Dual Citizenship in Africa: Liberia in comparative context
Bronwen Manby, London School of Economics
African states have shared the global trend to permit dual citizenship. Whereas in the 1960s most of the newly independent states prohibited dual citizenship for adults, the great majority now permit a person to hold two citizenships, at least in some circumstances (Manby 2016). Liberia has until now been a hold-out: the law continues to state that a citizen who keeps or acquires another citizenship after reaching adulthood will automatically lose Liberian citizenship.
Robtel Neajai Pailey’s important new book considers some of the reasons why that is; why proposals to change the law have failed (so far – it seems as though this may change very soon), and indeed why such proposals may be problematic. It is the first such in-depth study in the African context, drawing on a wide range of interviews with Liberians resident in the country and in the diaspora to gain their insights into the meaning of citizenship as well as their response to proposals to allow dual citizenship. Centred on a 2008 proposal to amend the law to permit dual citizenship, her account explores the hinterland of the public debates. She places equal emphasis on views of the responsibilities of citizens and what it is to ‘practise’ citizenship, and of the qualifications to ‘be’ a citizen. As many other scholars have emphasised, the meaning of citizenship to those claiming citizenship goes far beyond the question of legal status as recognised in law.
Liberia an exception to the trend to accept dual citizenship?
Among the conundrums to resolve is the fact that Liberia is one of the African countries that might be thought most likely to embrace dual citizenship. The foundation of the country by ‘free blacks’ from the United States is still reflected in close links between the two countries today. Perhaps even more significantly, hundreds of thousands of Liberians fled the country during two civil wars stretching from 1989 to 2003, most of them to neighbouring states in West Africa; but many also further afield, where they acquired citizenship.
Pailey finds, not surprisingly, that Liberians in the diaspora are more favourable to dual citizenship than those resident in Liberia, who are generally opposed. This is almost certainly true in most African states. Although we don’t have systematic surveys of the various diasporas, Afrobarometer opinion polling in 30 countries in 2012-13 showed that an average 62 percent of resident Africans were against the acceptance of dual nationality; the figure was 66 percent for Liberians – and nearly the same five years later (Afrobarometer 2013, 2018). There are also particular sensitivities in countries where so much institutional infrastructure has been destroyed by war that there is a fear of returning members of the diaspora taking over the levers of government for their own purposes.
Nonetheless, in other African states where many have spent time abroad because of war at home, laws to permit dual citizenship have rapidly been enacted after peace agreements installed new governments with strong representation of returnees. This is the case, for example, in Somalia and Sierra Leone. Diaspora communities in many other countries have successfully mobilised to gain permission to bridge two countries with passports from each (Whitaker 2011; Bob-Milliar & Bob-Milliar 2014). Those advocating legal amendments to permit dual citizenship are most likely to be those who already hold another citizenship, and documents to prove it – and thus to be richer and more influential than the average citizen in getting their voices heard.
Indigenous Liberians and the dual citizenship debate
The fascination of Pailey’s book lies in its capture of the emotions and reasoning behind the top-level statistics, illustrating the ‘spatial and temporal reconfiguration’ (p. 226) of Liberian citizenship over time.
Pailey explores two broad lines of argument about the nature of these reconfigurations. The first rests on the particular history of the country as a settler state, with hierarchies and anxieties similar to those in other settler states – but with the difference that in this case the settlers were black. Citizenship of Liberia has been restricted to those of ‘negro descent’ (originally framed as ‘persons of colour’) since the adoption of the first Liberian constitution in 1847, when the coastal counties declared themselves independent from the (white-dominated) American Colonisation Society that had promoted settlement of emancipated slaves in the territory. As Pailey recounts, however, indigenous Liberians were also excluded from recognition as full citizens; and remained so, despite significant successes in struggles to expand citizenship rights from the mid-20th century. The civil wars that broke out in Liberia almost three decades after most of the other West African countries had gained independence from European colonial powers were in part a continuation of this struggle, a demand that those originating in the rural hinterland be no longer considered ‘uncivilised’, excluded from the political and economic elite.
