOBALCIT as well as from Bronwen Manby; the updated GLOBALCIT data for 2020 that I use here have only become available after Pailey’s book came out).  Rather, my point is that this comparative overview confirms the exceptionally restrictive approach to dual citizenship in the citizenship law of Liberia, compared to West Africa, and Africa at large. However, this overview also suggests that dual citizenship restrictions remain in place at least to some degree, regarding first or subsequent generation members of the diaspora or regarding immigrant naturalisation, across much of Africa. Moreover, restrictions on the access to public office for dual citizens are not covered by this overview but prevalent in a number of African countries, according to Manby (pp. 97-98). In that sense, Pailey arguably over-emphasises the ‘outlier’ (p. 91) status of Liberia and should have been less concerned about the somewhat apologetic justification of the Liberian ‘case study on the challenges of consolidating transnational citizenship’ as ‘the only country in ECOWAS and one of only seven countries in the AU that had not formally adopted dual citizenship’ (p. 12).

Figure 1

Contestation and Regime Characteristics

I now move to discuss the relevance of regime characteristics for dual citizenship contestation. Fair to say, this is not a central element of Pailey’s analysis and my comment, if anything, reflects to a considerable degree my own interests in the topic. Yet, at the risk of commenting on a book that could have been written, rather than the one that is actually there, I do think that there is more to say about the political regime context of the Liberian case. After all, given the focus of Pailey’s argument on the political economy of belonging, emphasising the domestic backlash against the diaspora-driven push for dual citizenship acceptance, understanding how political systems institutionally channel public contestation should be a crucial step in the analysis of the outcome of such political processes. Yet, notwithstanding the rich and contextualised account of Liberia’s historical and contemporary citizenship regime through the book, the discussion of the role of electoral politics, or the late and limited democratisation in Liberia more generally (see Figure 2, with data from V-Dem, highlighting the transition to electoral democracy -RoW category 2- only in the mid-2000s), remains somewhat at the surface.

Figure 2

This is notable particularly in the context of Whitaker’s (2011) singling out of political institutions as one ‘possible explanation’ for increasing dual citizenship acceptance in Africa: ‘(…) the push for [diaspora] dual citizenship clearly has been spurred on by the process of democratization in several African countries, suggesting that the political context plays an important role in the reconsideration of citizenship laws’ (Whitaker 2011, 764). Whitaker argues ‘that emigrants (and their allies at home) would lobby more strongly for dual citizenship provisions after their home country has experienced a democratic transition’ (ibid), and they don’t bother to do so under authoritarian conditions, as democratic rights associated with citizenship mean less in such a context. Mirilovic (2015) makes a similar argument about the centrality of political regime, but from a supply-side perspective where those in power in authoritarian regimes are likely to be insensitive to political demands from the diaspora to extend dual citizenship or even politically motivated to ‘resist’ (Mirilovic 2015, 516) demands that may strengthen political opposition to the regime. 

Yet, other studies cast doubt on the relevance of regime variation for dual citizenship prevalence. In my 2019 co-authored study on the international diffusion of dual citizenship acceptance, however, my co-authors and I did not find any significant variation by regime type. Those findings are in line with Turcu and Urbatsch (2015) who argue that, based on a study of diaspora enfranchisement, formalistic ways of diaspora incorporation may be employed as a form of ‘competitive signalling’ that helps authoritarian regimes or electoral regimes with rule of law limitations ‘look more democratic, inclusive’ (Turcu and Urbatsch (2015: 414). Moreover, in line with Pailey’s argument, it could be argued that in those contexts where diaspora dual citizenship is internally contested, democratic representation should channel those sentiments and thus present a political counterweight to the often economically powerful diaspora.

In other words, the role of political regime in dual citizenship acceptance is contested in the literature, both in terms of whether there is an association at all, as well as a possible underlying mechanism. Combining the recent data from GLOBALCIT with data from V-Dem for a 2020 cross-sectional snapshot displayed in Figure 3, we find that citizenship laws with full, partial or no restrictions on dual citizenship are broadly similarly distributed across three regime types prevalent in Africa (closed autocracy, electoral autocracy, electoral democracy).

Figure 3

Of course, this is just a snapshot and given the variation in regime development over time within the case of Liberia (see Figure 2), Pailey’s in-depth case study could have helped better understand the relevance of regime characteristics for the political outcomes of dual citizenship contestation. In this context, I would have been especially interested to see Pailey connect her argument about Liberia’s ‘diaspocracy’, i.e. the ‘dominance of repatriate nationals in homeland policy and practice’ (p. 199), to the incompleteness of the Liberia’s democratisation process. After all, if there is so much homeland opposition to dual citizenship, as detailed in the book (and supported by Afrobarometer studies such as these), why are politicians such as Sirleaf or Weah pandering to the economically wealthy abroad, whereas the discontented homelanders should presumably be politically more relevant, at least in terms of absolute number of voters? Economic power asymmetry between diaspora and homelanders surely is part of the answer, as Pailey convincingly demonstrates, but to what extent are limits of democratic representation and incomplete democratisation -as evidenced by V-Dem coding of Liberia as electoral, not liberal democracy- also part of that story?

The recent developments in Liberia towards dual citizenship acceptance only seem to strengthen this democratic puzzle of the political under-representation of domestic discontent about dual citizenship. Pailey deserves much credit for highlighting the contested nature of dual citizenship and her book provides a powerful forewarning of the consequences of pushing through a diaspora agenda without taking away the sources of homeland discontent.