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article imageSierra Leone: Uproar over citizenship

By Gibril Koroma     Sep 4, 2010 in World
Freetown - The Lebanese community in Sierra Leone usually try very hard to stay out of the news headlines but an old citizen citizenship law has recently forced one of them to speak out:
The archaic and colonial citizenship law of Sierra Leone is about to be overhauled following a strident campaign by Nasser Ayoub, a resident of Lebanese ancestry born in the east of the country. He threatened to go on a hunger strike if he is not granted full citizenship and the government in Freetown represented by its Information Minister has met with members of the Lebanese community to look into the issue.
Nasser, a successful businessman, said he could have bribed somebody to get a Sierra Leonean passport, but he preferred to to do it the legal way, through the appropriate government channels. Successive Sierra Leonean governments had battled against foreigners acquiring the country's passports through dubious means(by bribing immigration officials, a common practice in many African countries) and President Koroma announced a couple of months ago that he will fire any anybody caught in any passport scandal.
But Ayoub says he is a bonafide citizen of Sierra Leone whose grandfather and father were born in Sierra Leone. He says he is only having problems because he is not black. "That's racial discrimination, he said."
Many Lebanese born and bred in Africa are not considered real citizens even though the Lebanese had lived and worked in the continent for hundreds of years. Extremely good at business, they usually control (unofficially) most of the economies of African states.
Many Africans think they are arrogant and racist as well, refusing inter-marriage between their daughters and black men. Marriage between a Lebanese man and a black woman are however common. Many Africans also complain about the the way black people are treated in Lebanon where Africans are usually found in menial jobs, usually working as domestic servants. Africans born in Lebanon cannot be citizens as citizenship by birth is not recognized in that country. In Sierra Leone, citizenship by birth is recognized but only if one or both parents of the individual are black. Dual citizenship is now recognized in Sierra Leone after a persistent campaign by Sierra Leoneans living abroad.
Ayoub's campaign has gained support among many Sierra Leoneans both black and non-black at home and abroad and this may be one of the reasons the government is about to have another look at the citizenship law.
However, Sierra Leoneans who oppose granting citizenship to people of Lebanese ancestry mainly fear that they (Sierra Leoneans of Lebanese ancestry) will take over the politics of the country since they already control the economy. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in world and some politicians frequently buy the votes of indigent voters.
Having a president or national leader of Lebanese ancestry terrifies many Sierra Leoneans, according to a survey by telephone I did recently. They would prefer Lebanese-Sierra Leoneans to stay in business and not venture into politics. But if the 1961 citizenship law is amended that will dramatically change things in this West African country of six million people.
At his inauguration in 2007 (video), President Ernest Bai Koroma promised to maintain and nurture democracy, equality and justice for all Sierra Leoneans.
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