At Last A Treaty to Protect Citizenship Rights and End Statelessness in Africa

Flags of African countries in shape of the African continent.
African flag map, (a href=:"">Wikicommons

Last week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union (AU) adopted a new treaty Relating to the Specific Aspects to the Right to a Nationality and the Eradication of Statelessness in Africa. The explanatory memorandum explains that this treaty “seeks to facilitate the inclusion of individuals within African States, by providing legal solutions for the resolution of the practical problems linked to the recognition and exercise of the right to a nationality, to eradicate statelessness, and above all to identify the principles that should govern relations between individuals and States in relation to these issues.”

This protocol plugs the omission of the right to a nationality in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and has been long in the making. The demand for it was launched in March 2007 by the Global Pan-African Movement, International Refugee Rights Initiative, and the Open Society Justice Initiative in a joint position issued by Dr. Tajudeen Abdulraheem, Dismas Nkunda and the present writer calling for a continental treaty “to guarantee the right to citizenship and prohibit statelessness in Africa.”

A mere two years later, on 25 May 2009, Tajudeen was killed in a car-crash in Nairobi, Kenya. The drafting and negotiation of the Protocol has taken all of nearly 15 years since his death. In memory of Tajudeen, this column today substantially re-publishes the statement from 2007 which set in motion the process leading to the adoption of the treaty.

On 6 March 1957, the independence of Ghana promised for all Africans and our communities a new era of citizenship in full dignity and equality with the rest of humanity. Over 50 years later, in launching the Citizenship Rights in Africa Initiative (CRAI), we testify that this promise remains to be fulfilled and call on African governments as a matter of urgency to fully assure, respect and guarantee a right to effective citizenship in our continent.

Africa’s peoples did not fight for independence to be reduced to non-persons or second class citizens by our own governments. Today, we say: our governments must stop foreignizing our people.

This initiative is a necessary response to perhaps the biggest challenge facing Africa today – of guaranteeing the right to citizenship and enabling Africans within our continent to co-exist, pursue livelihoods, move freely, and participate in the government of our countries without arbitrary interference. For the average African, irrespective of country, these basic elements of effective citizenship do not exist today.

Thousands of Africans daily join the millions of victims of statelessness and arbitrary denial of citizenship in our continent. Although each case of statelessness or denial of citizenship produces unique experiences of victimization, common patterns are clear. These include the stripping of citizenship status and rights resulting in statelessness; forced expulsion or forced population transfers; elimination of minority groups through mass de-nationalization, followed – in many cases – by targeted killings of members of the affected groups; persecution of vocal opponents or critics of incumbent regimes; and refusal to recognize or accord the rights of particular (groups of) citizens in the absence of documentary proof.

In several cases, governments make such proof extremely difficult or even impossible to obtain. For example, Kenyan Somalis and Nubians in Kenya are required, in order to prove their citizenship, to produce birth certificates of their grandparents, nearly all of whom were born when there were no birth records.

International law prohibits statelessness. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights similarly prohibits arbitrary and discriminatory interference with citizenship. The pattern is clear. Many governments across the continent daily strip certain people – usually political opponents, members of minority communities, or vocal critics – of their citizenship. For millions of our people, citizenship is no longer a right; it is now a privilege enjoyed at the pleasure of government of the day:

In many countries in Africa, there are millions more who are too poor to challenge this violation or too unknown to register in the frightening statistics of the stateless.

Affected populations include: a majority of the continent’s estimated migrant and pastoralist population of 17.3 million persons representing the biggest population of persons at risk of statelessness in the world; an estimated 30% of Côte d’Ivoire’s 17.5 million people de-nationalized by the Ivoirité-inspired amendments to their country’s citizenship laws between 1995-2000; more than 1.5 million Banyamulenge of Eastern Congo, whose citizenship in the DRC remains disputed even today; another 1.5 million Zimbabwean mine and commercial farm workers born of parents descended from Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia whose nationality was arbitrarily cancelled by the government of Zimbabwe in 2001; and hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians of Eritrean-descent who had their Ethiopian nationality cancelled and nationality documents destroyed before their forced expulsion to Eritrea in 1998-1999 and hundreds of thousands of black Mauritanians expelled to Senegal in the 1990s. The list is endless.

Statelessness and mass denial of citizenship pose a clear and present danger to regional peace and security in Africa. Indeed many of Africa’s current wars, including those in Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Darfur region of Sudan, are linked directly to citizenship-related persecution and exclusion.

The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia involved cancellation of nationality and tit-for-tat forced population transfers. The 1994 Rwandan Genocide is the logical extreme in Africa’s recent history of what happens when governments choose to arbitrarily put their own people beyond reach of citizenship.

Pastoralist and border populations around our continent, such as the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania; and the Somalis of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, have been rendered stateless because they straddle the borders of multiple African countries but are unable effectively to claim the nationality of any.

These examples easily demonstrate that statelessness and citizenship are together the most serious human security and human rights problems in Africa today. Statelessness and the arbitrary denial of citizenship violate human dignity, undermine the integrity of government and its institutions, dislocate families, destroy the livelihoods of those affected, render the victims open to further abuses of their rights and lead to war. That millions of Africans have to build their families and contribute to their communities in such conditions of unlawful persecution and uncertainty prevents free and productive economic development, making nonsense of public commitments to fighting poverty by Africa’s leaders.

The causes and consequences of statelessness and mass denial of citizenship in Africa clearly transcend national borders. One country cannot, without reference to another, unilaterally determine that a person hitherto known to be its national belongs to the second country. The history and shared experiences of African countries make a compelling and urgent case for a regional response to statelessness and citizenship.

To achieve this, CRAI will advocate for a regional treaty at the level of the African Union to guarantee the right to citizenship and prohibit statelessness in Africa. Such a treaty will establish principles and rules to eliminate arbitrariness and discrimination in access to as well as proof, acquisition, enjoyment, and loss of citizenship rights on our continent. Such legal instrument should ideally be adopted as a Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

CRAI offers to work with the African Union in ensuring the preparation, adoption, and entry into force of this treaty at the earliest possible date.

To end the pandemic of statelessness and denial of citizenship in Africa, a regional treaty is necessary but more needs to be done. Therefore, CRAI will use all lawful means to advocate against all forms of statelessness and the causes of statelessness in Africa.

This initiative requires the partnership and support of African communities, citizen groups and the Diaspora, women’s groups, media, academia and researchers, activists, Parliaments, diplomats, governments, regional institutions, as well as international partners outside the continent. We promise to vigorously monitor, investigate, highlight and denounce the numerous cases in different parts of the continent, which make the adoption of such a regional treaty both necessary and urgent.

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