Since the wave of African independence in the 1950s, members of the African Diaspora seeking a genuine connection to the continent have sought the goal of attaining dual citizenship that is gaining citizenship in an African country while maintaining their citizenship in the country of their birth. For some, this goal has met with success, while others have done all they could but still failed to gain the legal sanction they sought in their country of choice.
Ghana has been considered the most likely to grant dual citizenship because of the generosity of spirit of the late founding President Kwame Nkrumah, who did grant citizenship to a limited number of Diasporans. One of his successors, former President Jerry Rawlings, also sought to make it legal for Diasporans to gain citizenship in Ghana. Unfortunately, the desire by Ghanaian leaders to follow through on his promise has not been present.
The law created to enable members of the overall Diaspora to hold dual citizenship was flipped to focus only on those born in Ghana who left to take residence in another country. In order to even apply for citizenship in Ghana, a Diasporan would have to give up their current citizenship first, but with no guarantee of being granted Ghanaian citizenship. A law of abode is the only consolation for those in the Diasporans seeking dual citizenship in Ghana – an empty gesture for those who have lived as model citizens in the country for decades.
The Government of Benin apologized to the Diaspora for the sale of our ancestors centuries ago. An annual commemoration of the slave trade and the restitution of relationship between Africans and members of the Diaspora was initiated, linking Porto Novo, Benin, to Liverpool, England, and Richmond, Virginia, in the United States. But then Benin’s government pulled back from the process of legalizing dual citizenship. They are now emphasizing the need for Diasporans to develop an understanding and a relationship with Benin with no definition of what that actually means.
In 2003, the African Union, impressed with the passion and interest of members of the Diaspora in establishing linkages, declared that the African Diaspora was the sixth region of Africa. Widespread jubilation among the Diaspora eventually gave way to disappointment when it was discovered that this declaration was another empty promise. There is no specific definition of who the sixth region is nor how the 6th region can attain representation in the counsels of the African Union. The Africa passport being issued by the African Union is intended only for current African citizens, with diplomats receiving them first.
So why is the increasingly intense courtship of the continent by the African Diaspora so often spurned? It seems there are several reasons. In Ghana’s case, as is likely elsewhere as well, ethnic chauvinism leads African officials to disregard the pleadings of those still considered foreigners. There is a recognition that the Diasporans did originate in Africa, but there appears to be little acceptance of us as deserving of permanent legal status. The DNA test used, for example, by African Ancestry to establish blood ties to African ethnic groups and countries, is not accepted by the Ghana government as proof of lineage from Ghana.
Another issue Diasporans may be ignoring is that as people able to travel internationally and buy or rent homes in African countries, often with servants, we are seen as the rich foreigners who want to come and go as we like – as many Africans are unable to do. It seems many African officials don’t want to have to explain why they are extending rights to foreign-born individuals when their poor countrymen can’t exercise all the legal rights they were extended at birth.
A related issue is the ethnic conflict that roils so many African countries – from the genocidal Hutu-Tutsi conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi to the political sparring between Kenyan Kikuyus and Luos. Adding yet another layer of ethnic rivalries to this mix is not widely popular and may be considered political poison for leaders already taxed with establishing equity in contentious ethnic disputes.
At a panel on dual citizenship I moderated the other day, someone mentioned a reason I had not considered before. It was suggested that the example of the Americo-Liberians – the returned slaves in the 1800s – still looms large in the minds of some Africans. The Americo-Liberians established Liberia as a nation, but in the process, they diminished the rights and political influence of indigenous Liberians. The contention is that some fear a wave of wealthier, more educated and internationally influential Diasporans could pose a similar threat. We in the Western Hemisphere, especially the United states and Canada, consider the Americo-Liberia example to be a relic of the past, while in the African view of time, spanning millennia, 150 years ago was like yesterday.
The task force on dual citizenship established by the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation last year with the UNIA/African Communities League and the African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute among other organizations and individuals, is taking all obstacles to dual citizenship into account and is addressing this issue legally, diplomatically and culturally. We have proposed levels of citizenship based on the mutual needs and interests of Africans and Diasporans. Contacts have been made with African governments to begin the process of working out legal details of how dual citizenship could be enacted through legislatures across the continent. A process of cultural sensitivity and education has been put together to ensure that the new African citizens understand the societies they wish to enter. All that remains is the good will of African governments. The U.S. government has no problem with dual citizenship, except for issues that must be worked out in the legal process of extending dual citizenship.
No issue raised as an obstacle to dual citizenship cannot be resolved if there is mutual cooperation and commitment. The question is: does Africa want her long-ago cast away children to return with their skills, finances and eagerness to help Africa. We bear no grudges for the past. Does Africa?