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Liberia: Dual citizenship rejected by referendum

1 February 2021 at 19:32 | 1444 views

Results of the referendum must be respected and accepted: A rebuttal by Concerned Liberians Against Dual Citizenship.

We write in response to Rabbi Prince Joseph Tomoonh-Garlodeyh Gbaba, Sr’s article entitled, “Referendum Results Must Be Declared Null and Void Due to Breach of Constitutional Guidelines and Lack of Adequate Voters Education!” which appeared in the January 15 edition of the Daily Observer.

Accordingly, the article’s main argument is that the recently held referendum was fraudulent; therefore its results should be null and void. This argument is baseless. The article makes no logical, legal, and factual sense.

In the first place, the referendum was conducted based on the recommendations of the Constitutional Review Committee (CRC), which was organized in 2012 during the President Ellen Joseph Sirleaf administration. CRC travelled throughout Liberia and visited Ghana and the US discussing the constitution and hearing the views of Liberians. In 2015, CRC submitted its report to the president with recommendations for constitutional reforms. President Sirleaf forwarded the recommendations to the legislature for approval to be published in an official gazette to form a referendum for national vote. The recommendations entailed more than four propositions, including dual citizenship, reduction of the term of the office of the president and vice president, and change of national election date. However, the Sirleaf administration did not hold the referendum.

President George Weah’s administration, which succeeded Sirleaf’s, pressured by special interest groups formulated the recommendations into a referendum comprising four propositions. Concerned Liberians, including the CPP, the Council of Churches, the Rainbow Coalition, and the Liberian Bar Association petitioned the Supreme Court not to allow the referendum to become part of the special Senatorial Election because the referendum was untimely and there were not an adequate public awareness of it.

In November 2020, the court ruled that the referendum as structured was unconstitutional, referring to the reduced propositions. But the ruling did not stop the referendum from being voted on. The court is said to have later stated that the referendum should be separated from the senatorial election ballots and each proposition should be voted on as a single item. Consequently, the administration increased the propositions from four elements to eight as previously published in the Official Gazette and went ahead with the referendum in the election. Many Liberians, including us, were unhappy of the government decision, as it to us, was an exercise of arrogance and disregard to public view and opinion. The administration carried out a strong campaign in addition to posters of the president supporting the referendum. See picture above. The posters were pasted in key areas of Montserrado County before the official commencement of campaign.

On December 8, 2020, the election was held. The referendum was separated from the Senatorial Election ballots and each of the 8 propositions was voted on, as recommended by the Supreme Court. Dual citizenship was the first proposition on the ballots. The results, as the National Elections Commission (NEC) pronounced, show a rejection of the referendum, specifically the dual citizenship proposition. For instance, Montserrado and Nimba Counties, which are the largest and populated subdivisions of Liberia, outrightly rejected dual citizenship. Bomi and Grand Kru Counties followed with the rejection. The results further indicate that of the 15 counties of Liberia, only Sinoe County approved dual citizenship with the required 2/3. The remaining 14 counties defeated dual citizenship.

Dual citizenship was the main goal of the referendum. Liberians in the Diasporas, particularly America, lobbied government officials vigorously for the proposition. Supporters, a fraction of Liberians in the US, had denied their Liberian nationality and became naturalized American citizens, knowing very well that the Liberian constitution says a Liberian who becomes a citizen of a foreign country loses the Liberian citizenship and cannot own land, property, and neither hold public position in Liberia. But the constitution also says that those who lost their Liberian citizenship can return to Liberia and follow the required legal procedure to regain their Liberian nationality. However, those involved refused to adhere to the requirement. They want to have dual nationality; they want property and political rights in Liberia while holding American citizenship. They felt that by influencing government officials and supporting the referendum they would achieve their interest. They believed that President Weah’s popularity and support would greatly help. They may have considered that he has family members who have foreign citizenship and hence would strongly back the proposition. They may have also viewed that some government officials have foreign citizenship and would readily support a common interest.

Critics of dual citizenship maintain that it would create a class system in Liberia and would divide the country further. Those with dual citizenship would feel superior over those who are not. It would also create animosity as dual citizen Liberians occupy high government jobs and could flee the country in the event of national crisis. Moreover, they could escape justice and run back to America as happened in the case of Ellen Corkrum during the Sirleaf presidency. Corkrum, a born Liberian, became an American citizen and an official in the US military. Apparently, the president unknowing of her citizenship hired her as head of the national Airport Authority. She had good contacts with the minister of national defense and other government officials. The administration accused her of corruption and of secretly recording the private conversations of the president, but she fled to the US before an attempt to arrest her. With the concern of national security, some Liberians viewed dual citizenship negatively.

Although supporters of dual citizenship pointed out that the proposition would bring national development through foreign investments, opponents hold that it is a personal endeavor geared to regain land, properties, and political power and would not likely bring serious development. Though Liberians in general appreciate the remittances from Diaspora Liberians, it should also be noted that Liberians abroad, as a sense of family obligation, would have still helped whether or not Liberians at home vote for dual citizenship. Majority of the remittances come from Liberians in the US who are permanent residents. Liberian naturalized Americans constitute 10% of an estimated population of 95,000. Of the 10%, about 2% are advocating for dual citizenship.

While many Liberians at home sympathize with the situation of Liberians who naturalized abroad, others blame them for taking foreign citizenship, arguing that they did not have to naturalize abroad because they had other opportunities. In America for example, to become a naturalized citizen, you must first become a permanent resident or a Green Card holder. “With this status, you can work; own property, start a business and can live in America as long as you want. You can visit or live seasonally in Liberia, own land, and vote. You can also sponsor your parents, spouse, and under-aged children to the US. You have all rights, just like a born or naturalized American, except the right to vote in national elections and hold a sensitive position in the federal government”.

