Monrovia — Liberians are proudly italicizing the maternal linage of American Idol 2020 winner when posting to their various social media profiles. But are they prepared to grant Just Sam citizenship? Ask thousands of Liberians in Monrovia and you'll get a resounding exclamatory YES!
However, citizenship is a fundamental right granted only by the Constitution - without it, one's rights are limited in a particular nation. Would anyone give up an American citizenship for Liberia's? Just Sam will have to do the absurdity to become the Liberian that many Liberians crave dearly amid the exigency of her monumental exploit.
Samantha Diaz alias Just Sam marveled the judges with her vocal quality but it was her personal story that touched most Americans: from being bullied in school, singing in the subway to being adopted and motivated by her Liberian immigrant Grandmother.
And then her story attracted diaspora Liberians who then launched a social media campaign to garner support from Liberian communities all over the world and those back on the home soil.
Long story short, it was all a happy ending for Just Sam and for many Liberians - home and abroad. This is a story that fits into an epic Hollywood biopic - maybe an Oscar nominee.
But there's an elephant in a very big room: dual citizenship -- a debate that has been marred by misconceptions and political bloopers. It remains one of the most controversial topics in a country that was colonized by freed American slaves back in the 1800s. So, why many Liberians are disdainful about dual citizenship? The factors spurring these misconceptions even in a modern day Liberia can pretty much be subtly discerned in our history.
President George Weah ignited a new debate when he heralded the need to amend the Constitution. The President has two American sons and a Jamaican wife. So, it makes sense to push for a Constitutional reform.
Put the Weahs' conspiracy theory aside, many Liberians opposing dual citizenship still have their contentions. Some hold that Liberians, who allegedly have American citizenship, have exploited the country while serving in government and are walking with impunity.
This evolves from an entrenched public perception that several diaspora Liberians who held essential positions in the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's administration "ripped-off" the country and left the government with little or no power to seek extradition of these alleged pillagers. Others are edgy that diaspora Liberians hold a superior allegiance to their host countries above Liberia.
Others want citizenship reform but with askance.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, pundits predicted that the 2020 referendum would have begun a new epoch of Liberia's history.
A land mark Supreme Court ruling in December 2019 renewed the debate. In that case, a determined Attorney Teage Jalloh challenged the Constitutionality of the Aliens and Nationality Law - a statute that should not circumvent the Constitution.
Atty. Jalloh, a Liberian-born with American citizenship, was denied travel documents by the Liberian embassy in Washington, DC after being told he needed a non-immigrant Liberian visa before he could be permitted to enter Liberia.
Article 27 b of the Constitution defines the eligibility for Liberian citizenship; stating that, "In order to preserve, foster and maintain the positive Liberian culture, values and character, only persons who are negro or of Negro descent shall qualify by birth or by naturalization to be citizens of Liberia".
But Article 27 c, gives power to the Legislature to "prescribe such other qualification criteria for the procedures by which naturalization may be obtained". This gives rise to the Aliens and Naturalization statute which was contested by Atty. Jalloh during a protracted legal tussle.
Section 22.1 of the Act provides a textual meaning of how one shall forfeit a Liberian citizenship. These avoidable acts are: making an affirmation of allegiance to a foreign state, personally enlisting into the armed forces of another country, voting in a political election in a foreign state and making a formal renunciation of Liberian citizenship at the embassy or consulate in a foreign state.
Simply put, Jalloh contention was rooted in law: that the law made by the Legislature violated the Constitution - a determination that was later made by the high court.
Sparing you the rigor of Liberia's jurisprudence, Jalloh's case indicatively birthed a case law that only lawyers would interpret efficently. However, it also gives a glimpse of hope to thousands of diaspora Liberians already nervous about the uncertainty of reclaiming rights in a country of their birth.
But only a national referendum is a panacea.
"In the absence of an amendment, this was the best we could get. The constitutional provision prohibiting dual citizenship is still in force," said Justice Minister Musa Dean following the Supreme Court judgment.
"What the amendment seeks to do is to abolish it completely; except that dual citizens won't be eligible for certain positions in government."
On the other side of the divide, supporters of dual citizenship -- home and abroad -- are optimistic that the upcoming referendum will usher a new begining . The All Liberian Conference on Dual Citizenship, which represents over 500,000 Liberians in the diaspora, has been debating the framework of "Proposition One" passed by the legislature.
The proposition is not without issues. Some say it is discriminatory against diaspora Liberians. The Senate's version precludes a person with dual citizenship from holding positions such as Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, cabinet minister positions, deputy ministers, heads of autonomous commissions and agencies amongst others.
There are lamentations from diaspora Liberians about these restrictions. Some think it is resentful and would make them "second class Liberian citizens" while others argue that diaspora Liberians have the requisite skill sets to hold important positions and contribute to nation building.
Mr. Arthur K. Watson, Chairman Emeritus of United Liberia Association of the America, decries that it is rather unfortunate for a country that is in such dire need of the relevant skill sets that its natural born citizens have acquired over these many years from various develop countries of the world to be utilized for the benefit of the country and they are now been denied by this so-called Bill.
Despite the inklings about this proposition, voting for it means "You have agreed that a person, at least one of whose parents was a citizen at the time of the person's birth, shall be a natural-born citizen of Liberia. Such person does not have to reach the age of maturity to decide his/her citizenship. Also, you have agreed that a natural born citizen of Liberia may hold another citizenship but shall not qualify for elected national positions or public service positions listed in the amended proposition."
Just Sam's success have validated Mr. Watson and several others convictions. It also epitomizes that people with "Liberian blood" have the tendency of bringing pride to the country no matter where they are. And Liberians are always proud to be associated with their individual success.
The newly crowned American Idol has even told US media how she's committed to using some of her massive cash prize to help her Grandma complete a hospital project in Liberia. Her Grandma, although now a US citizen, has been remitting money back to Liberia for the project. But she too, based on the law, is no longer a Liberian.
The bond between Just Sam and her Granny is solid. That bond is the nexus between her and the West African nation. But she is not allowed to be a Liberian even if she wants.
Like her, there are tens of thousands of young people with Liberian heritage or linage that are denied Liberian citizenship because of this Act by the Legislature.
Would Just Sam's story influence campaigners to lure votes for the upcoming dual citizenship referendum? It's a wide guess for anyone but at least her phenomenal success has ignited another national conversation about Liberians' engrained love/hate perception for dual citizenship.