Sierra Leone’s Dual Citizenship Upheaval Reignites The Fault Lines Of Democracy

Sixteen years after the end of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, a previously unenforced stipulation of the 1991 Constitution is threatening to upturn national cohesion. Referencing Section 76(1), the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC) party have announced that dual citizens are not eligible to contest parliamentary elections. Had the dual citizenship rule been enforced historically, many former and active politicians, including at least six members of the APC party itself, would not have been qualified to run for parliament. It has been suggested that the belated enforcement of Section 76(1) is an attempt to dismantle the National Grand Coalition (NGC) candidate Kandeh Yumkella prior to the elections on the 7th March.

Yumkella has been extensively characterised as an immediate rival of the current APC President, Ernest Bai Koroma. Yumkella was formerly employed as the UN Under-Secretary-General and has enjoyed widespread support from Sierra Leone’s youth and elites. The head of the NGC announced that he had renounced his US citizenship, stating “Today our democracy is under siege and our Constitution is being abused by a cabal that is convinced that they must hold on to power by any means… If the issue was about legality and constitutionality, why does President Koroma still have ministers who are dual citizens in his government?”

Indeed, the APC party’s announcement is inconsistent with both the party’s demographic makeup and its policies. Upon being elected President, Koroma opened an office for Diaspora Affairs and undertook a global tour of the diaspora, welcoming Sierra Leoneans living overseas “to come back home” as Sierra Leone was “open for business”. According to a World Bank study, remittances from this population abroad contribute $250-400m to Sierra Leone annually (20-25% of GDP), with the majority of investments being made in education and healthcare. Remittances are vital for the economy, which continues to recover from the events of 2015, which saw GDP plunge by 21% after the collapse of global iron prices and the outbreak of the Ebola pandemic.

The Sierra Leonean Diaspora is a by-product of its recent history, and thus needs to be integrated into a reformed vision of citizenship, rather than manipulated to create a sub-class of Sierra Leoneans. This latest politicking exercise has substituted political franchise for exclusive nationalism and highlights Sierra Leone’s delayed progress in maturing beyond a pre-democratic state. As long as the freedom of alternative parties to contest elections is hampered, and voting tendencies continue to be marginalised along ethnic lines, Sierra Leone will be hemmed in by the legacy of the Civil War.

In propounding this notional brand of contingent citizenship, the APC is using the electoral framework as an instrument of division, rather than democracy. As Abdul Rashin Thomas of the Sierra Leone Telegraph said, “the Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government.” While Sierra Leone has come a long way in enshrining constitutional freedoms since the withdrawal of British forces in 2002, the historic application of the dual citizenship rule proposes another challenge for consolidating liberal democracy.