Citizenship the most important right of all
“Give us our identity cards and we hand over our Kalashnikovs”, said the leader of the rebel forces in Cí´te d’Ivoire. Those who have never been deprived of official papers may find it hard to imagine the powerlessness that results: powerlessness that can and does lead people to take up arms. Even in the poorest countries, a passport or identity card does not just provide the right to travel, but forms the basis of the right to almost everything else.
Millions of people living in Africa find themselves without these papers: non-persons in the only country they have ever known. Because they are not recognised as citizens, they cannot get their children registered at birth or entered in public schools or universities; they cannot access state health services; they cannot obtain travel documents, or employment without a work permit; and if they leave the country they may not be able to return. Most of all, they cannot vote, stand for office, or work for state institutions.
Alternatively, incumbent governments have abused citizenship law to prevent specific individuals from challenging for political position or to silence those who criticise the government. Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Alassane Ouattara of Cí´te d’Ivoire “” a former president and a former prime minister “” are only the most high profile politicians who have suddenly found that they were no longer regarded as citizens of the country they sought to lead again.
Ultimately such policies can lead to economic and political disaster, or even war, as the bloodshed in Cí´te d’Ivoire and the mis-named Democratic Republic of Congo most effectively demonstrate. Even where they do not, they have been used to subvert the democratic process and reinforce or prolong the hold on power of one group at the expense of another – as people who thought they were nationals of Mauritania, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sierra Leone and other states have found. At the expense, too, of national stability and economic progress – as the case of Zimbabwe most clearly demonstrates. Or they simply create injustice and exclusion of marginalized ethnic groups, in the face of all Africa’s human rights commitments: a hundred thousand Nubian Kenyans, whose ancestors came to the country with the British, today cannot obtain papers showing that they are Kenyan nationals, though not even the Kenyan government asserts that they could or should somehow obtain Sudanese passports instead.
The pattern of crises related to citizenship discrimination is not haphazard. It is closely linked to the colonial heritage of each country; and in particular the migration and land expropriation that was implemented or facilitated by the colonial authorities. It is not a coincidence that the countries where citizenship has been most contentious are often the countries that saw the greatest colonial-era migration; migration not only of Europeans and Asians to the continent, but in far greater numbers of Africans within the continent.
Today, however, it is the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who migrated who are still regarded as foreigners. Yet they are in the land of their birth and life-long residence and have no claim on the protection of any other state. Politically disenfranchised, there is no demonstration of loyalty that can satisfy the requirements of the state.
This injustice is multiplied by a gender inequality in the law which in at least a dozen African countries disallows women who marry non-citizens from passing their own citizenship to their children, and in a dozen more deprives them of the right to pass citizenship to their husbands.
Much as this sort of ethnic and racial discrimination is always multifaceted, with raw violence at its extremes, manipulation of the detailed rules and regulations by which individuals can obtain recognition of their right to belong to a state – or a sub-national unit, as in Nigeria – is at the heart of many of Africa’s most intractable problems. The apparently dry detail of the rules for obtaining papers can hide an ocean of discrimination. It is this detail that has been the focus of a 5 year project by the Open Society Institute, resulting in two new publications (Struggles for Citizenship in Africa and Citizenship Law in Africa) that describe the discriminatory provisions of African laws, and the damaging consequences for peace, security and democratic governance that result.
Of course, resolution of the complex problems of exclusion and inequality in Africa will require action across the board and not only reforms of citizenship law. Cí´te d’Ivoire, DRC and Zimbabwe most obviously “” but also many other countries “” will need equitable methods to adjudicate competing claims to land and provide secure tenure for the future. Everywhere measures are essential to ensure the right to access state services and to benefit on a more equal basis from the national wealth, whatever one’s race, ethnicity, gender, or region of origin or residence. Measures of affirmative action are surely justified to overcome inequalities created by colonial history. Moreover, Africa is of course certainly not the only continent where citizenship discrimination is rife: OSI has documented similar patterns in Europe, the Americas and Asia.
But an effort to address citizenship law discrimination will need to be at the centre of efforts to resolve conflict and strengthen democracy in Africa. African states, like other states, are made up of people thrown together by historical circumstance. A citizenship law that founds itself on a concept of ethnic or racial purity, or an essential link to the land, is not adapted to the reality of historical and contemporary migration. Gender discrimination is no longer acceptable in today’s world: a world where most African states have signed up to African and international treaties acknowledging their obligation to work for gender equality. Those who find themselves living within a single polity on a lifetime basis need rules, fair rules, to govern their right to belong to that country – and African states and the African Union should commit themselves to change the rules where they are not fair. National constitutions and a continental treaty should enshrine the right to a nationality.
*Bronwen Manby is senior programme adviser , Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project (AfriMAP), a project of the Open Society Institute.