The History and Evolution of Racism and Discrimination in Sierra Leone
10th February 2012 · 2 Comments
Photo: Sami Saghie, New York
The History and Evolution of Racism and Discrimination in Sierra Leone
In 1961, the independence constitution of Sierra Leone created a single nationality, without any distinction by race, ethnic group or sex. ‘Every person’ born in the former colony or protectorate who was a citizen of the United Kingdom and colonies or a British protected person on 26 April 1961 became a citizen of Sierra Leone on 27 April 1961, unless neither of his or her parents nor any of his or her grandparents was born in Sierra Leone.
The 1961 constitution also had an extensive bill of rights guaranteeing the protection of the rights of all individuals without discrimination. Thus, the small population of ‘Lebanese’ and the offspring of interracial marriages were all recognized as citizens of Sierra Leone. Within a year after independence, Sierra Leone’s constitutional provisions on citizenship were amended twice to become more restrictive and discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, colour and sex. First, the words ‘of negro African descent’ were inserted immediately after the words ‘every person’, to apply retroactively from the date of independence.
Then the non-discrimination clause that prohibited any law that is ‘discriminatory of itself or in its effect’ was amended to exclude laws relating to citizenship. Individuals who were not of ‘negro African descent’ but who had acquired citizenship by virtue of the 1961 constitution were thus stripped of their citizenship of Sierra Leone after less than a year. (In Britain, meanwhile, the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act introduced for the ﬁrst time restrictions on immigration to Britain for citizens of former colonies. Though not explicitly racial in its language, the new provisions were aimed at non-white immigrants from the newly independent countries of Africa and the Caribbean; the effect was to leave some residents of former British colonies with no right of citizenship in any country.)
The 1962 constitutional amendments deﬁned ‘person of negro African descent’ as follows: ‘a person whose father and his father’s father are or were negroes of African origin’, introducing both racial and gender discrimination at one step. Even if a person was born in Sierra Leone of a ‘negro African’ mother, that person could not qualify for citizenship by birth if that person’s father or grandfather was not of negro African descent. The amendments also provided that a person whose mother (but not father or grandfather) was a negro of African descent could apply to be registered as a citizen. A registered citizen did not, however, qualify to become a member of the ‘House of Representatives, or of any District Council or other local authority unless he shall have resided continuously in Sierra Leone for twenty-ﬁve years after such registration or shall have served in the civil or regular Armed Services of Sierra Leone for a continuous period of twenty-ﬁve years’.Nor did the law stipulate how registration should be undertaken.
The change to the law was motivated by political considerations; in particular, to narrow the set of candidates eligible to contest elections due to be held in 1962, by depriving Lebanese and mixed-race Sierra Leoneans of the political rights conferred by citizenship. Subsequent laws restricted the rights of non-citizens to acquire property both in the Western Area (the historic colony, near Freetown) and in the provinces (though it did not take any right away from those non-citizens who had already purchased property in the Western Area).
From 1965, the government introduced successive acts restricting non-citizens’ ability to own and proﬁt from retail trade, and promoting citizen participation in commerce. In 1969 a new government introduced a further trade act that widened the scope of restrictions, barring non-citizens from trading in thirty-eight consumer goods, rather than the eight previously listed, except by special licence from the minister. The restrictions were also extended to other Africans resident in Sierra Leone, and not just those from overseas; affecting in particular the large community of Fula traders, many originating from neighbouring Guinea. Another act required all non-citizens to register their presence, and gave the government extensive powers to expel non-citizens in the interests of the ‘public good’.
These legal changes took place against a turbulent political background. In 1964, Sir Milton Margai, leader of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the new state’s ﬁrst prime minister, died and was succeeded by his brother, Sir Albert Margai. In closely contested elections in March 1967, Siaka Stevens, candidate of the All People’s Congress (APC), was declared winner over Margai – only to be ousted in a coup within a few hours. A year of military rule by successive groups was ended with a return to civilian rule in 1968 under Siaka Stevens. Though further disturbances and attempted coups followed, Stevens retained power for the next seventeen years, ﬁrst as prime minister and then, after a republican constitution was adopted in 1971, as president.
