Liberia’s citizenship debacle

Written Joe M. Cassell

JM Cassell

It appears that  Jerome Kokoya, the head of the National Elections Commission (NEC), a son of Bong County,  born and raised, is now the whipping boy for  Liberians against dual citizenship. The fact that Mr. Kokoya’s citizenship can be challenged, brings to the fore the reality that Liberia’s outdated and backwards constitution should be modified to 21st. Century standards.

At a period wherein Liberia’s neighbors have all embraced dual-citizenship and open their citizenship to all races, Liberia is still fighting a battle from the 1800s when the freed slaves who founded the country decided to  weigh down the constitution with verbiage that would ensure freedom from their predatory slave masters; hence the restrictive clause about Negro only citizenship and the clause against the duality of citizenship.

By settling in Liberia from the racist US of the 1800s, the settlers by default had  moved into a very hostile environment with the Europeans, mainly British and French, seizing African land in the cause of colonialism, so the safeguards in the Liberian constitution made a lot of sense.

The Treaty of Berlin in 1885 which formalized the partition of African countries by Europeans made the safeguards in the constitution critical to the country’s independence and existence. But that was 1885. In 2017 , the age of globalization and open borders, we cannot use the same excuse for a standard of citizenship that was crafted out of a need for survival.

Perhaps, Liberia can learn from the United States, a country which has had 27 amendments to its constitution of 1789; these were amendments designed to right the wrongs of the past, including giving voting rights and citizenship to African-Americans, giving voting rights to women, and the list goes on. The Americans realize that a constitution is not a document that is cast in stone; it is subject to revisions and modifications to ensure that there is equity for all its citizens, and to align with the times, hence the amendments.

How can a Liberian with a straight face look into the eyes of people of other nationalities and argue the merits of a constitution that is crudely racist, and also tends to revoke the citizenships of their sons and daughters, who in most cases, were forced to flee their country because of the 14 years of bloodletting?

The irony is that the probably tens of thousands of Liberians who took up dual citizenship, along with others in the diaspora, are the ones who are keeping the country functioning with their remittances. A third of Liberia’s GDP comes from its  Diaspora; so it’s a bit difficult to understand the hostility on social media to the Liberian diaspora when the very existence of the country depends on them.

Most Liberians have never heard of Dr. Raj Panjabi and Rima Mehri. Dr. Panjabi is a graduate of Harvard Medical School, while Rima is a staff at Harvard JFK School of Government. Both Dr. Panjabi and Rima were born in Liberia. Their parents, Indian and Lebanese , fled Liberia during the civil war. Liberia declared them non-citizens because of the clause etched in the constitution nearly 200 years ago that restricted citizenship to Negroes only.

These Liberian born professionals have done well for themselves, and in the case of Dr. Panjabi, he is still connected with Liberia; he provides medical services to rural Liberians, and bring some of his Harvard doctors to help in the healthcare arena. Rima also visits the place of her birth occasionally.

Both Dr. Panjabi and Rima have written about their citizenship paradox; in Dr. Panjabi’s case, he and his parents were airlifted out of Liberia to the US when he was nine…the only two countries he knows is the country of his birth Liberia, and the country where he entered as a refugee the USA. He knows very little about India…never lived there. His is a case study of the crass discrimination of the Liberian constitution.

While  there’s a contentious debate in Liberia about the pros and cons of dual citizenship, other African countries  are reaching out to their diaspora,  and in the case of Somalia, even electing a dual-citizen, Somalian-American to the presidency.  The Somali situation is unique. Of the 24 candidates vying for the Somali presidency this year nine held U.S. passports.

Somalians understand that the task of rebuilding their warn torn country cannot be left to their countrymen and women who stayed in Somalia during their 20 plus years of blood-letting between the various clans.  If you were born in Somalia, no matter what passport you held…you are a Somalian, thus Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a  Somali-American bureaucrat who worked many years with the Department of Transport in Buffalo, New York ascended to the presidency.

In the 21st Century, during a period of rapid globalization, many African countries are taking another look at their outdated constitutions which were crafted prior to independence and making the necessary modifications that would align with 21st. Century realities.

Embracing dual-citizenship has become the norm in most West African countries; Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun speaks with a heavy north London accent, she was born and bred in the U.K. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari saw that she was a quick study, whip smart and had skills that he could utilize in government and he brought her into his cabinet.

For many years Hannah Tetteh served as Ghana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs under the last two Ghanaian governments. Hannah Tetteh was born in Hungary to a Hungarian mother and Ghanaian father. Ghanaians embraced her. There’s even talk of her running for the presidency in the future. The fact is Ghana, Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire  all have dual citizenship and do not  discriminate because of race, like their neighbor Liberia. But of course, as one commentator said, election season in Liberia is crazy season, so of course who’s better to pick on than Kokoya, the man whose job is to supervise the upcoming elections in October 2017.

Joe Cassell

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About Cholo Brooks 15808 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.