The second, intertwined, influence on attitudes to dual citizenship put forward by Pailey is the role of the ‘diaspocracy’ (a pleasing coinage); the returnees who took over many key posts in government under the presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state, elected in 2005. As Pailey recounts, the return of the diaspora was argued to be critical to the rebuilding of the country when civilian government was restored. Yet, Pailey argues, this diaspocracy also ‘reinscribed’ (p. 130) the pre-war crises of citizenship. Some of those who held out in Liberia during the war – whether from choice or because they had no choice – came to frame war-time experience as being almost a marker of Liberianness. This sense was only reinforced by decisions of the new government, most obviously in the highly controversial decision to pay returnees higher salaries than locally recruited staff. Efforts to resolve conflict over ‘abandoned’ land were then undermined by leases granted to foreign multinationals for timber and palm oil production.
Similar types of concern are reflected in those African states that have also held out against the trend to allow dual citizenship (such as Tanzania); or which have accepted dual citizenship subject to conditions – ranging from the simple obligation to inform the authorities about another citizenship, to a more or less onerous application process for recovery or retention of citizenship. Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Zambia have all created such procedures; in other countries, including Kenya and Uganda, as well as Ghana and Mozambique, dual citizens are restricted from holding a wide range of public offices (Manby 2016). Yet there is undoubtedly a particular tenor to the Liberian debate, to the interaction Pailey describes between ‘homeland’ and diaspora voices.
What governed diaspora decisions to naturalise abroad?
Turning her attention to another element of citizenship reconfigurations in Liberia, Pailey interrogates the choices of those in the diaspora in relation to naturalisation in other countries – including in her own case (among the many attractions of this book are the insights based on Pailey’s own experience). Lacking the right to hold dual citizenship as an adult, a central element in this decision-making has been the desire to retain a claim to true Liberianness, and with it the right to participate in and belong to the country and its future as well as its past.
Here there is a need to distinguish between the ‘near’ and ‘far’ diaspora: whereas the emotional response to exile appears similar among Pailey’s respondents, and interviews with Liberians in Sierra Leone or (especially) Ghana revealed xenophobia that paralleled racism in the US or UK, the citizenship regimes in the countries of where Liberians have settled vary as much as the economic opportunities available. As Pailey states, there is a ‘complex web of citizenship configurations’ (p. 160). While she is interested primarily in the emotional basis for decisions to acquire or refuse citizenship elsewhere, and citizenship as ‘being’ and ‘doing’, the constraints created by this legal ‘web’ influence decisions about naturalisation and dual citizenship as much as a continued desire to keep the connection to the country of birth (for a comparative study, see Vink et al. 2013).
Naturalisation is in practice very difficult to access in African states, including Liberia’s neighbours, which also do not provide for children to be attributed citizenship based on birth in their territory (Manby 2018, 2021). Moreover, for the vast majority of Liberian refugees, hosted by West African states, the ECOWAS zone of free movement provided legal residence even without registration as a refugee, and significant other rights. These differences created very different choice architectures. Naturalisation is an administrative process accessed by hundreds of thousands of people annually in the US; while a person born in the US, and thus automatically American, must renounce US citizenship on attaining majority in order to remain Liberian. By contrast, a person born in Ghana as a refugee and with no right to Ghanaian citizenship by naturalisation or by birth in Ghana has in effect no choice but to keep the connection to Liberia (and no great reason to discard it). The choices are different again if the country where a person is seeking naturalisation also does not allow dual citizenship – removing the possibility of retaining two citizenships clandestinely (a phenomenon of unknown prevalence but likely to be quite widespread), since proof of renunciation of Liberian citizenship would often be required.
