In 2004, Hope Sullivan Masters, Founder and President of the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation she established to continue her father’s work, asked me to head a project to develop the concept of dual citizenship. The interest in citizenship by African Americans in an African country had steadily risen after Reverend Sullivan was given citizenship in Cote d’Ivoire at the inaugural Africa-African American Summit in 1991.
When he created the bridge between Africa and America through his Summits in Africa, Reverend Sullivan sparked a passion among many in America for a genuine connection to Africa. There have long been African Americans who have worked for African liberation from this side of the Atlantic Ocean and those who have taken up residence on the continent. This year we honor the independence 50 years ago of 17 African nations. It was not until the wave of African independence that began in the 1950s that dual citizenship was even widely possible. Even so, real citizenship in another country carries both rights and responsibilities. Merely being given another country’s passport is not the whole story. That is what Reverend Sullivan knew from the beginning, and that is the gap that Mrs. Masters wanted to finally bridge.
Beginning with the first wave of African independence of countries such as Ghana, there have been Americans who repatriated to Africa because of their disgust with the blatant racism they experienced in America. Subsequently, there were those who repatriated because they simply felt more culturally akin to Africans. In many cases, however, they changed citizenship rather than took on an additional citizenship. The current dual citizenship effort is intended to build on the ties many feel either because of their longstanding interest in their ancestral homeland or because of a DNA test that linked them to a specific ethnic group in a specific country.
Technically, no country can give you dual citizenship. It results from acquiring citizenship in a new country and your current country not revoking your citizenship. Most dual citizens in America are from Mexico. The British have indelible citizenship that cannot be revoked. Jewish American can acquire automatic citizenship in Israel by virtue of their Jewish lineage. It is not something our government actively opposes.
“The U.S. Government recognizes that dual nationality exists but does not encourage it as a matter of policy because of the problems it may cause,” says a State Department policy paper on dual nationality.
In fact, in order to lose your American citizenship, the State Department says you would have to freely and intentionally relinquish it. The government doesn’t take it from you; you have to give it up.
Potential problems include dual taxation, military service requirements where applicable, divided loyalty in the case of armed conflict, jurisdiction over crimes committed in one jurisdiction or another and extradition of those fleeing arrest in one of the countries. Some of us who are interested in a level of citizenship in Africa think more about their rights than their responsibilities and give no thought to how Africans may feel about an influx of Diasporans into their country. Think of how you would feel if even dozens of people suddenly showed up in your neighborhood without fully understanding the culture and unexpectedly changed the character of local elections and how life is lived.
All these challenges can be addressed, but we all need to recognize that they exist and not pretend this is all so easy. If that were the case, it would have been accomplished by now. Because of the complexities, we sought the advice and assistance of California attorney Anthony Archer, who researched and wrote a paper on dual citizenship that was presented at the eighth Leon H. Sullivan Summit in Arusha, Tanzania, in June 2008. Archer proposed three levels of citizenship that would allow governments to offer the benefits of citizenship on a graduated basis for Diasporans who wanted a certain level of involvement in their new homeland. We see this as mutually beneficial and an equitable method of developing a relationship that is meaningful in the long term.
Some people only seek to travel to Africa without current restrictions while they learn more about their proposed new homeland. Others want to do business or own property and be treated like a local businessperson. Others want the whole experience and intend to live at least part of the time in their new home.
Dual citizenship must be negotiated. One size does not fit all. Many of us would be unprepared to become full citizens in an African country we only discovered we had a tie to last week; others only want to be privileged regular visitors.
African leaders such as Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have expressed interest in developing closer ties with the African Diaspora, but the details still have to be worked out. We’ll all need to have some patience and understanding if this process is to work for both sides.