The Supreme Court of Liberia will hear Oral argument in legal challenge to the automatic loss of citizenship law today in a case likely to impact scores of Liberians who fled due to the civil war. More importantly, the case could alter the fate of many others who returned from exile and are currently serving in government positions while holding passports of a foreign nation.
Heralding the contention that the fundamental rights that are enumerated in the Liberian Constitution do not belong to the Government of Liberia, advocates against the denial of natural-born Liberian citizen the full rights of Liberian citizenship are taking their challenge to the Supreme Court of Liberia in hopes of laying to rest a controversy threatening to shut the doors of Liberia to many who fled due to the civil war.
The case was filed before the Supreme Court on July 12, 2010, challenging as unconstitutional the automatic loss of citizenship provisions of Sections 22.1 and 22.2 of the Aliens and Nationality Law of Liberia. A petitioner’s brief was filed on November 22, 2010 before the high court.
The lawsuit, according to its backers, does not ask the Liberian government to recognize dual citizenship but does require the Liberian government to respect all of rights of natural-born citizens.
Irony amid controversy
A.T. Jalloh, Attorney-in-Fact, based in the United States who is the brainchild of the effort says it is ironic that Liberia embodies a notion which ignores that a person from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and other countries that recognize dual citizenship, can become a naturalized citizen of Liberia and simultaneously retain his or her birth citizenship regardless of what Liberia's oath-of-allegiance says, be elected to the national legislature, serve as a justice on the supreme court of Liberia, and occupy other positions within the Liberian government.
Jalloh says the challenged provisions of Sections 22.1 and 22.2, which purport to automatically deprive a Liberian of his or her Liberian citizenship without a prior hearing judgment consistent with due process, are in direct conflict with Article 20(a) of the 1986 Liberian Constitution, which requires a law to hear before it may deprive: "No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, security of the person, privilege or any other right except as the outcome of a hearing judgment consistent with the provisions laid down in this Constitution and in accordance with due process of law."
GOL given 48 hours
Jerome Kokoyah, who appeared before the high court Tuesday to make the case against the Liberian government, was unable to do so after the government said it was not ready to proceed. The court has given the government 48 hours to prepare its defense.
At the core of the debate is the perceptions held by many that the failure to allow some 500,000 Liberians residing in the United States and other parts of the world a chance to return home and work and contribute to Liberia’s development could kill the dream of many looking to make a return to their homeland.
Since the war subsided, Liberians residing in the United States and other places reportedly send millions annually friends, relatives and loved ones in Liberia
For Jalloh, the basic principles of fundamental rights requires that Liberia belongs to all who have birthrights. ‘‘Here, you have a situation where the National Legislature has decided to usurp the roles of the executive and judicial branches of our government. By legislative fiat, the Legislature, as it did in the Wolo v. Wolo matter, has enacted a self-executing law in which it claims that a Liberian can be deprived of a protected right without due process of law, and without any involvement from the executive and judicial branch. This is clear violation of our system of government.’’
The case, according to Jalloh is an unconstitutional attempt to deprive him and others of their natural-born Liberian citizenship which is why he is pursuing his quest to the high court. ‘‘The law I am challenging here, Sections 22.1 and 22.2 of the Aliens and Nationality Law of Liberia, states that a person automatically loses his or her Liberian citizenship from the moment that person becomes a naturalized citizen of another country, votes in a foreign election, or serves in a foreign armed forces without prior approval from the president. The law also specifically prohibits the government from instituting any proceedings to nullify or cancel a person's Liberian citizenship.’’
According to Jalloh, as far back as 1937, in the case of Wolo v. Wolo, the Supreme Court told the government how it could comply with the constitutional right of due process: (1) a law must hear before it may condemn; (2) there must be a tribunal competent to pass on the matter in dispute; (3) the process must proceed upon inquiry; and (4) a judgment of deprivation maybe rendered only after trial. Accordingly, Jalloh asserts, in order to at least comply with the Honorable Supreme Court's mandate that there must be a tribunal competent to pass on the matter in dispute, the government will have to start by instituting a revocation of citizenship proceedings against me, serve me with notice of its allegations, and provide me with a meaningful opportunity to be heard before it may deprive me of my natural-born Liberian citizenship. How can the government, in this matter, claim that it has complied with the first step of the Supreme Court's due-process mandate, when the challenged automatic loss of citizenship law specifically prohibits the government from instituting any proceedings to at least comply with the first step of the Supreme Court's due-process mandate?
Jalloh insists that the case is not about the law of a foreign country; it is about the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia, which prohibits automatic loss of citizenship. ‘‘We believe we are right on the law, and that ultimately we will prevail,’’ the lawyer laments.
The citizenship issue has been a serious concern for Liberians residing in the Diaspora. In January this year, a group of Liberians in the U.S. state of Minnesota launched a 10,000-signature petition drive to urge the government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and the Liberian legislature to embrace the idea of dual citizenship.
For Jalloh, the fight is a test case for Liberia’s commitment to the constitutional principle of due process. ‘‘When isolated from the politics of distraction and caricature, the rule is too settled to be denied: whenever there is a conflict between the Liberian Constitution and a legislative enactment, the Constitution always wins.’’