Challenging Sierra Leone’s racist citizenship law

Published: 9/Mar/2016
Source: PoliticoSL

By Umaru Fofana

“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another interior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, there will be war.” Bob Marley may have died 35 years ago but those words of his are ever pertinent in Sierra Leone even today, as epitomised by the arguments of certain people who want a retention and even an entrenchment of what is nothing short of a racist clause in our law books. Imagine the following happened to you or your father anywhere in the world but especially in the United States or Europe where many of our compatriots have children who are eligible to run for the highest office there – simply because they were born there:

John Akar was a Sierra Leonean of Lebanese ancestry – his father was from Lebanon. He was born in 1927 in Rotifunk, southern Sierra Leone to a Sherbro mother. Despite that, or maybe because of it, he would later be banned from running for parliament simply because of his skin colour. That, despite him having founded the National Dance Troupe and won medals with them abroad. He also wrote the music to Sierra Leone’s National Anthem. And he later served as Ambassador to Jamaica and the United States.

After serving the country abroad Akar returned home – or was recalled – and decided to run for parliament. President Siaka Stevens for some bizarre reasons did not want him elected to the House. But such was his apparent popularity that the president feared he could win regardless. Rumours abound as to the reasons for his dislike for a man who by every strand was – and should always be remembered as – an iconic and patriotic Sierra Leonean.

To achieve this Stevens quickly put his political machinery into motion and the racist Citizenship Act of 1973 was promulgated. It clearly stated then that citizenship otherwise than by naturalisation could only be acquired by someone born to a “father or grandfather” of negro-African descent. That smothered Akar’s ambition and the retrogressive law has still not been repealed – if anything it is being used by some in influential positions to scare-monger and to disingenuously hoodwink the populace into believing that it is there in the interest of the masses. Truth is, it is not!

Such was how badly Akar was treated that some people believe it expedited his passing. He died in 1975, two years after he had been discriminated against by President Siaka Stevens. My research shows that after his disqualification he was never himself, again. He migrated to Jamaica where he died.

Even in death Akar faced racial discrimination in the country of his birth. He was denied a state funeral and the Stevens government would not accord him the presence of any state paraphernalia. His remains were taken from the airport and driven to Rotifunk via Port Loko where he was buried. He could still get some justice today if the law was repealed, his remains exhumed and given a befitting burial. He deserves it.

Our country’s citizenship law is not only anachronistic, it is shameful. Despite the country’s constitution talking about the nondiscrimination of people because of gender or race, this law does just that. Despite the current constitution having been written in 1991 a law predating it has precedence over it. Despite the world having moved on, racism is engrained in our constitution.

I have been shocked by some commentators who have been defending legalised racism in Sierra Leone’s statute books, and calling for its retention. The 1973 Citizenship Act was a law passed not to further anything in the interest of Sierra Leone; rather for some political machination deep in the psyche of a leader who apparently thought he was God on earth.

Somewhat hypocritically those who are supporting this retrogressive law, citing protective measures, celebrated when Barack Obama, a man of mixed race – or a black man as many refer to him – was elected President of the United States. And their own children don’t face such discrimination in other countries and they are enjoying that. If anything this country needs protection exactly against these same indigenous citizens who have turned it into a farm to harvest and milk its resources at the expense of the masses. If the so-called Lebanese are bad, these same indigenes in authority have entrenched that by going into dirty dealings with them through corrupt means. And there are other nationals involved after all.

The history between Sierra Leone and Lebanon dates as far back as in the 19th century. At the Race Course cemetery I saw graves of some Lebanese who had died here in the 1800s. One of them, Elias Bamin was imprisoned alongside ITA Wallace-Johnson during the agitation for the independence of Sierra Leone from the United Kingdom. Several generations later, it is a shame that Elias’ grandchildren and great grandchildren cannot become citizens of the country in which they were born and for whose liberation their (great) grandfather was jailed. Ironically, Elias’s descendants would have to go to the Britain whose rule he had resisted, to become citizens simply because their own country would not grant them – unless they naturalised.

Tommy, Elias’s son, told me years ago that he would not naturalise in the country of his birth, especially considering the fact that he could not speak even a word of Arabic and had never been to Lebanon. Tommy’s children, also born here, must also naturalise before they can become Sierra Leoneans. That takes away a lot of entitlements from them and, judging by their contributions, benefits from the country as well. Madeline Albright, former US Secretary of State, migrated to that country from her native Czechoslovakia (as it was called then). The country embraced her and she benefitted the country. The list is endless in the civilised world.

Now a significant but grossly inadequate step was taken in 2006/7. Parliament amended the citizenship law to make it gender-sensitive, so father was alternated with mother and grandfather with grandmother. While that addressed the gender element it retains the racist “Negro-African descent” words. This too must go as it is not in the interest of APC or SLPP. Certainly not in the interest of Sierra Leone.

There can hardly be anything as unfair as denying someone the right to become a citizen of their country of birth. It is particularly disheartening because in some countries, a child born airborne is entitled to becoming a citizen of the country in whose airspace they were born. Here, born on land, they are not.

During a research I did in 2006 I met an articulate and outspoken opposition member of parliament called Alpha Kanu. I had been mesmerised by his debate in the House on other issues and I saw him as a progressive who would champion the repeal of such a backward law.

Kanu, now a government minister, would later disappoint me to say that the ban was needed “for protective measure”. It would seem that people of negro-African descent are afraid of the so-called Lebanese. Even though the law discriminates against all people of non-Negro descent – including Europeans and Americans – it is very clear that it is aimed at those of Lebanese ancestry. Ours is perhaps the only country where the word NEGRO is not pejorative.

Some people accuse them of elitism and secluding themselves, citing, for example, the LEBANESE SCHOOL for their children and the lack of intermarriage. While I think there is room for more integration, it is unfair to cite the LEBANESE SCHOOL as a sign of elitism peculiar to the people of Lebanese ancestry. There are many other elite schools where some native Sierra Leoneans send their own children for quality education. Should they also suffer any unfair but legal consequence as a result?

I would emphasise my point of integration. The nomenclature “LEBANESE COMMUNITY” is backward. It can only mean one thing: that those compatriots of ours see themselves as Lebanese. LEBANESE DESCENDANTS UNION or something along that line can make all the difference – after all we have tribal groupings around the most recent being Malimba Association.

But some Sierra Leoneans of Lebanese descent argue that they feel alienated by the country of their birth hence are holding on to what they can hold on to. This explains why people like Nabih Berri returned home. 77-year-old Berri, who was born in Bo southern Sierra Leone, has been Speaker of the Lebanese parliament since 1992 and heads the largest Shia party in Lebanon, the Amal Movement.

Joe Blell has served Sierra Leone in many capacities including as Deputy Defence Minister. He enlisted in the Sierra Leone Army but was not allowed to become a commissioned officer because of his race – despite his father having been born here albeit to a Lebanese father who had immigrated. The man who had entered the army in the first place because he was supposed to be a citizen, decided to leave on grounds of discrimination, he told me.

Blell, whose mother was Mende, was also not allowed to go study abroad for a degree in law because he was considered mixed-race. Too many people have suffered this unnecessary discrimination for it to remain in our law books for a day longer. It must be expunged!

Themes: Acquisition of nationality, Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious
Regions: Sierra Leone
Year: 2016