By Amindeh Blaise Atabong
Earlier this year, Jawar Mohammed, the prominent political activist and media entrepreneur, who had returned home to Ethiopia from the US, looked set to challenge his former ally, prime minister Abiy Ahmed, in the country’s election. But there was immediately uncertainty created over Jawar’s eligibility simply because he had been a US citizen. Ethiopian law does not allow dual nationality and even though he written letters saying he’s renounced his US citizenship that uncertainty remains.
Jawar’s case is one of many that highlights an increasingly common issue for many African countries, who after years of battles with Western imperialism and colonial rule were determined at independence for their citizens to literally pick a side and not be allowed to carry the passports of other countries.
But in the 60 years since independence across the continent, the forces of globalization and transatlantic migration has seen dual nationality come up more frequently as an issue which needs to be addressed across politics and business through to sports.
Back in 1985, Saudi Arabia’s soccer authorities initially refused to hand over the trophy of the Afro-Asian Cup after losing to Cameroon in the finals of the tournament. They claimed Cameroon had fielded an ineligible player who was none other than legendary star Roger Milla, who had traveled to Jeddah on a French passport as he couldn’t also have a Cameroonian one.
Now, Cameroon is considering a revision of its nationality code which was enacted in 1968. The current law stipulates any Cameroonian adult who willfully acquires a foreign nationality automatically loses their Cameroon nationality.
But a new draft bill—a copy of which Quartz Africa has seen—says “a Cameroonian who has acquired another nationality shall retain Cameroon nationality unless it is expressly relinquished by the concerned.” The bill is expected to pass through with little challenge.
Some African governments have been reluctant to legalize dual citizenship, arguing the patriotism of people with dual citizenship could be questioned. But there’s also anecdotal evidence some of these governments are more concerned an influential and economically independent diaspora, able to move freely between countries, could support a challenge to the leadership.
By 2010, a comprehensive study showed that 21 African countries, including DR Congo, Liberia, Algeria and Zimbabwe, prohibited dual citizenship. Meanwhile, 23 others permitted dual citizenship under certain circumstances like if acquired by marriage to a foreign spouse or allowed for citizens from birth only. Other countries did not address the issue of dual citizenship in their laws.
Despite these restrictions it is not unusual among middle class Africans to find people holding dual nationality in countries which don’t allow dual nationality, in part because many countries don’t have comprehensive systems for checking until they vie for office. In 2017, up to two-thirds of the presidential candidates in Somalia’s election held foreign passports while as many as 100 of its 275 legislators also held foreign passports. Eventual winner, now president, Mohamed Farmaajo, also held American citizenship. He had previously worked for the state transportation department in Buffalo, New York.
Many African countries today have sizable diaspora communities, notably in Europe and North America, with an increasing economic, social and political influence aided by the improvement in communications and travel networks over the last couple of decades.
The World Bank estimates the African diaspora around the world at 30.6 million, but the figure could be even higher when unrecorded African migrants are considered. In 2019, remittance inflow from the African diaspora topped $48 billion. Such remittances in 2010 contributed to 2.6% of the continent’s GDP.
The IMF has estimated the African diaspora save an around $53 billion every year outside of the continent. There is a belief that if it was easier to invest in their countries of origin as dual nationals more of those savings would come to Africa.
Last year, Ethiopia’s parliament passed a bill to allow members of the Ethiopian diaspora, who have taken up nationalities in other countries, to invest, buy shares, and set up lending businesses in the country’s state-dominated financial sector.
Ghana seems to be one of the African countries which has been quick to recognise the potential of its diaspora and the advantage of granting them the possibility to hold dual citizenship. As early as 2000, it passed a law to recognize dual nationality for its citizens. The government of Ghana has since made efforts to attract its Ghanaian origin and other African descendant diaspora to return home, with the Year of Return, Ghana 2019 recording remarkable success.
Many African professionals and businessmen at home and in the diaspora want to pick up foreign passports for very practical reasons—they want to be able to move freely around the globe.
According to the Africa Visa Openness Report 2019, on average, Africans can only travel to 25% of other African countries without a visa. But holders of passports from North America and Europe can travel visa-free to more African countries than Africans.
Henley & Partners, the global citizenship and residency advisory firm which is set to open an office in Lagos, has pointed out that most Nigerians wishing to subscribe to their offerings have no plans to relocate. Instead, they just want to have a passport which makes it easier to travel without the unpredictability of visa applications.
The latest Henley Passport Index shows that two of Africa’s most populated countries, Nigeria and Ethiopia occupy the 97th and 98th positions respectively on the index. The Nigerian passport offers its holders visa-free travel to just 46 countries mostly in Africa, while the number is 44 for Ethiopia.