It’s a dual citizenship crisis, but a long way from Canberra. As Sierra Leone prepares for elections on 7 March, the West African country is battling over what defines a citizen and who can run for government.
Sierra Leone’s incumbent All People’s Congress (APC) has announced that individuals who hold dual citizenship are not qualified to contest parliamentary or presidential elections. Many suggest that it’s an attempt to hinder the chances of candidates such as National Grand Coalition (NGC) presidential hopeful Kandeh Yumkella, who is believed to be a dual citizen.
The move also counteracts the campaigns of politicians running against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2006 that enshrined dual citizenship into law. It changed the previous requirement that a person lose their Sierra Leonean citizenship upon becoming a citizen of another country.
The APC has justified its decision on the basis of the country’s 1991 constitution, according to which people who acquire Sierra Leonean citizenship by naturalisation or are voluntary citizens of a foreign country are not eligible to run for office. This stipulation hasn’t been enforced until now but the APC leadership’s declaration that it will ensures there will be little competition for power.
The APC’s move to bar dual citizens from contesting the 7 March elections has disgruntled foreign APC party members who fund the party’s activities. Some commentators are calling for the resignation of members of parliament who hold dual citizenship. Others are questioning why the 1991 constitution is not being applied retroactively, and why it is only applicable to the candidates contesting the next month’s poll. Many APC politicians are allegedly dual citizens: the country’s President Ernest Bai Koroma, and the APC’s presidential candidate Samura Kamara are both believed to be British citizens.
To complicate matters, the 2017 Citizenship Amendment Act declares that a person can acquire citizenship by birth, through their mother. Arguments have been made that Sierra Leoneans who are dual citizens of another country, but can claim Sierra Leonean citizenship by birth, are eligible to run for office.
The numerous amendments and declarations have seen the boundaries of citizenship being redrawn as part of a politicking exercise. However, given that members of the APC and the main opposition—the Sierra Leone People’s Party—are suspected dual citizens, Yumkella of the NGC will not be the only one affected. The dual citizenship crisis is dividing an otherwise stable nation that is still healing from the wound of its decade-long civil war. It also highlights that citizenship is an exclusionary institution, one that can be manipulated for political use.
Making sense of citizenship
Sierra Leone’s ongoing dual citizenship crisis has highlighted that citizenship is not a positive institution, but rather, one that determines who is and who isn’t deserving of state protection. In doing so it justifies state-sanctioned violence. It also reveals the flexibility of citizenship and how it can be redefined by national elites to consolidate their power.
Sierra Leone is hailed as a liberal peace-building success story because post-war transfers of power occurred via the ballot and not the bullet. The ongoing citizenship crisis demonstrates that it can be a mistake to make positive value judgments of governance on the basis of the methods and procedures used to contest power.
Tinashe Jakwa is a doctoral researcher at the University of Western Australia. She is studying how liberal political systems increase state instability in Africa.
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