• Thursday, February 29, 2024
businessday logo


Explainer: Does diplomatic passport confer citizenship?

Passport racketeering as organised crime at Nigeria Immigration Service, embassies

Images of a Guinean diplomatic passport allegedly owned by Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s President-elect, have caused a stir among many Nigerians. Last Saturday, David Hundeyin, an independent journalist, uploaded the images of the passport bearing the name ‘Bola Ahmed Tinubu’ on his Twitter account. The passport, with an issue date of October 2015, has an image of Tinubu as the bearer. It also shows that the passport expired in 2020.

There are disparate opinions on the position of the law on whether a diplomatic passport confers citizenship on the bearer. While it is argued that a diplomatic passport will usually confer citizenship on its bearer, there is the view that diplomats do not automatically become citizens of a receiving state. More so, this event raises the question as to who can be issued a diplomatic passport, given that between 2015 and 2020, when the passport was valid, Tinubu was neither a public official nor a diplomat appointed by the government.

Why is this an issue?

According to section 137 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, “a person shall not be qualified for election to the office of the President if subject to the provisions of section 28 of this constitution, he has voluntarily acquired the citizenship of a country other than Nigeria or, except in such cases as may be prescribed by the National Assembly, he has made a declaration of allegiance to such other country”.

Therefore, a person is unqualified to contest for President of Nigeria if he is a citizen of another country apart from Nigeria.

Steve Iduh, a global residency and citizenship expert, told BusinessDay that every country has their laws regarding dual and multiple citizenship. While some countries do not allow top government officials to hold multiple citizenship in addition to that of the country, other countries do not discourage it.

“The law does not restrict any Nigerian from holding dual citizenship,” he said.

Babatunde Fashola, minister of works and housing, in an interview on Channels TV, said: “I know Tinubu carries a Nigerian passport, I don’t know about dual citizenship.”

Who can be issued a diplomatic passport?

According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, a diplomatic passport should be given to a diplomatic agent who is accredited to a foreign country by the sending state. Article 35 of the convention states that the receiving state shall, in accordance with its laws and regulations, recognise the diplomatic status of the head of the mission and other members of the diplomatic staff and issue to them diplomatic passports or other appropriate documents. Article 37 also provides that their spouses and dependent members of their families shall enjoy the same benefits and privileges.

Therefore, a diplomatic passport is generally issued to the head of the mission and members of the diplomatic staff who have been granted diplomatic status by the receiving state, as well as to their spouses and dependent family members. The diplomatic passport serves as evidence of their diplomatic status and may be used for travel and other official purposes.

Read also: Why Nigeria’s passport scarcity persists

Based on the principle of immunity of diplomats, which is also one of the benefits enjoyed by diplomats, a diplomatic passport is usually issued to high-ranking government officials of the sending country travelling internationally or on government duty. These officials can be ambassadors and high commissioners, among others. This means that the holder of a diplomatic passport is seen as a representative of a country.

According to article 35 (5) of the Vienna Convention, this immunity of diplomats refers to immunity from “the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving state… and immunity from its civil and administrative jurisdiction” except in certain cases such as real estate, succession, professional or commercial activity.

Will the issuance of a diplomatic passport by a country amount to citizenship in that country?

Article 1 of the Convention defines a diplomatic agent as “the head of the mission or a member of the diplomatic staff of the mission.” This includes the ambassador or chief of mission, as well as other diplomatic personnel, such as counsellors, attaches, and secretaries.

According to article 36 of the Vienna Convention, among the benefits that are enjoyed by persons conferred diplomatic passports are that “the receiving state shall, in accordance with such laws and regulations as it may adopt, permit entry of and grant exemption from all customs duties, taxes, and related charges other than charges for storage, cartage and similar services”. The personal baggage of a diplomatic agent shall be exempt from inspection; official correspondence shall be inviolable; freedom of communication; as well as immunity from criminal and civil actions.

“A diplomatic passport will usually not amount to citizenship and this is based on the simple reason that diplomats come and go and will not remain on a mission for ever,” Adedeji Adeyemi, a Lagos-based lawyer, said.

He added that “based on the law in Nigeria, the President of Nigeria appoints persons to his cabinet of ministers and ambassadors; therefore, it makes no sense that ambassadors, for instance, gain citizenship of any country where they are appointed to by reason of the fact that they are ambassadors to such a country”.

“It makes sense that for the time being, such persons are accorded all the respect and given all the resources to enable their travels and stay in different countries,” Adeyemi said.