And yet perhaps these legal differences are not so relevant to the imagination of dual citizenship among the diaspora: one of Pailey’s interviewees, born in Kenya of Liberian parents, described a ‘decision’ not to claim Kenyan citizenship as equal to his decision not to naturalise as American, either being somehow a betrayal of Liberia – though in reality no claim to citizenship is recognised based on birth in Kenya. To what extent is the debate over dual citizenship about perception and emotion, or about legal rights?
The meaning of citizenship and the relevance of the law
Robtel Pailey’s book illuminates my own interests in the meaning of the law to ordinary African citizens (or non-citizens), and the degree to which the law shapes reality. Liberia is a particularly challenging case study because the legal framework has significant internal inconsistencies. As Pailey points out, the 1973 Aliens and Nationality Law establishes a ius soli regime – albeit restricted to those of ‘negro descent’. But although the general right of ‘indigenous’ Liberians to legal citizenship is now uncontested, she also highlights how Liberians born in Liberia from some ethnic groups, among them the Mandingo, face continued assertions that they are foreign. The law also provides for those born abroad to be Liberian only if the father is a citizen. Meanwhile, the 1986 constitution provides for descent-based citizenship without discrimination based on the sex of the parent – while confirming the ‘negro’ restriction. The rules on dual citizenship are also inconsistent: the act provides for automatic loss of citizenship on naturalisation in another country; the constitution requires renunciation of citizenship on reaching adulthood only for the children of one Liberian and one foreign parent.
Meanwhile, most Liberians have historically held no identity documents, with birth registration rates among the lowest in the world (less than 5 percent as recently as 2007; though increased to 66 percent of under fives by 2019-20) and a national identity card introduced only in the last few years. Who, therefore, is to say who is a citizen and who is not?
In this confusion of what Liberian citizenship law actually is, it is fascinating to read the understandings of Pailey’s interviewees. Whether resident in Liberia or in the diaspora, all considered birth in Liberia, a Liberian father or mother, and long-term residence or cultural assimilation to Liberia to be equally grounds (among others) for claiming Liberian citizenship. Afrobarometer polling, meanwhile, shows around half of Liberians in Liberia supporting rights to citizenship based on birth in Liberia, and more than 70 percent based on citizenship of either parent; while more than half support a right to naturalise based on living and working in the country (the percentages became slightly higher in all cases from 2013 to 2018). Two-thirds support the ‘negro’ clause, a view reflected in Pailey’s interviews by widespread disquiet among ‘homeland’ Liberians at ‘Lebanese’ or other foreign dominance of the economy – but shared to a lesser extent among respondents from the diaspora.
The debate on dual citizenship has moved forward rapidly in the last two years. As Pailey’s book was being completed in 2019, the Liberian Supreme Court ruled in the Jalloh case that the provisions in the Aliens and Nationality Law for automatic loss of citizenship on acquiring another were unconstitutional, on the grounds of lack of due process. A proposal for constitutional reform was put forward around the same time (as well as a bill to amend the law), leading to a September 2020 referendum which included a proposition to remove the ban on dual citizenship (while providing for restrictions on holding public office). The proposition failed, as the others voted on also did, failing to clear the two-third majority needed; but a simple majority had voted in favour, a significant departure from what the Afrobarometer polling would suggest.
In November 2021, another bill to amend the Aliens and Nationality Law passed the House of Representatives with ruling party support, and was anticipated to be likely to clear the Senate in early 2022. The bill would both remove gender discrimination and enact the reform proposed by the Jalloh case, permitting dual citizenship in case a person naturalises in another country (but necessarily leaving in place the ban on dual citizenship for adults of mixed parentage set out in the constitution). The debates over the 2008 bill that formed the background for this important book seem to be on their way to a conclusion. Perhaps the very process of debate has itself contributed to this reconfiguration of concepts of citizenship? Differences over the ‘negro’ clause and birthright citizenship, however, remain very much live, and the subject of Pailey’s next project. We look forward to reading the results.