Titus Boye-Thompson, Communications Consultant
Section 76(1) of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone is beginning to seem like an odious law but on closer inspection, it could be seen that there are some very reasonable and serious arguments in its favour. Not that this debate would go away but the mere fact that it came like a thief in the night, it has gripped the political atmosphere with a bang.
The All Peoples Congress Party in the wisdom of the Chairman and Leader had to swallow the bitter pill by being the first mainstream political party to take this law seriously. It had to call in the scalpel and extract from its midst all those who may be in violation of this section of the Constitution. Even though many would see this as a self-inflicted wound, this was a necessary operation to ensure that the Party is not caught on the back foot. Its adoption of such a decision is vindicated by the hotfooting of Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella on his realization that this law presents his greatest barrier to the Presidency.
His being caught off guard was nonsensical to say the least. How would someone of his stature not take the proper precautions before seeking political leadership in this country. His reaction is now a matter of ridicule but the seriousness of the situation is such that his oversight of such a serious element of his eligibility for office now turns out to have been the greatest flaw in what he had presented to this nation as a flawless character.
In the event, this law has not been targeting the NGC but to have had that upstart political party put into such discomfiture is in itself a very good reason for a laugh. This is the political party that had kick-started a campaign to deny Sierra Leoneans support from abroad of they refuse to vote them into office. Not only did they themselves open up the Pandora’s box without realizing it, but their absence in the mainstream of Sierra Leonean politics is what has now caused their embarrassment. The word on dual citizenship has been out since October last year. The SLPP had been aware of this since the last general elections in 2017 but stayed away from bringing up objections at the time. In the event, had the APC not taken the precaution that it took this time around, the SLPP was poised to unleash this very contravention against the APC thus depriving the Party of well over 65 seats in Parliament after the elections.
The issue of dual citizenship has to be taken away from considerations of nationality as the two are not necessarily the same. The evolution of the Sierra Leonean nation has meant that nationality and citizenship has had to be differentiated as the founding fathers of this nation had always been in fear of a take-over by one tribe or group. If it was not the Creoles, it is the Lebanese and Syrians then now it is the Diasporans.
It is no surprise that the national psyche is against foreign influences because this has always been a country where foreigners have come, settled and prospered. The difficulty is around the defences that we put up to stop any one group from gaining a dominant position at the expense of others.
Nevertheless, the fear of a dominant coalition has not succeeded in stopping the advance of particular interests and ideologies and the nation has not been spared the overarching influences and throughout history, the dominance of the Creole language or the Lebanese in commerce may have bounded this country together more than it has hurt its development. The religious tolerance we enjoy did not come by accident but by the fusion of cultures and the easy acceptance of our diversities and the enabling environment that allows foreign influences to prosper. This is more easily seen in the inter marriages and the intermingling of cultures and traditions. There is a shared consciousness of the makings of a Sierra Leonean nation that is also a product that needs to be guarded and guided. Having said all this, one wonders why the issue of dual nationality should grip the national conscience in the way it has over the past days.
The reason cannot be distanced from the fact that over time, lawmakers in Sierra Leone are more ready to grant nationality than accord citizenship. The Lebanese and Syrian communities have struggled with this situation for some time with no real prospect of them getting their fate finalized to their own aspirations for country. Many point to the fact that they had been born and bred here and with no other place that they can call home yet they are denied the right to citizenship as of automatic right. While Nationality entitles you to carry a Sierra Leonean Passport, Citizenship allows you to be eligible to vote and be voted for into certain offices. This way, the Sierra Leonean who forfeits his citizenship by pledging allegiance or takes an oath to a foreign State loses the privilege to get into Parliament or become a Minister. Many would see this as a fair exchange and the more enlightened would argue that Section 76(1) is a credible defence of the integrity of the nation. Some observers point to countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and New Zealand who sought to protect their own national integrity in the same way. The irony here is the laziness of those who are attempting to represent the people of Sierra Leone in Parliament but fail to read or avail themselves of the criteria of eligibility to such a high station. More fool to someone like Kandeh Yumkella for seeking to be a President of this country even though he is pledged to defend the integrity of another nation and is under an oath of allegiance to a foreign State.
In the unfolding of this realization and the impact of Sec 76(1), there now remains to be seen what remedies this present government would have to put in place to correct that anomaly that the law has yielded. On the one hand, the existence of Ministers with dual citizenship presents another stubborn issue that President Koroma has to deal with This close to a general election, it would be a difficult thing to manage since new appointees would very likely be in violation of the Constitutional provisions that requires their appointments to be approved by Parliament prior to taking up offices. However, it may be likely that other Ministers be left to handle more than one portfolio by a merging of duties and responsibilities. The risk here is the widening scope for maladministration.
In the considerations of how this issue has divided the nation, many point to the consolation that the law is not entirely dismissive of those living abroad because under the Constitution, those who acquired citizenship of another country by means other than by willingly swearing an oath or through naturalization are exempt from this restriction and if any one of their parents are Sierra Leoneans, then they are eligible for elective offices in Sierra Leone. It may very well be that the drafters of this law were prepared to see the backs of those who had left the shores of Sierra Leone for greener and more secure pastures elsewhere but they on the other hand are willing to allow their children to come back. In the event, Sierra Leone will benefit from the skills and talents of those untainted with the experience of being born here and thus come to this place with a completely different orientation. Those who argue for Sec 76(1) stress that there has always been difficulties with returnees who come treat those who had not left these shores with disdain and with an air of superiority. There has been a difficult tension between the two for some time now hence the provocative term of “two sim” is now the main talk of the town.