By Umaru Fofana
Whenever the issue of citizenship comes up in my beloved Sierra Leone I cringe in utter bemusement and shock and even shame. How do we use the colour of a person’s skin – in this day and age – to determine their citizenship of a country especially so in which they were born. Or do we always see racism as being all about white people discriminating against black people? The usual self-pitying, navel-gazing, isn’t it?
Then comes this patronizing development last week, which saw some sixty people being naturalized as Sierra Leonean citizens after paying three thousand Dollars (US $ 3,000). That’s not all the commercialism about that whimsical charade…Three Government officials I have taken the matter up with have cited economic interest for the Government, actually as if saying business was/is the overriding primordial reason in this whole citizenship appeasement.
I think citizenship of a country goes far beyond just economic interests. It is a loyalty thing… Did those Russian, Venezuelan and Indians reside here reasonably long enough for us to grant them our nationality or is it all about some guys collecting some money from them and they getting our passport? I know for example that a country like Mauritius receives a whooping amount of money through the sale of their passports to foreigners…but theirs is a category different to being a citizen even if by naturalization. But that’s for another day.
Among those Indian and Russian and Venezuelan nationals of ours who naturalized last week were dozens of people of Lebanese ancestry. I say “of Lebanese ancestry” because a good number of them were in fact born here, and where justice prevails they cannot be referred to as “Lebanese” and forced to naturalize in the country of their birth. Buying one’s birth right is what this whole thing is! Otherwise how does anybody sincerely and honestly justify the fact that many of those who were naturalized alongside those who had barely spent one unbroken month here were actually people who were born and bred here?
Imagine this: John Akar was of Lebanese descent who wrote the tune to our country’s anthem, became the first Director of our Dance Troupe, later appointed Ambassador to the United States of America and Jamaica, just for him to return home to run for Parliament and be slammed with that racist and hitherto sexist piece of legislation called the 1973 Citizenship Act.
It was no colonial British creation as many people think or claim. It was designed by then President Siaka Probyn Stevens to disqualify Akar from running for a seat in the House. That Citizenship Act, among other things, stipulated that citizenship by birth could be acquired, among other things if someone was born here to a “father/grandfather” of “Negro-African descent.” In other words BLACK PATERNITY. This was not only racist but also sexist.
Then in 2006/7, in the dying days of the then Parliament, it was amended to include maternity “father/mother or grandfather/grandmother” but the Negro-African descent was retained for what some Members of Parliament then said was a “protective measure.” If you listen to them they will tell you that “protective measure” means ensuring the Lebanese, specifically and especially, do not take over the country and further impoverish the indigenes. Yet they still control business in the country if that is what the advocates mean by protectionism. This is the same clay-legged defence still being given to a law that discriminates against the Creoles under our land tenure system, which bars them from owning land outside the Western Area.
But who are being protected against whom? Do we not have so-called indigenes who, since Independence, have been stealing the country’s wealth and holding the people to ransom with power shifting from them to those they have anointed to flourish at the expense of the masses? So do we say we also bar them from automatic citizenship because we need to protect the country against their unpatriotic act?
During Sierra Leone’s struggle for Independence, some of its greatest heroes included ITA Wallace-Johnson who was incarcerated because of his advocacy for Independence. Someone who was imprisoned alongside him was Elias Bamin of Lebanese descent. Almost three generations on, his grandchildren such as Tommy Bamin and his own children cannot acquire citizenship by birth. In fact Tommy has never been to Lebanon and cannot speak a word of Arabic. How does anyone sensibly explain such blatant racist discrimination! How does anyone explain the fact that Samir Hassanyeh who was born here 68 years ago and was bred here must naturalize like the Russian or Venezuelan who, perhaps, only came here a few months ago?
You see why I associate with the position of Nasser Ayoub who says he cannot naturalize in his place of birth and would rather do so in the United Kingdom? I perfectly agree with your position, Ayoud.
Naturalizing as a citizen in Sierra Leone virtually only allows such a citizen to commercial advantages. They cannot serve in the Civil Service and rise to the top or even join the Police or Army, never mind anything higher in authority. It would make some sense – even if I don’t agree with that wholesale – if our law said that citizenship couldn’t be acquired automatically to anyone whose parents are not citizens unless they were born here and have spent a certain period in the country, say five years. But to disregard all that and pay attention to race is retrograde and anachronistic.
While covering the United States of America Presidential election in 2008, I made a point, which engendered a lot of debate across the continent and was largely concurred to. Here was a continent called Africa whose leaders were jubilating that one of their own, Barack Obama, had been elected President of the most powerful nation in the world. In one of my dispatches I asked how many of those African leaders would allow a white man/woman to become eligible to contest even if they were born in their countries, they grew up there and spent all their life there.
Yes I hear those who accuse “Lebanese” of being standoffish. I believe members of the Lebanese community in Sierra Leone must do a lot more to integrate into the broader Sierra Leonean society and show more patriotism to this country. They should send more of their children to those schools and colleges indigenous Sierra Leonean children attend and stop behaving in the elitist way in which they do and agree to give their daughters’ hand in marriage to indigenous Sierra Leoneans. But so must indigenous Sierra Leoneans. Are the so-called Lebanese the only people who pick and choose who to marry their daughters off to, or behave in an elitist way? Or are we saying that those indigenes who behave in like manner be also denied citizenship by birth? Otherwise the whole thing becomes double-speak.
I sincerely believe that the earlier we get rid of our racist laws the earlier we kill paranoia and the more prosperous we become as a nation. The might of the United States, to my mind, is accounted for by the freedom they enjoy as much as it is by equality, which makes it the Dream Land. Otherwise how do you explain the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger could migrate to the US as an adult and end up becoming Governor of California? Or how do you explain Madeleine Albright becoming Secretary of State of the United States despite having migrated there at age 9 years from what was Czechoslovakia. Neither Arnold nor Madeleine is more American (not born there) than Samir Hassanyeh or Nasser Ayoub is Sierra Leonean (born and bred here).