Structural inequalities and the political economy of citizenship

By Baindu Kallon

Baindu Kallon reviews Robtel Neajai Pailey’s new book, Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa, which looks at dual citizenship and unpacks the relationship between citizenship, identity and development in Liberia, Africa’s first Black republic. The issues in the book, Baindu argues, reflect the lasting legacies of structural inequalities and exclusion that have shaped Liberians both at home and abroad.

The discourse around dual citizenship, or being a national of more than one country, is often praised as a move towards progress. It recognises that people move and that their identities and feelings of belonging transcend borders while identifying dual citizenship as a tool for encouraging economic development in the homeland. There is an extensive body of research on diaspora finance, remittances and diaspora investments, and its impact on economic growth and stability. But is dual citizenship as transformational as it seems? Robtel Neajai Pailey’s book Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa examines this question by unpacking the relationship between citizenship, identity and development in Liberia, Africa’s first Black republic. Through interviews and analysis of the political economy and history of Liberia, Pailey illustrates an “unresolved historical crisis of citizenship”, which impacts the effectiveness of dual citizenship as a solution to further Liberian development (123). Thus, the debate on dual citizenship is not just a question of identity nor is it only a potential avenue towards development. Rather it reflects the lasting legacies of structural inequalities and exclusion that have shaped Liberians both at home and abroad.

Reproducing inequalities? Citizenship for homelanders and the diaspora

The discourse around dual citizenship in Liberia came to the forefront in 2008. Four senators introduced a bill that would allow Liberians by birth and foreign-born children to retain two citizenships. The bill was controversial and has yet to be passed, making Liberia one of seven African countries that do not recognise dual citizenship. Pailey explores the controversy surrounding dual citizenship through the voices of homelanders in Liberia’s capital Monrovia and Liberians in the diaspora, specifically London (UK); Freetown (Sierra Leone); Accra (Ghana); Washington D.C. (United States). It’s important to note the inclusion of Accra and Freetown as locations where the Liberian diaspora reside. In scholarship on diasporas and migration, far too often the focus is on the migrant journey from the “Global South” to the “Global North”. This focus ignores the fact that south-south migration, within subregions, is much more prevalent (33). Thus, by adding the voices of Liberians in Freetown and Accra, Pailey challenges the mainstream narrative and addresses a critical gap in migration and diaspora studies.

Pailey interviews more than 200 Liberians, dispersing and analysing their opinions and experiences through the book. These interviews are a key strength of the book. Their insights anchor theories on citizenship into active practices and interactions that Liberians navigate. Action, in Pailey’s analysis, is viewed through the lens of development. This could include moving back home to rebuild Liberia after the country’s civil war (1989-2003), paying taxes to the Liberian government or engaging with diaspora organisations. Interaction refers to the role of the Liberian government and their engagement with citizens abroad and at home as well as citizen-citizen engagement. For the homelanders and those in the diaspora, the expression of citizenship is not only about legal entitlements and rights but also how this is translated into the practice of developing the country and interaction with the Liberian state.

The political economy of belonging

Pailey connects these markings of citizenship through the term the political economy of belonging. Coined by Pailey, the political economy of belonging views citizenship from three lenses: identity (passive), practice (active), and a set of relations (interactive). These actions are shaped by “a set of practices and interactions embodied in the life-worlds and social locations of actors in Liberia and across transnational spaces” (51). In other words, citizenship for Liberians is shaped by lived experiences and their location. This in turn impacts how they practice citizenship as well as their interactions with both the state and other citizens. These varying experiences come to head within the debate on dual citizenship.

The respondents’ life experiences and ability to practice citizenship is rooted in their socio-economic positions. With recent mass emigration and armed conflicts, the changes in socio-economic positions created “diametrically opposed” life experiences that reinforce broader structural inequalities (108). For example, some in the diaspora, specifically in Western countries, view dual citizenship as a means to further development, given their ability financially to invest in property, build businesses or engage directly with capacity building in Liberia. However, some homelanders argued that granting dual citizenship would further widen the gap between the rich and poor. This points to the issue of income inequality in post-conflict Liberia. Homelanders are paid by the government at much lower “local” rates versus the diaspora who have returned home. The varying experiences of Liberians also point to unequal access in terms of land tenure, as returnees aim to claim their abandoned land that homelanders have taken over. Often these varying socio-economic positions reflect and reinforce structural inequalities. This in turn shapes the dual citizenship debate from the perspective of those in the diaspora and homelanders.

Linking the discourse around citizenship to structural inequalities is important to note. As Pailey rightly points out, the conversation around dual citizenship is one about Human Rights in a globalised world where people are increasingly more mobile. While this is true, motivations behind migration journeys, as to why people move and who stays behind, are nuanced. Migration is also a question of one’s ability to travel, gender, social connections, finances – all of which are tied and reflected in the broader global inequalities. The discourse on dual citizenship and development often divorces it from the complexities of the relationship between global inequalities and migration. Failing to do so presents a narrow view of citizenship and it’s often from the perspective of the diasporas and development organisations in the West rather than the homelanders themselves. To grapple with the true impact of dual citizenship, the discourse must be grounded in a greater understanding of its relationship with structural inequalities.

