African Citizenship for African-Americans

African People of Love! - Webmaster Newsletter - December 2010

Presidents from 12 African nations and private sector African American leaders began considering a proposal to grant dual citizenship to African-Americans in hopes of increasing  investment and interest in Africa at a summit in Abuja, Nigeria in 2006. The event was hosted by the Sullivan Foundation and included  former US President Bill Clinton and World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz. The summit considered granting either: Africa-wide citizenship through the African Union, Regional African citizenship, or individual country citizenship. Since that summit, there has been other campaigns by African Americans for African countries to allow dual citizenship on grounds that they are members of the diaspora and originally from Africa. They feel it will help them gain a better sense of cultural identity, thus healing the wounds of separation from Africa and giving an opportunity for mutual collaboration. African Americans, under this plan, would be allowed to travel freely to African, own property, and start businesses.

In  past discussions, problems arose over identifying which countries African Americans could legitimately lay citizenship claims to. However, since technologies have improved, DNA testing has allowed several African-Americans to trace there roots back to select countries. In Teresa Watanabe’s article, ‘Called back to African by DNA’, she highlights how celebrities like Isaiah Washington , have traced back their roots to Africa and are contributing to their ancestral lands. Isaiah became a citizen of Sierra Leone, after finding that he is a decedent of the Mende ethnic group and has since been contributing towards the development of the country. Likewise, many other Americans are seeking their African roots: Chris Rock- Cameroon, Whoopi Goldberg – Guinea Bissau,  and Oprah – Liberia (Kpelle ethnicity). The brothers that made up the 80’s band, “The boys”, moved to the Gambia a few years back and now operate music studios from Gambia . Under their new name, Suns of Light, they continue to produce music for both US (New Kids on the Block, Akon) and Gambian artists from their studio that is based in Gambia. They hope to promote Gambian music overseas (Interview: A Chat With ‘Suns of Light’). Despite many calls from African Americans to have dual citizenship offered to them, many African countries have not taken any extra steps towards this other than encouraging such a move.

Allowing dual citizenship would provide a sense of ancestral identity for African-Americans. It will also increase ties and trade between America and that respective country. In the sense of nation branding, it would make Africans appear warm, friendly, accepting and sympathetic towards the history of African-Americans. It would also be beneficial in carrying African culture to America using American born citizens. Oprah’s much publicized school in South Africa may have been built in South Africa in part, due to her belief that she was of Zulu origin. As a celebrity, she has helped bolster the image of South Africa  through her link with the school. No amount of advertising money can buy they type of publicity she brought for South Africa in choosing to build her school in that country. Even for the non-celebrities, people with dual citizenship can influence their families, churches, employers etc.. to invest, visit or work with a particular country. These dual citizens would help promote culture and development. In essence, it sounds like this would be a win-win situation.

So far, Ghana is the only country that legally allows for dual citizenship for African-Americans. Currently, there are an estimated 5,000 African-Americans living in Ghana. Other countries have been more hesitant. Perhaps, this is a more difficult move for those African countries that do not allow for dual nationality for their owned citizens that acquire citizenship in another country, or are born abroad to citizens. Perhaps landlocked countries that had fewer slaves feel that there is less linkage to African-Americans or perhaps there is the larger question involved as Anor, editor of Asante magazine aptly notes, “Just because your genetics show you came from a place, should that mean you can lay claim to that group of people or place now?”.

With Africa being the cradle of the humanity, essentially, anyone in the world could lay claims to African citizenship. Yes, some may feel inclined to dispute these distant claims using color lines, but does color define what it is to be African? Whilst I understand the plight for African-Americans in terms of self identity, I feel that African countries should tread cautiously in providing citizenship to large numbers of people that are distantly linked to the continent. One needs to consider the current image of Africa in the Americas. For example, a large number of African-American still have the ‘Tarzan’ image of Africa, and want little do do with the continent. Whilst some do not hold these perceptions, they are so pervasive to the point that they may inadvertently manifest in later dealing with Africa. Whilst we hope that African-Americans that discover their roots will have the desire to help improve the situation of their newly found cousins, we cannot assume that every African-American has good intentions and need to take protective measures.

