The Politics of Dual Citizenship in Liberia

By: 
Emmanuel Dolo, Ph.D.

Dual citizenship is a highly debated part of Liberia’s political discussions. Opposing perceptions of Liberian citizenship have contributed to diverging perspectives on dual citizenship. There are those who associate acquiring foreign citizenship while in exile with being unpatriotic. Thus, these Diaspora Liberians with foreign citizenship should not be allowed to gain Liberian citizenship. There are also those who acknowledge the challenges associated with being in exile and empathize with displaced Liberians who gain foreign citizenship to assimilate in their host nations. They also recognize that the Liberian Diaspora has some of the nation’s highly educated populations. Indeed, the brain gain that Liberia will acquire when such people take advantage of opportunities abroad could be turned into dividends that would eventually contribute to Liberia’s recovery.

Most Liberians who left the country at the beginning of or during the war were impelled by the conflict. The civil conflict was unexpected, although also not surprising to some. It posed uninvited threat to the lives and livelihoods of all citizens who were not combatants in the war. They lost family members or friends in the war and must live with the ongoing trauma. To be assimilated in their host country, citizenship status was required for them to access certain important opportunities critical to career and personal development. Capacities attained would later make them contributing citizens in the homeland.

Does it make sense to deny them Liberian citizenship rights upon return? Or does it make sense to ask them to denounce their foreign citizenship before gaining Liberian citizenship? Moreover, national identity is not static. It evolves in an ongoing process with the history and political circumstances of the state and its people. Thoughtful Liberians cannot be insensitive to the effects of the war when discussing this topic. Also important, Diaspora Liberians are more likely to contribute to the nation’s development than they would be a constraint on its development, with minor exceptions.

National identity in the post-war era is no longer just a matter of living within a prescribed geographic boundary. Granting dual citizenship to Diaspora Liberians will strengthen the nation building process and enrich the sparse human capital pool left in the homeland in the wake of the war. Diaspora Liberians stood with the nation in its times of devastation and through remittances became the source of livelihood for many thousands of their country people. Such selfless actions cannot be rewarded with the harshness, even unkindness that emanates from the anti-dual citizenship proponents.

A person’s national, ethnic identity is fundamentally about “belonging” to a social group. Belonging represents one of humankind’s deepest longing. As the Latin American Liberation Theologian Virgil Elizondo has pointed out, when a person’s need to belong to a social group is met, it is hard for them to consider it as a necessity. However, when the same need is unmet, it creates unimaginable anxiety and heartbreak. He was writing about what he characterized as the “unfinished identity.” People who vacillate between two cultural or national identities, unable to hold steadfast to one over the other suffer such a psychological yearning. Could anti-dual citizenship proponents be imposing such “unfinished identity” phenomenon on Diaspora Liberians?

There are those children of Liberian ancestry that were born abroad during the warring period and who want to return to Liberia as adults. The civil war displaced their parents. They were awarded foreign citizenship as adults and they used that status to have access to opportunities for advancement. Now, as adults, they are longing for a community of their heritage to confirm and help shape their identity. When they face resentment in the form of a refusal to be recognized as citizens of their parents’ country of origin, we not only close opportunities for them to belong, but we also shut down the chance for them not to share their talents, skills, and investments with Liberia and Liberians. It is not only cruel, but also shortsighted. Imagine the dividends associated with hundreds of thousands of Diaspora Liberians returning with new ideas and other tangible contributions to the daily lives of homeland residents.

A country of four million plus people cannot afford to exclude any of its citizens, especially when it is facing immense brain drain, intractable economic and other structural problems. It is true that before the civil war, Liberians were widely separated, and ethnic identity was exploited to sow the seeds of division among us. Such a pattern cannot and should not be continued in the new era. The time has come for us to recognize ourselves in other Liberians despite where they are geographically located or their citizenship status. We need to promote Liberian unity rooted in a history that emphasizes the common events that we share so that we can forget the trivial things that set us apart. For instance, we share a common ancestry. Many of us hail from some of the same towns and villages. Others even share blood lineages. The war may have estranged us from one another, but the similarity of our life experiences and the ultimate goal to revive Liberia should force us to bridge those gaps. We all suffered the effects of the mass slaughters that occurred to relatives, friends, and people we knew. We should therefore look beyond the narrow confines of individual needs and seek to fulfill our collective desires.

With the economy facing hard times, it is understandable why so much passion is invested in resisting dual citizenship for Diaspora-based Liberians who hold foreign citizenships. This attitude might be to protect the turfs of those who think Diaspora Liberians will take theirs. It might frighten some of those already in power that their positions will be taken by these newcomers. These fears are based more on personal interests than the good of the country. For those already inclined to react this way, they might not be convinced by the logic of this article. Liberians who have naturalized elsewhere or were born abroad should not be forced to give up their identity link and sense of belonging to Liberia because others feel unnecessarily threatened personally by their presence.

Liberia is no longer restricted to the geographical boundaries that defined it prior to the civil conflict. It is now a multicultural and multi-lingual society with components emanating from its many Diaspora parts. That rich diversity ought to constitute a vital ingredient of our new nation building deliberations. To ignore this evolving reality overlooks changes occurring globally and within the sub-region where other nations are taking advantage of their Diaspora dividends arising from passing pro-dual citizenship laws. Diaspora identities and identifications serve as an anchor that binds Liberians in the Diaspora and those in their homeland. It will not be abolished without having negative effects on the country’s recovery economically and psychosocially. Denying young foreign born Liberians of the citizenship of their native land might make them not to invest in the country’s development. Disuniting of Liberia at the time when we need each other the most is a luxury that the nation cannot afford. Much of Liberia’s future will be influenced by the mirror we each choose to look through: an inward lens, rejecting Diaspora Liberians or an outward lens, welcoming Diaspora Liberians. Liberia does not belong exclusively to those who remained at home during the warfare or did not get foreign citizenships during this period. Since the war, Liberians began to redefine their national identity from a narrow perspective to a broader one. By welcoming Diaspora Liberians and granting them citizenship, we tie together all the capacities and nest eggs necessary to rebuild into a robust form unyielding against any divisive tactic.

Liberian Observer

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