Q & A with Liberian-born Attorney A. Teage Jalloh, on his historic role regarding a lawsuit he plans to file, or has already filed in the Liberian Supreme Court against the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration. Most Liberians believe the lawsuit is essentially about the government’s refusal to grant dual citizenship to Diaspora Liberians, who wants to vote in their birth country’s elections, do legitimate business there, and contribute to its development. The Supreme Court of Liberia heard the first oral argument in this case on April 11, 2011.
T.W. Sungbeh: Liberian chat rooms are abuzz about what those Liberians believe is a lawsuit you already filed or plan to file against the Liberian government’s refusal to grant dual citizenship to Liberians in the Diaspora. What’s your take on this issue?
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: 1) The lawsuit is not about dual citizenship. Rather, the lawsuit questions section 22.1 and 22.2 of the Aliens and Nationality Act, which purports to automatically deprive a person of his or her Liberian citizenship and land, which violates the due process clause and other provisions of the 1986 Constitution. 2) Article 20 (a) of the Liberian Constitution grants every person the right to a hearing consistent with due process of law. 3) The government may decide not to recognize dual citizenship, but our Constitution requires the government to respect all of the legal rights that are owed to a person, such as the constitutional right to due process, before it may deprive that person of his or her Liberian citizenship.
T.W. Sungbeh: Have you gotten any support in terms of funds and moral support from individual Liberians, the greater umbrella organization such as the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), that represents the interests of Liberians in the United States, and are you also getting any support from county organizations in your state or any other state in the United States, to help with this lawsuit?
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: No. I have not gotten any kind of support from a county association so far. There are individual Liberians who are aware of this lawsuit and what it stands to achieve. Even though ULAA has it internal problem, but the administration of Anthony Kessely was helpful in providing moral support and other support to the lawsuit.
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: The Gaye Sleh administration has also provided us moral support but not financial support, even though his administration could do more.
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh You know my brother, I am just one person. It is kind of difficult. It would help a lot if I had some support. Those who are aware of the lawsuit know what this lawsuit is all about. I have so far discussed this with some of our Diaspora leaders, but there is fear. Some of our Diaspora leaders who know that I know they are in fact citizens of the United States; they don’t want to tell people.
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: Some of them are not sure that if they come out in support of this people will know that they are citizens of the United States or another country. I have shared some important legal documents concerning the lawsuit with some of these Diaspora leaders. They know what’s taken place. To the extent that people want to help it will be welcomed. But from a personal perspective, I will go forward with the lawsuit because it’s already filed.
T.W. Sungbeh: As you know, there are two feuding ULAA factions. One run by Gaye Sleh, and the other headed by Mariah Seton. Have you gotten any support from the Mariah Seton’s ULAA faction?
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: I have gotten only moral support from that ULAA.
T.W. Sungbeh: Filing a lawsuit is not so easy; you need money. You being a lawyer ought to know it. So if ULAA is not embracing this lawsuit wholeheartedly with financial support, are you in touch with other Liberian organizations around the country to draw up support?
Attorney A Teage Jalloh: I come to this thing strictly with a legal mind. I have spoken with individual Liberians and those on the Internet, and have also spoken with the Federation of Liberians in Europe. They have given me moral support so far. If the court rules this law is unconstitutional than it will be a different ball game. People so far have generally given moral support. There are individual Liberians that have volunteered to raise funds on their own. Me being a direct participant and a lawyer, I really don’t get involve into that; because so far I have paid for everything on my own.
T.W. Sungbeh: Do you think the reason why they government is dragging its feet on this issue is political than legal?
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: I honestly do not think any sensible lawyer will argue that this law doesn’t violate due process. All of the law students in Liberia, if they don’t remember nothing else during their first year of law school will tell you about the case of Wolo v. Wolo. Some of them can even cite the 1936 case in their sleep. The Liberian Supreme Court pretty much said that the law was hear before it condemn. Even if you leave out the constitutional aspect, the law is a violation of the Wolo v. Wolo case. Unfortunately, our government hasn’t spoken with more clarity of thisautomatic loss of citizenship issue. It might be because of political reasons.
