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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Dual Citizenship: Time for a Long Overdue National Debate by Dibussi Tande


After Cameroon won the first Afro-Asian football finals against Saudi Arabia in Jeddah in 1985, 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. The reason? 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passports from the same foreign country clearly capture the schizophrenic and arbitrary application of Cameroon’s outdated and highly restrictive nationality law (Loi no. 68-LF du Juin 1968 portant Code de la nationalité) which is out of step not only with the reality of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.

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.

Mongo Beti’s treatment was quite different from that of Professor Hogbe Nlend, another prominent Cameroonian who had sought exile in France during the Ahidjo era. Hogbe Nlend, who later became the President of the influential Bordeaux chapter of the ruling CPDM party in the late eighties and early nineties, was eventually appointed a minister in Biya’s cabinet in 1999 on the UPC ticket even though he carried a French passport just like Mungo Beti…

A Growing Concern

Until recently, dual citizenship was a marginal issue which primarily concerned Cameroonian athletes (particularly professional footballers) in Europe. In fact, it is an open secret that practically every European-based player on the Cameroon national team holds a foreign passport. Like other Cameroonian professionals in the Diaspora, footballers take up foreign citizenship for practical reasons (e.g., to avoid UEFA and national league quotas on foreign players that existed before the Bosman ruling of 1996, or current restrictions on non-EU players).

In other cases, dual citizenship stems from the fact that some of these athletes were born in countries that grant citizenship by birth, but they later decided to play for Cameroon rather than for their country of birth. This is the case for example, of Joseph Desiré Job and Valerie Mezague both of whom were born in France, and who actually played for the French national team at junior levels before finally opting for Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions.

Today, thanks to the establishment of vibrant and ever-growing Cameroonian Diaspora communities around the world (particularly in Europe and America) and the equally growing number of children of Cameroonian parentage born in these foreign countries, the issue of dual citizenship has become a critical one – even though it is yet to become part of the national discourse back in Cameroon. In fact, in the rare occasions when the issue of citizenship has made the headlines in Cameroon, it has been in the context of the fraudulent acquisition of Cameroonian citizenship by foreigners; a situation which according to the Government daily, Cameroon Tribune (07/08/2002), may result in “a person of doubtful nationality could some day become the Prime Minister of Cameroon as was said to be the case elsewhere”…

Contradictory Signals

During a visit to the United States in 2001, former Prime Minister Peter Mafany Musonge conceded in a press conference in Chicago that the issue of dual citizenship was an important one, and intimated that Cameroon may eventually have to follow the trend towards dual citizenship if it intended to fully exploit resources and skills of its ever-growing Diaspora community. Dr. Elvis Ngole Ngole, a prominent member of the Musonge delegation, even advised the Cameroonian Diaspora in the United States to mobilize its resources and energetically lobby lawmakers back home in view of amending the 1968 Citizenship law.

However, when Musonge’s successor, Ephraim Inoni, visited the United States four years later, he simply brushed aside the issue of dual citizenship, insisting that Cameroonian law was very clear on the matter, and that change was not in the horizon.

The fact that most Cameroonians in the Diaspora are considered opponents of the Biya regime, and that the dissonant calls for dual citizenship legislation have been coupled with demands for Diaspora voting rights has not helped matters. It has inadvertently created and emotionally-charged and partisan environment where a reasoned and informed debate on the issue has become virtually impossible since many in the Biya regime consider the granting of dual citizenship rights to the Cameroon Diaspora as an unnecessary and reckless reward for the very people who are trying to bring down the regime in power.

Can Cameroon Afford To Reject Dual Citizenship?

Can Cameroon – a country which proudly celebrates its newfound HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Country) status - afford a development policy which shuts out some of its most resourceful and skilled citizens on the spurious claim that their patriotism is questionable because they reside abroad and have taken up foreign nationalities, usually for practical reasons?

Does a country which is hemorrhaging from loss of its best brains to other countries not owe it to itself and its unborn progeny to use every strategy and tool at its disposal to turn the brain drain into a brain gain?

Can Cameroon ever attain its development and modernization objectives without a more imaginative, less restrictive and less confrontational relationship with its thriving Diaspora community?

