Why liberalising nationality law is a win-win situation
By Dibussi Tande
In 1985, when Cameroon won the first Afro-Asian football finals against Saudi Arabia in Jeddah, the Saudis refused to hand over the trophy on grounds that Cameroon had fielded an ineligible French player during the first leg encounter in Yaounde.
The player in question was none other than the legendary Roger Milla who had showed up for the game with his French passport.
The Cameroonian government insisted that even though Roger Milla carried a French passport he was still a bona fide Cameroonian citizen who had the right, in fact the obligation, to defend the colors of his native land.
The issue was resolved months later following high-level diplomatic exchanges and the mediation of the world football governing body, FIFA.
About a decade later, the same Cameroonian Government barred another Cameroonian icon, the irascible novelist and critic Mongo Beti, from running for the 1997 parliamentary elections on grounds that he was not a Cameroonian.
When Mongo Beti returned from exile a few years earlier, he had entered the country using a French passport. Until his death a few years later, the Biya regime continued to describe Mongo Beti as a foreigner who was ceaselessly meddling in the affairs of his host country Cameroon.
These two incidents involving passports from the same foreign country clearly capture the schizophrenic and arbitrary application of Cameroon’s outdated and highly restrictive nationality law (Loi no. 68-LF du Juin 1968 portant Code de la nationalité) which is out of step not only with the reality of Cameroonian society today, but also with current world-wide trends.
The late Cameroon-born renowned writer, Mongo Beti was denounced as a foreigner by the Cameroonian government for holding a French passport. He was onto his death a fierce critic of the Biya government
According to article 31 of the 1968 nationality code, any Cameroonian who acquires the nationality or citizenship of a foreign country, shall, upon that acquisition, cease to be a citizen of Cameroon.
However, as we have seen in the case of Roger Milla and Mongo Beti, the nationality law is generally enforced only when it is in the interest of the regime in power to do so; the only reason Mongo Beti was consistently branded a foreigner and barred from contesting parliamentary elections was because he was a virulent critic of President Biya and his regime.
As a leading Ugandan dual citizenship proponent pointed out during Uganda's debate on dual citizenship a couple of years ago:
"If dual citizenship is easily available in all of Africa, then it would allow expatriates to return and invest in their birthplace, entice foreign investors and promote cross-border cooperation."
Increasing calls for dual citizenship across the African continent are also driven by a growing recognition that the African Diaspora is making immense contributions to the national economies of African countries, and that this contribution will only increase with the liberalization of citizenship laws.
This was the stance taken by Ghana when it finally adopted the Dual Citizenship Regulation Act on July 3, 2002. Speaking at the time, Dr. Addo-Kufuor, the then acting Minister of the Interior said:
“The legislation is a tribute to the great support Ghana has received from her citizens who have been living beyond her shores over the years. This support has been in the areas of economic, technical, social and infrastructural development … The NRGS contribution of 400 million dollars cannot be treated lightly, and so the importance Ghana attaches to NRGS cannot be overemphasized.”
Ghana is booming from investments from overseas-based Ghanians.
While the dual citizenship debate has generally focused on first generation immigrants who still have direct ties to their countries of birth, there is increasing interest in the children and grandchildren of these immigrants who are born in these foreign countries, and who have only a tenuous link to their parents’ countries of birth.
In this case, dual citizenship offers an incentive to reconnect with their roots. Most significantly, it opens up the possibility of them living, working or setting up businesses in their parents’ countries of origin.
Dibussi Tande is a Cameroonian journalist and writer. He blogs as Dibussi.
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