On 1stAugust 2019, Somali President, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’ renounced his American citizenship. In a press release, the President stated that he “voluntarily filed for the renunciation” even though Somalia’s Provisional Constitution allows for dual citizenship. The press release also noted that the decision was reached after the completion of legal and immigration processes that had been started when Farmaajo was elected as Somalia President in 2017.
The President’s decision came as a complete surprise to the general public. Although there were several interpretations of the reasons behind the decision, many Somalis on social media – including politicians – strongly welcomed the president’s renunciation of his American citizenship. Other politicians holding senior posts were encouraged to follow suit and renounce their second passports.
For the past few years, there has been a heated debate over the fact that a significant number of Somalia’s political leadership are dual citizens, and whether dual nationals should be eligible to hold senior government positions in the country.
The prominence of dual citizens in the national leadership causes concern because when people have allegiances to other countries, it is not clear where their loyalty would lie if there were a conflict of interest between Somalia and that other country. This issue of blurred loyalty creates an ethical dilemma around whether dual nationals can be entrusted to hold sensitive high ranking-political positions within the executive, parliament and the judiciary as well as in the intelligence, military, and diplomatic services.
The current leaders and their nationalities
Many leaders in Somalia, at the federal level, hold a foreign passport. The current President of Somalia was an American citizen before he renounced it this month. The current Prime Minister is Norwegian – since 2000, all the Prime Ministers appointed by the Transitional National Government (TNG), the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) have been dual citizens. The majority of the cabinet ministers also hold foreign passports. Moreover, 38% of the Members of Federal Parliament (105 out of 275) have dual nationality, while 20 out of the 54 Senators in the Upper House of the Parliament are returned diaspora. Furthermore, many dual nationals hold crucial posts in the security institutions and diplomatic missions.
Dual nationals and political leadership
In 2000, civil society leaders organized a reconciliation conference in Djibouti, which led to the birth of the Transitional National Government. Since then, there has been enthusiasm and interest from many diaspora Somalis to participate in political processes and be part of the economic and social development of the country.
The diaspora played an active role in the formation of the subsequent national governments – the TNG, the TFG, and the FGS – as well as regional states. During times of immense political instability in the country, the diaspora have occupied senior positions in different public institutions as ministers, as well as members of the federal parliament, with some dual nationals even losing their lives serving the country.
Dual nationals are not only active in politics, but they are pioneers in the areas of investment, human capital transfer, and philanthropy. They also form part of the civil service.
However, their role in higher political positions and senior and sensitive security posts is called into question by their alleged dual loyalty: how one person can protect the interest of two countries and remain loyal to both. This dilemma has most likely precipitated the decision of President Farmajo to renounce his American citizenship.
Somalia’s political leaders deal with national issues and are responsible for taking crucial policy decisions that reflect the interest of the country. There could be occasions that dual citizens in top public offices may be susceptible to conflicting interests especially when negotiating bilaterally with an adopted country. For instance, the policy decisions and engagement of Somalia’s current prime minister with Norway could be influenced by his Norwegian citizenship. Similarly, people with dual nationality in diplomatic missions and intelligence and security services surface the same dilemma as they deal with sensitive and classified diplomatic and security cases.
The question of citizenship, including the political rights of dual citizens, is among the most contested of issues in Somalia, and it requires a national debate and dialogue. The Provisional Constitution, as well as the draft citizenship bill, does not clarify the status of dual nationals who hold senior political positions in the country. The Provisional Constitution (article 8) states that Somali citizens cannot be deprived of citizenship rights even if they take the citizenship of another country. However, the constitution also states that a law should be enacted by the House of the People that defines how to obtain, suspend or lose Somali citizenship.
Individuals may decide to voluntarily renounce second citizenship, as done by President Farmaajo. However, to address the issue of dual loyalty and dual citizenship in top public offices in Somalia, there should be specific provisions in the citizenship law and Constitution that prohibit dual nationals holding senior public offices. The citizenship debate needs to be immediately prioritized as it has also an important role in national elections and finalization of the provisional constitution. President Farmaajo could be a champion in this regard.
Comparative perspective: the issue of loyalty
The constitutions and citizenship laws of many African countries have provisions which prohibit the holding of senior public offices by persons who owe ‘allegiance, obedience or adherence’ to a foreign government, to avoid potentially divided loyalties. In 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) opposition leader Moïse Katumbi was banned from running for the presidential election because of his Italian nationality. Other countries in Eastern Africa such as Ethiopia and Tanzania don’t allow dual citizenship in the leadership of important public offices.
Some heads of states renounced their second citizenship when they were appointed or elected for top political offices in their countries. For example, Ashraf Ghani renounced his U.S. citizenship in 2009 when elected as Afghanistan President. Iraqi President Barham Salih gave up his British citizenship in accordance with the country’s Constitution, which disallows public officials in senior positions to have dual nationality.
The American politician Senator Ted Cruz gave up his Canadian citizenship when it created questions around his political loyalty. He voluntarily gave up his second nationality even though no law or regulation in the US prohibits dual citizens from holding political positions, with the exception that their access to classified information is restricted.
These examples highlight the dilemma posed by the presence of dual nationals amongst Somalia’s national leadership. Globally, there is a clear precedent that anyone wanting to hold high political office should give up his/her second citizenship to avoid a divided loyalty.
Somalia is not an exception. The country is in a critical and contested state of post-conflict political development, and its leaders should commit firmly to rebuilding state institutions. However, many are skeptical about the dedication and loyalty of dual nationals to this mission since they are the citizens of another stable country.
The way forward
Dual nationals in top political, diplomatic and security offices risk triggering crises, as leaders are forced to divide loyalty to two countries. The point is not that the dual citizens should not be eligible for these positions, but that those aspiring to hold senior and sensitive political (and security) positions should renounce their second nationality to avoid dilemmas around their loyalties.
Starting with the highest offices in the land could be a good entry-point for change. Once elected and before (s)he is sworn in, the head of the state, if a dual national, could be obliged to renounce his/her other nationality. This should be codified in the federal constitution and the draft citizenship bill. The same should apply to the speakers of the two chambers of the parliament, the prime minister and heads of key ministries.
Similarly, the leaders of security institutions especially those responsible for keeping classified security information should also be barred from holding dual nationals since they must deal with sensitive and confidential national secrets.
In the short term and until the status of the dual nationals is clarified in the constitution and the citizenship law, a three-year residency requirement should be established for those who are vying for top political positions.
This commentary is co-authored by Mohamed Irbad and Mahad Wasuge