Regrettably, however, most Liberian naturalized American citizens do not vote nor hold important government posts in America. So the question is, “Why did they become citizens for? They could have remained green card holders and retain their Liberian citizenship. But they willingly chose not to. Some analysts or experts view that the results of this behavior is the lack of national pride and patriotism. Some Liberians at the polls decided not to vote for dual citizenship.

Another controversial proposition was the reduction of the term of the office of the president and vice president. Even though some Liberians favored this proposition, others feared that, if approved, it could make the president seek a third term, as occurred in neighboring countries of Ivory Coast and Guinea, where presidents Alassane Ouatara and Alpha Conde respectively ran for a third term. Both presidents claimed that a constitutional change or referendum in their respective countries allowed them to seek a third term. This caused a political unrest and the deaths of protesters in the two countries. Liberians do not want to return to the dark days of the country. These were some of the factors that led to the rejection of the referendum.

Is the article saying that the rejection by the Liberian people was fraudulent? What was the fraudulence or the illegality? It is interesting to note that the article’s author and others, particularly those in the US, have heavily supported dual citizenship. Would they have considered the referendum fraudulent had it been approved? They would certainly not. Moreover, the article shows that it does not have the evidence for its argument as it states thus. “Consequently, I strongly argue that if the legal procedure required by law to conduct and implement a referendum was not adhered to, as was the case of the recently held ‘referendum’ any results deriving therefrom fraudulent and unconstitutional and should be therefore declared nulled and void”.

The article is saying that if the legal procedure required by law was not followed, the referendum is fraudulent. Note the word IF, a conditional, not a fact. It is an assumption which could be true or false. What is factual is that the Liberian people on December 8 voted to reject the referendum depriving it the 2/3 threshold required by the constitution. Further, although the constitution says that the 2/3 should be based on the registered voters, NEC based its calculation on the valid votes and disregarded the invalid votes following a 2011 ruling of the Supreme Court. International observers considered the election to be fair and transparent. Those who voted were not forced. They voted by their free will. And their will must be respected whether we like it or not. That is the essence of democracy.
Had NEC considered the invalid votes, the degree of the rejection would have been larger. The invalid votes should not only be interpreted as a factor of the lack of adequate education concerning the referendum. It could be also that some voters did not want to deal with the referendum or that their parties told them to boycott the referendum. CPP for example, told its members to boycott the referendum. Is the boycott a constitutional violation?

The article makes another illogical argument when it writes that majority of the Liberian people cannot read and write and therefore without a voter education, the referendum was fraudulent. It is true that most Liberians are illiterate. But does the illiteracy along with the absence of a voter education make the referendum fraudulent? The article contradicts its argument when it indicates that NEC would not have succeeded implementing a voter education due to the high level of illiteracy.
It writes: “Furthermore, how much education could the NEC have provided to an electorate population 90% of whom are illiterate, unable to read and write, speak and understand the English language? Hence, in this instance, it safe to say that the process was fraudulent and result results therefrom must be declared null and void due to breach of constitutional guidelines and lack of adequate voters’ education”.
If would be disappointing and a gross violation of constitutional rights if the votes of the people are nulled and void because certain interest group or groups do not like the results. That would be undemocratic. The constitution was adopted by the Liberian people in 1986. The framers of the constitution were cognizant that the people may want to change or amend some provisions of the document and hence the prescription of a referendum, which must be approved by 2/3 of the voters. The threshold is high for protection of the constitution from minority group who want to change the constitution for selfish reason and desire. If interest groups are allowed to change the constitution then it is not a constitution of the people and by the people. The change would obliterate the notion of majority rule, the basis of democracy. The Liberian masses had suffered dearly under minority rule during the settlers’ regime where the interest of a privileged group, known as the Americo-Liberians, ruled over that of the majority.

The constitution does not say that if the threshold is not met, the vote results should be nulled and void because certain individuals without facts demand it. The Supreme Court did not say that the referendum should be postponed, though many Liberians wanted to. The Court did not address the issue of the lack of voter education regarding the referendum. Supporters of the referendum campaigned for its passage despite the call for the referendum postponement. Therefore, proponents’ loss should be a victory for democracy and not a reason to disregard the will of the people. To disregard is to disrespect the constitution and give absolute power to the powerful and those who want to twist the law for self-interest.

The article makes another illogical and self-defeating argument. It says that the administration failed to follow the procedure; hence, the referendum results should be discounted. The government wanted the referendum to pass. If the government lost the referendum, let us say because of its failure, why should the votes of thousands of Liberians be cancelled? To do that would reward the administration and punish and deprive those Liberians who victoriously voted against the referendum. That would be a violation of their constitutional rights. That would also contradict the article’s view that the constitution should be respected. Additionally, let’s view it in another way: if a candidate is accused of cheating in an election, but at the end, the candidate loses the election. Should the votes be canceled?
NEC’s delay of announcing the official results of the referendum is another issue by itself. But regardless how long it takes to officially inform the public of the final results, the Liberian people know that the referendum is rejected and is dead! As it is said, a dead body will be buried sooner or later regardless how long the funeral takes. The referendum would be defeated again and again should supporters and their paid agents and corrupt politicians attempt to re-introduce it to the Liberian people. They will be exposed. It would sadly be a mockery to democracy and an embarrassment to Liberia as a nation. The Weah government and other supporters of the referendum must respect the will of the Liberian people and gracefully accept the results.

In short, Rabbi Joseph Gaba’s article presents sentiments and assumptions and it lacks facts and reasoning to support its request. It is contradictory; it is illogical. Because its interest was defeated at the ballot box, its discussion attempts to disregard the expressed will of the Liberian people and to disrespect the constitution. The people have spoken through their votes. Their voice must be obeyed.