John Joseph Akar, a prominent mixed-race Sierra Leonean with political ambitions, became the best-known case of those affected by the changes to citizenship law and the face of efforts to reverse them. Akar’s mother was a black Sierra Leonean; his father was of Lebanese origin and thus not ‘of negro African descent’, though he had never visited Lebanon. When Sierra Leone became independent on 27 April 1961, Akar automatically became a citizen by operation of the constitution, as both he and one of his parents had been born in Sierra Leone. With the 1962 amendments, however, he lost his citizenship by birth; though he did apply for and was granted citizenship by registration. He challenged the amendments in court. In his application, he contended that the true intention of the amendments was to exclude persons not of ‘negro African descent’ from being elected to the House of Representatives. He succeeded in the High Court, but the Court of Appeal subsequently reversed the decision.
Akar appealed to the Privy Council in England (then the highest court for Sierra Leone). In 1969 the Privy Council reversed the Court of Appeal decision and declared that the amendment was of no effect, though on different grounds from the judge at ﬁrst instance. The victory was short lived. The Siaka Stevens government disregarded the judgment and re-enacted the discriminatory provisions in the Sierra Leone Citizenship Act 1973. The government also established its own Supreme Court in Sierra Leone, removing the right of appeal to the Privy Council.
The 1973 Citizenship Act provided for two categories of citizenship: by birth and by naturalization. Citizenship by birth was granted to anyone born in Sierra Leone before 19 April 1971, or resident in Sierra Leone on 18 April 1971, provided that his or her father or grandfather was born in Sierra Leone and that he or she ‘is person of negro African descent’. Dual citizenship was excluded. Persons entitled to apply for naturalization under the 1973 Act were foreign women married to citizens, other persons of ‘negro African descent’ born in Sierra Leone, and persons of ‘negro African descent’ continuously resident for a period of not less than eight years.
Persons who were Afro-Lebanese (i.e. those whose mothers were black Sierra Leonean and whose fathers were not ‘negro’ African) could apply to be naturalized under this provision (though no procedures to do so were established). The 1973 Act does not deﬁne who is a ‘negro African’, and the 1962 amendment had also provided little clarity. The presumption was that the phrase meant black African, reducing the essential condition for the acquisition of citizenship to the colour of the person’s skin. Thus a black man’s children by a Sierra Leonean black woman were citizens by birth wherever they were born. A white or mixed-race man’s children by a Sierra Leonean woman could acquire Sierra Leonean citizenship only by naturalization. The 1983 Births and Deaths Registration Act reinforced this discrimination by requiring the ofﬁcer registering a child’s birth to include the race of the child’s parents in the birth certiﬁcate.
Those without a parent of ‘negro African descent’ did not even have a right to naturalize until an amendment to the Citizenship Act came into force in 1977, allowing for individuals over twenty-one years of age and without a parent of ‘negro African descent’ to apply for naturalization based on a residence period of ﬁfteen years and other restrictive criteria. Those under twentyone could apply to naturalize only if one of their parents was already naturalized. Persons of ‘negro African descent’ born in Sierra Leone could apply for naturalization at any time, with no further requirements; and those with a parent of ‘negro African descent’ not born in the country could apply for naturalization after only eight years.
The minister was not required to give any reason for the refusal of any application for naturalization and his decision on any such application could not be challenged in any court The minister also had very wide powers to revoke the grant of citizenship by naturalization. A person whose certiﬁcate is revoked ceases to be a Sierra Leonean and may be subject to expulsion. Moreover, dual citizenship was forbidden. In practice, naturalization became progressively more difﬁcult to obtain, except by payment of a bribe. The Citizenship Act was further amended in 1976 to exclude naturalized persons from holding a wider range of public ofﬁces. After a period of twenty-ﬁve years, the restrictions could be lifted; but only by parliamentary resolution passed by a two-thirds majority. In 1978, a referendum approved a new constitution that conﬁrmed the discriminatory provisions in relation to citizenship while making the country a one-party state. The trade acts were used rather as a source of revenue for the government than to restrict non-citizens’ ability to operate businesses in practice.
Siaka Stevens retired from ofﬁce in 1985, and installed Joseph Saidu Momoh as his successor. Pulled by the tide of reform that swept across Africa with the end of the cold war, Momoh instituted a constitutional review process. A new constitution was adopted in 1991 that provided for multiparty elections but did not address the citizenship questions, endorsing the discrimination established in the citizenship acts.
By Daily Mail