Finally are the reasons that once led to the rejection of dual citizenship still valid in the global village of the 21st century? Isn’t it time for a long overdue honest, informed and objective national discussion “over whether dual citizenship is a healthy acknowledgment of a complex cultural identity or a watering-down of patriotic loyalty.” (Chicago Tribune, July 7, 2002).

The Case Against Dual Citizenship

The reasons why countries reject dual citizenship are legion (e.g., to avoid complications that may arise from custody disputes or extradition cases involving dual citizens). However, the most common reason advanced is that of “watered down loyalty” which supposedly arises when an individual takes up a second nationality or citizenship.

According to a report by the Australian Parliament on the pros and cons of dual citizenship, opponents of dual citizenship argue that "a person should be totally committed in a legal and emotional sense to one country" because "having more than one citizenship conflicts with notions of national identity and cohesion." The report cites Dr Katherine Betts of Monash University who insists that “the nation state is still an important political unit. Communities that work have boundaries. Blurred membership leads to blurred loyalty.” Other opponents of dual citizenship, cited in a Chicago Tribune article argue that it commodifies national identity by "…treating passports like credit cards to be collected and used interchangeably depending on convenience."

In the specific case of African states, the rejection of dual citizenship is a product of the years immediately following independence when issues of national identity and national belonging were viewed primarily in exclusionary and even confrontational terms. In this context granting citizenship to individuals who still maintained their original nationalities was seen as a weakening the “unifying power” of the nation-state, threatening “National Unity” and slowing down the construction of the “nation”.

Current Trends

Close to half a century later, the national and international landscape has changed dramatically as a result of globalization and the dramatic growth of international migration. As the previously-cited Australian report points out:

“There is vastly greater mobility of people and increased incidence of people living and working in foreign countries for extended periods… There is greater acceptance in the modern, internationalised world, that individuals may be citizens of more than one country and satisfactorily meet duties as citizens in relation to each. There is greater acceptance that having dual citizens hasn't done much harm to nations, and that the benefits of dual citizenship extend beyond the individuals concerned.”

Today, the issue of dual citizenship in Cameroon is less about excluding foreigners who are reluctant to give up their old nationalities, and more about including bona fide Cameroonians who now live abroad and are part of the highly-skilled, much sough-after and extremely mobile international workforce. Other countries are furiously competing for these skilled workers by offering them attractive incentives ranging from high wages to permanent residence and even citizenship. Cameroon must be willing to offer equally enticing benefits - the most obvious being dual citizenship – if it also intends to compete on an equal footing with these countries and benefit from the skills of these professionals.

To date, there is no evidence to indicate that Cameroonians who have taken up foreign citizenship have become less attached to or less interested in their homeland, or that they are a threat to national security as a result. On the contrary, the Cameroonian Diaspora is contributing significantly in shoring up the Cameroonian economy. The remittance of Cameroonians abroad amounts to millions of dollars annually; Diaspora-owned business ventures employ thousands of Cameroonians at home; Cameroonian alumni, cultural, professional, and other Diaspora-based organizations carry out thousands of charitable ventures (from scholarships to communal development projects) in Cameroon each year. In the same vein, many prominent Cameroonians in the Diaspora have given the country a visibility on the international scene which it would otherwise not have had.

It is therefore safe to conclude that the contribution of Cameroon’s Diaspora to national development has been very significant, and that the color of a dual citizen’s passport has little or nothing to do with that citizen’s level of commitment and attachment to home and country.

So what are the specific benefits of dual citizenship to individuals concerned and to their countries of origin? Which are some of those countries in Africa and elsewhere that have adopted dual citizenship and what justification was put forth for ultimately embracing dual citizenship legislation?

These questions will be answered in Part II

Dibussi Tande is the publisher of "Scribbles From The Den" a weblog of the author's personal views on people, places, issues and events in Cameroon, Africa and the world. Dibussi Tande can be reached at dibussi@msn.com. This article appears on Scribbles From The Den (www.dibussi.com). Visit www.dibussi.com to read Dual Citizenship Part II: A Win-Win Situation.


Dibussi Tande

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

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