If there is to be any dual citizenship, what I would propose, is to take the route of India. India’s diaspora is widespread and includes many Indians living abroad that have been in foreign land for generations. What they have done is introduced a new status quite like dual citizenship only with more limited privileges than what one would normally associate with dual citizenship. Like in the case of African-Americans, many Indians living abroad are many generations removed from India. In South Africa for example, the people of Indian origin have been there since the late 19th century and early 20th century. In the 1800’s many were sent to South Africa to work on the plantations as indentured servants (many involuntarily and on life contracts). South Africa hosts the largest population of Indians outside of India (about 1 million) and in some cities, like Durban, they are the largest ethnic minority (See: Indian South Africans). Given India’s situation, it would be problematic for India to incorporate that many people of Indian origin in to their already large population as full citizens. Instead, the government of India decided to grant the status of Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) as a way to tap in their diaspora.  Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) of certain category who migrated from India and acquired citizenship of a foreign country other than Pakistan and Bangladesh, are eligible for grant of OCI. It is commonly known as ‘Dual Citizenship’ but Indian constitution technically does not allow dual citizenship. It is more similar to a ‘special status’ visa. Their benefits include: life long multiple entry, multiple purpose visas, exemption from reporting to Police authorities for any length of stay in India; and the right to work, study, visit, or own property (except in the acquisition of certain agricultural or plantation properties). People that hold OCI status may not vote or hold Indian passports. They may also not occupy constitutional posts such as President, Vice President, Judge of the Supreme Court or legislative posts (See: Passport and Citizenship – Dual Nationality)

In drawing parallels with India, in Africa’s case, African-Americans living in the U.S are also several generations removed, and also did not migrate purely from their own free will. A status similar to OCI would be suitable and perhaps more palatable for African leaders rather then conceding dual nationality with the same rights as a citizen. I will call the new proposed status ‘Overseas Citizenship of Africa (OCA)’. Like the India’s version, and OCA status would not concede the right to vote, change legislation, or hold high ranking government posts.It would make provision for multiple entry, land ownership (with restrictions), and the right to work, study or visit for an undisclosed period of time. It will hence facilitate trade, cultural sharing, and mutual understanding without the fear that exists in granting full citizenship rights to large groups of wealthy, and perhaps politically or culturally influential people (African-Americans are collectively the wealthiest population of black people). It would, in essence provide most of the benefits African-Americans are seeking from Africa, and it would provide Africa with most of the benefits they seek from the African-American diaspora.

Perhaps the biggest divergence from the Indian version that Africa may face with this level of integration, would be the language barrier. Unlike our Indian counterparts, Indians in the diaspora still largely speak or at least understand their mother tongue. African-Americans do not. Since language is a reflection of ones culture, I believe a requirement should be included that stipulates that person applying for OCA status, be required to speak at least one African language at the basic level. According to anthropological theory, the SapirWhorf hypothesis states that language determines culture, and thought process. It would be beneficial for African-Americans to thus understand the language so that they can better understand the culture. If citizenship is granted at the local level, than it should be the predominant language of that country that is required. If it is regionally based, than it should be a language of that region. At AU level, then any language should suffice.

Since the discussions of dual nationality for African-Americans started a few years back, I am sure that it will be a while before other African countries follow in the footsteps of Ghana. There are other factors that way in the minds of African leaders that prevent them from moving this forward. A major one would be justifying granting this type of status to African-Americans for countries that do not allow for dual citizenship for their own nationals that acquire foreign citizenship, nor for foreign born children to citizens. In this brave new highly globalized world, I feel that African leaders should be able to make bold decisions that are not carbon copies of western citizenship and immigration laws. A form of OCA status may be the way forward for brand Africa.

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