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: Let me just put it this way. The President has an obligation to defend an Act of Legislature if there is plausible reason to doing so. The president is the Chief Executive Officer, even though the Ministry of Justice is arguing the case on behalf of the government. But they pretty much argued the president’s position.
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: President Sirleaf has the constitutional prerogative to speak on this issue. Even if the president believe the law is unconstitutional, she can only exercise her constitutional authority not to enforce the law, but the citizens who are affected by the law can challenge the law in a court based on our system of government.
T.W. Sungbeh: How did you get involve with this case?
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: Thank you for asking me that question. I had the opportunity to go to Liberia to visit. I didn’t have the power myself, but I think at some point in life we are all driven by certain forces in life. We have a saying in West Africa, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The reciprocal obligation is when that child grows up is to take care of the village. Based on my legal training, I know that the law is unconstitutional, and if there is a way that I can help out, than I should.
T.W. Sungbeh: What do you intend to achieve from this lawsuit, and personally, what do you expect to get out of it?
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: This lawsuit is one of the biggest constitutional questions of our time. Apart from the humantarian, people were also forced out of the country at gunpoint. Can you take away a right from a person, a fundamental right, a right to citizenship no matter what you think about that person. Can you deprive that person of their right without any kind of administrative or judicial hearing? If the answer to that question is not only a violation of the constitution, but will set a dangerous precedent for our democracy. We cannot give up on Liberia. That’s where the (nabor strings) umbilical cords are buried. If this law is not successfully challenged, it will mean that we are no longer Liberians.
T.W. Sungbeh: As you already know the Liberian legal system is not independent, and is often fraught with corruption and political interference from the highest level of the political chain. Do you think you lawsuit will get a fair hearing under such conditions?
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: That’s a very good question, and I believe the hearing will be fair. But the issues involved are not nust about me. That’s why I’ve tried during the past months to let Liberians know about their constitutional rights. Let them know about the lawsuit. Because the more people know and become informed about their constitutional rights, perhaps, the executive branch will take notice that people are more aware of their rights that they will not accept an automatic loss of citizenship. If people are aware of their rights, they will ask the right questions when some of our political leaders come over here to hold these town hall meetings, when people start asking them about these questions, let them know that they know their right, it will be better for us. Initially, people thought this lawsuit was just about (me) some boy from Bopolu, just one person. The more people start knowing about this lawsuit and what it entails, people will get the message. It is not about me.
T.W. Sungbeh: Is there a legal precedent for a lawsuit of this kind that was filed by a Liberian-born lawyer living out of Liberia against the Liberian government?
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: No. I am not aware of it. There is a case we called “First Impression.” This is the first time we have talked about the issue of automatic loss of citizenship, so this is a delicate issue. People have to take their time. But you know what? This is not the first time we have talked about due process. The most famous case in Liberia about due process was 76 years ago, in 1937. In 1984 when the framers of our 1986 constitution sat together, they like that Wolo v. Wolo decision so much that they inserted it under article 20 (a) of the constitution.
T.W. Sungbeh: You mentioned before the interview started that you are working with a lawyer in Liberia to help you with this case. What’s his name?
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: I am the plaintiff in the case and the main petitioner. And my Counselor of Records is Jerome Korkoya, Esq. He’s one of the best legal minds that we have. He understands the issues.
T.W. Sungbeh: Is there a time set to go to court?
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: Under the Liberian rules, the court did entertained oral argument before. But the court did not render a decision when they heard oral argument in 2011. We’ll petition the Clerk of the Supreme Court for an assignment for oral argument in the coming weeks, and if the court accepts, we could argue within the next month or so. And if a decision is rendered, it probably will be around December or January of next year.
T.W. Sungbeh: Thank you for your time, Attorney Jalloh.
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh: You are welcome.
Attorney A. Teage Jalloh can be reached at 267-934-6603