Friday, November 24, 2006

Dual Citizenship: Good News for Sierra Leoneans in Diaspora.

The 1973 Citizenship Act which prohibits the holding of dual citizenship has been a sore point for many Sierra Leoneans who left their homeland for greener pastures abroad. The breakthrough to amend the law started in December 2002 during a "Homecoming Conference” held in Freetown, where dual citizenship was the main topic. One of the speakers at that conference was the then Ghanaian High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Kabral Blay-Amihere who pointed out that since his government passed dual citizenship legislation, the amount of foreign exchange coming into Ghana has increased. One benefit of dual citizenship, according to Mr. Blay-Amihere, is that it encourages citizens to return home while enabling them to use their unique influence as citizens of Western nations to bring much needed development to their native countries. In other words, Sierra Leoneans abroad may be able to get foreign investors to partner with them to invest in Sierra Leone. On the September 29 2006, the Sierra Leonean parliament unanimously passed the Dual Citizenship Act 2006. The Minister of Internal Affairs Pascal Egbenda, was upbeat as he heralded yet another move on the part of the government to open up the country for business. Egbenda proudly said that Sierra Leone has finally amended portions of the Citizenship Act of 1973 which states that no person shall have Sierra Leonean citizenship and any another citizenship simultaneously. The amendment allows Sierra Leoneans holding citizenship of another country and who by birth or by descent are Sierra Leonean to be eligible for Sierra Leonean citizenship. What is dual citizenship? According to Freetown lawyer Osman Jalloh, a person is considered a dual national when he/she owes allegiance to more than one country at the same time. Jalloh further stated that a claim to allegiance may be based on facts of birth, marriage, parentage, or naturalization. A dual national may, while in the jurisdiction of the other country which considers that person its national, be subject to all of its laws, including being conscripted for social or military service. Mohamed Kandeh, an immigration officer in Freetown, believes that granting dual citizenship will be welcome news for thousands of Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora. “During my several years in this profession, I can categorically tell you that so many native born Sierra Leoneans who are now holding citizenship of Western nations find it difficult to go through immigration procedures that other aliens go through,” Kandeh said. Kandeh also pointed out many Sierra Leonean holders of foreign passports feel frustrated especially when they are required to renew their visas during prolonged visits home. He believes the new Act will help to reverse this trend and encourage Sierra Leoneans from abroad to stay and help build their country using their resources and expertise. James Murray, a political science major at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, pointed out that as a country that relies heavily on remittances from abroad, it is vital that those in the diaspora be given a significant opportunity to maintain their citizenship status of a country that they are contributing so much to. Murray confessed that his entire family depends on the financial support of a sister who has resided in the United States for 19 years and has US citizenship. “My sister was very happy to hear the news that she can now have dual citizenship,” he said. Sitting in her new shop on Sackville Street in Freetown, Dolce Metzger a native Sierra Leonean and US citizen expressed dismay that the Sierra Leonean Consulate in the US charges $100 for a visitor’s visa to enter Sierra Leone. Although the embassy argues that the fees are needed to maintain the diplomatic outpost, Metzger said that most of the people subjected to this fee are native Sierra Leoneans who happened to be US citizens. Metzger wants native Sierra Leoneans exempted from paying the visa fees. She revealed that she is always perplexed when immigration officials come knocking for visa renewal, but at last she is now filing papers to acquire dual citizenship which she believes is very vital to her long-term objective of investing in her native land. Dual citizenship in Sierra Leone is not without its downside with some warning that there is a risk of it being hijacked by people with sinister motives. Some local politicians are nervous that citizens of Western countries may use the newly enacted right of dual citizenship to get into local politics. Whatever the downside, most analysts believe that the benefits of dual citizenship far outweigh the fears of a few politicians. The need for dual citizenship was made all the more important by the revelation recently at the Sierra Leone Diaspora Day held at the Bintumani Hotel: that Sierra Leone receives $1bn annually from citizens in the diaspora. If this is anything to go by there is an ultimate need to tap into the origin of those resources by encouraging thousands of Sierra Leoneans abroad to come home and use their dual citizenship privileges to build a better Sierra Leone.