Pailey explores what could be argued as a quite clear divide between homelanders and those in the diaspora, specifically based in London and Washington D.C. One group is for dual citizenship while the other is against it. Yet less discussed in this conversation are the experiences of those based in the “near” diasporas of Accra and Freetown. For them, the conversation is more nuanced. Pailey touches on the reasons why briefly – ranging from the fluidity of identity between Sierra Leoneans and Liberians to the fact that many Liberians in Accra and Freetown are registered as refugees. Given this, what does the experience of being a refugee mean in terms of citizenship and belonging? Would the “near” diaspora, specifically those who are not refugees, benefit from dual citizenship or also further raise tensions between homelanders. For Pailey, these questions fall outside of the scope of the book, given the fact that those based in Western countries are much more likely to be engaged in development via government institutions and external donors. However, given the need for a greater understanding of the experiences of migrants in the Global South, a deeper examination of citizenship and identity for those in the “near” diasporas is much needed.

A history of conflict and post-war development

Citizenship, and its connection to socio-economic inequalities, can be identified through Liberia’s history – from the founding of the nation-state by Black settlers to post-war contestation over income, land tenure and transitional justice. As Liberia transitioned from a country of immigration to emigration so did the configuration of citizenship for Liberians. Initially, with the arrival of the Black settlers, citizenship was passive. It was conditional and “excluded all non-blacks and most indigenous, women, and non-Christians” who predominantly resided outside of the capital (113). With the rise of Charles Taylor in the 1990s, citizenship became active through protest and ultimately armed conflict. Rural spaces previously excluded from citizenship took arms to unseat “an elitist urban leadership made of autocrats” (126). Within this transition from passive to active is the underlying political, social and economic inequalities that were reinforced through citizenship. It created “tiers of citizenship”, life experiences shaped by structural inequalities, which carry through to post-war Liberia today (113).

With post-war reconstruction came the return of those from the diaspora, as many transnational Liberians took positions of power in the government. Pailey refers to this dominance of Liberians from abroad in homeland policies as a ‘diaspocracy’ (199). In neoliberal development practice and policy, returnees are seen as a positive force for change and development. Members of the diaspora coming home are “experts” and can help “recommit Liberia to the peripheral capitalist path to development” (182). Often this development path is driven by international organisations and NGOs, and it has so far generated little in terms of  improving the lives of the ordinary Liberians. While some repatriates challenge this neoliberal development, many actively support it, though it may well prove detrimental for the country. As noted throughout the book, returnees can often be out of touch with the conditions and needs of homelanders. Given this, the policies and initiatives pushed, in line with external post-war development programmes, often do not reflect the domestic realities. With a lack of homelanders involved in the government, the viewpoints from the ground are often lost when creating a national agenda, leading to mixed outcomes  from development initiatives.

Additionally, the return of the diaspora gives rise to “a new political elite…” (201). Some homelanders felt that this new political class invalidated their professional experiences and knowledge “thus resulting in low levels of motivation and outputs” (202). On the one hand, the divide between homelanders and returnees reinforces the power imbalances that helped spur Liberia’s armed conflicts in the first place. Again, tiers of citizenship emerge within the political sphere as one group is valued and prioritised over another. On the other hand, it also reflects a broader, global perspective that prioritises knowledge from those in the West, and subsequently places it at a higher value whether through coveted government positions, compensation or more. In development discourse, there are growing calls to “decolonise” the sector through localisation, a way to enable communities to lead development efforts. Yet localisation perpetuates the same colonial system, one where expertise, funding and knowledge continue to be concentrated with the Western-educated elites, rather than adapting to those closely linked to local realities.

What does it mean to be a citizen?

Who gets to claim Liberian citizenship? Is it the returnee from London, the Liberian with refugee status in Accra or the homelander living in Monrovia? Pailey unpacks the debate of dual citizenship by sharing the life stories of Liberians at home and abroad (read a recent interview with Pailey on here). Their narratives reflect the broader structures of development, inequalities and post-war nation-building. Doing so outlines how citizenship can be a tool for post-conflict development as well as a vehicle to reinforce inequalities. For a continent that too often sees its conflicts and subsequent post-conflict solutions reduced to regional, ethnic or religious identities, Pailey’s book is a refreshing and nuanced take on post-war peacebuilding. It illustrates that citizenship is not just a question of identity, nor is it a stagnant set of legal rights and privileges. Instead, it is constantly reconstructed and renegotiated through life experiences of Liberians that are shaped by the structural inequalities that impact the country and more broadly the African continent today.

Baindu Kallon holds a MA in African Studies from SOAS and has a keen interest in economic development and migration policy in West Africa. Baindu is a community activist and works with black creatives in the UK. 

Featured Photograph: Built in 1957, the Capitol Building in Monrovia is the seat of the country’s bicameral legislature (David Stanley, 12 March 2012).


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