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Racism in Sierra Leone - The Nasser Ayoub Case

By Abdul Suhood Komeh

London, UK.

Last week, amidst euphoria around Hollywood star, Idris Elba’s maiden visit to Sierra Leone, where he was issued a diplomatic passport at a specially held ceremony by the President, a video by another star, Nasser Ayoub, went viral. Dignified, measured and calm in his film, Mr Ayoub is calling out legalised racism in Sierra Leone that has excluded him from citizenship.

Firstly, three things are worth reminding here for at least some people:

1) Lebanon is a country, not a race. People who were/are born, raised or chose to naturalise in Lebanon are known as Lebanese. Sometimes, like in most decent or maturing democracies, there are other routes to acquiring citizenship in Lebanon. For example, provable ties like maternal and paternal lineages, or through legal or executive dicisions. And, importantly, Lebanon is not monolithic. There are different facets to it - variations in culture, dialects, beliefs, clans, regional affinities, etc. Just like every other society, modern or historical.

2) Sierra Leone is a country, not a race. People born there are known as Sierra Leoneans not because they are black. And not all black people are Sierra Leonean. In fact, let’s reduce the scope: Not all Africans are Sierra Leoneans. For example, most of the people born in neighbouring Guinea or Liberia are black but have no basis, let alone skin colour, to just waltz in and declare themselves Sierra Leonean. Unless they can prove they belong there, in some way.

3) Any law(s) that says a person of different skin colour to the majority, even if born there, cannot be Sierra Leonean is wrong, and racist. And as citizens, to not denounce such a law is to agree with it. Thereby allowing it to stand and effectively opening us to accusations of racism.

At the start of 2020, our current law states that a person born in the country can only be granted automatic citizenship if at least one of their parents is of ‘negro African descent’. No other word is accurate, this is clearcut Racism. It should shame every reasonable Sierra Leonean. And why is the word ‘Negro’ still present in our laws in 2019? It reduces Sierra Leone to the depths that the document that undergirds, informs and directs formal interactions, the constitution, cannot find a better term. Instead, positively employs the degrading word ‘negro’ as the affirmative, definitive quality of citizenship. What does this say about cultural understanding in the country that had a university before Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and the whole of west Africa?

Of course, Sierra Leone has the sovereignty to draw-up its own laws. But laws are not always right. Where they are established to be wrong, they must change. Otherwise, what’s progress?

What necessitates politics or even democracy if not to adjust and acknowledge new demographies or adopt clearer perspectives? Frankly, it is an embarrassing misuse of experience that it is Nasser Ayoub, who happens to be a high profile victim, leading a protest against racism. Not politicians or civil society. We belong to a group that continues to be racism’s biggest victims around the world and within Africa itself! Do we need any more reminding than the name of our capital, Freetown, to be staunch anti-racists?

Like many people of Lebanese-descent, Nasser Ayoub was born in Sierra Leone. He cannot access full rights, including holding a passport because his dad is Arab-Lebanese (and born in Sierra Leone!). His mum, to my understanding, is an Arab-Lebanese immigrant. To require of him to naturalise is, immoral.

And here is the kicker: Even if Nasser Ayoub subjected himself to the humiliation of naturalising in the country of his birth. He will have to fork out an extortionate fee of $3,000 (USD) for what is a second-class citizenship. Disqualified from full democratic participation as a result of nothing he’s done, but because his parents are foreign-born and not black. That cannot be right. And what good is citizenship if you cannot aspire to, or hold elected office, to participate in the fundamental institutions that make laws that affect you and your community?

Wisely, on principle, a socially and politically aware Mr Ayoub has refused to naturalise. In the stead, expressing his belief that his citizenship, like that of every person born in Sierra Leone or any other society, is inalienable and needs no fee or ceremonial validation. And quite rightly so.

Peaceful defiance is as powerful a tool of protest as there is. By refusing naturalisation, Nasser Ayoub has shown intelligence beyond ordinary. He’s chosen to assume his citizenship within his being, space and reasoning. Not on someone else’s terms. Or for that matter a law he disagrees with. To naturalise is to accept and recognise an abhorrent law. 

The man speaks fluent creole, Sierra Leone’s language of social interaction and local commerce. He is participating and producing not Lebanese, but Sierra Leonean culture because he is influenced by, and gained his primary socialisation in his natural habitat, Sierra Leone. To not grant him and others like him the right to full socio-political participation by birth, the minimum qualifying criteria for black Sierra Leoneans, is an injustice that has no intellectual justification beyond discrimination and coarse nationalism.

Rather than scorn, Mr Ayoub deserves praise and support as a brother. At every opportunity he was encouraging his viewers to share his video as widely as possible. This is to challenge fellow Sierra Leoneans on a very important moral question: Are we comfortable with the tag of racism to satisfy a weakly thought-out, outdated even, affirmation of a racialised Sierra Leone? 

It’s time Sierra Leoneans come to terms with the fact that no culture is ever singular, pure or static. Culture is influenced outwardly and inwardly. It is past time we recognise that identity intersects with many other variables - visible and invisible - like tribe, gender, sexuality, race, etc.

All Nasser Ayoub is demanding is the right to what he is entitled to: full recognition as a citizen. We must support his cry by creating a new ascription to the category ‘Lebanese,’ that best suits our society; it is within our creative powers to give the noun ‘Lebanese’ a different meaning, as opposed to that which it addresses in Lebanon. Just 30 years ago no public addresses were broadcasted in Fullah. Now they are, and Sierra Leone is not degraded for it but made better, to reflect its tribal composition. We can do that for Lebanese too! After all, no modern history of Sierra Leone can be written without recognising Lebanese contributions and influence.

Nasser Ayoub is more than worthy of citizenship of Sierra Leone. He is a hero. He, alongside others, must be granted their full rights; they must be able to represent their communities in every democratic forum in the country of their birth. Citizenship is shared.

Let’s change the law. Let’s be Progressives: representation and equality for all - always.