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Sub-Saharan Africa

7 min read

The communities within Africa most at risk of statelessness are similar to those in other continents: the descendants of people who migrated to the country before independence; ethnic groups whose pre-colonial boundaries cross modern borders, including the many millions of Africans following a nomadic way of life; those affected by the creation of new states in Africa since the departure of the European colonial powers or by transfers of territory in the resolution of border disputes; and more recent migrants and refugees (and especially their children), who lack any documentary evidence of their connection to a state of origin.

As elsewhere, the severity of the risk of statelessness also depends on many other factors, including proof of connection to another state through birth registration or other means, as well as accidents of birth, marriage, access to education, connections and money. Both indirect administrative factors, such as the very high levels of unregistered births in many African countries, affecting in particular the poorest and most marginalized communities, as well as direct discrimination along ethnic lines, can put some minority communities at greater risk.

Among those most vulnerable to statelessness are members of minorities who are descendants of people who migrated, or were forced to move, during the colonial period when administrative borders among territories of one colonial power were open. These groups include those whose ancestors came from outside the continent (from Europe, Asia or the Middle East), such as the ‘Lebanese’ of West Africa and ‘Asians’ of East Africa, who travelled to Africa as traders or, in the case of those from South Asia, as indentured labour on colonial plantations or for railway construction.

In addition, there are the far more numerous groups at risk of statelessness whose ancestors came from elsewhere in Africa. Notable examples include the hundreds of thousands of Banyarwanda in DR Congo whose ancestors were labourers imported by the Belgians to work on plantations in the east of the country – although some of the same ethnicity had always lived in what is now Congo, all became viewed as foreigners. Members of the Nubian minority in Kenya, descendants of soldiers who fought in the British colonial ‘King’s African Rifles’ and were given land to settle outside Nairobi, continue to face administrative barriers to recognition of their citizenship. There are also the descendants of farmworkers and other labourers brought to Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Côte d’Ivoire and elsewhere, who were not incorporated into the body of citizens on independence, while descent-based laws have left them excluded over several generations, and whose loyalty to their host state has sometimes been called into question. Their situation has frequently become more precarious during periods of political or economic crisis as their loyalty to the host state is called into question.

Another group that may find their claims to citizenship questioned or overlooked are ethnic groups whose pre-colonial boundaries cross modern borders, so those speaking the same language now find themselves in two (or more) different states. Among these are pastoralists whose nomadic lifestyle takes them across multiple borders, often regarded with suspicion by settled communities. This includes, in West Africa, the Tuareg of the Sahara and Sahel, found especially in Mali and Niger, speakers of Berber dialects also found in North Africa. Fulani (known as Peuhl in French), nomadic pastoralists found across West Africa and as far afield as Sudan, including the sub-group known as Mbororo, are another large group in the region who frequently are at risk of statelessness. In Eastern Africa, the Maasai, whose territory is bisected by the Kenya-Tanzania border, face similar issues. There are many others too numerous to mention: virtually every African state has borders that cut through pre-existing polities or ethno-linguistic communities.

Another category at risk of statelessness are those affected by the creation of new states in Africa since the departure of the European colonial powers, which has exposed people who had moved within the previously recognized borders to the risk of statelessness if they are perceived as not ‘belonging’ in the new state. Others are affected by transfers of territory in the resolution of border disputes. In these contexts, discrimination against particular minorities can create additional barriers for accessing nationality.

The largest group placed at risk of statelessness by recent state succession are people of South Sudanese descent who continue to live in Sudan following the secession of South Sudan in 2011. While some members of this community identify as South Sudanese and would prefer to return to South Sudan, others are descendants of families who have been resident for many decades in Sudan and see themselves as Sudanese. Historical discrimination against those coming from communities often subjected to slavery in the past has been further entrenched by legal provisions removing nationality from those deemed by the Sudanese authorities to have acquired the nationality of the new state of South Sudan – whether or not they have in fact sought or have confirmation of that nationality. Other examples include people of Eritrean origin who continued to live in Ethiopia following the secession of Eritrea in 1992 and the war between the two countries in 1998, as well as residents of the Bakassi peninsula transferred between Nigeria and Cameroon by the ICJ in 2002, and former residents who relocated to Nigeria.

In addition, there are large numbers of more recent migrants and refugees, and especially their children, who are at risk of statelessness. This includes former refugees from countries where the cessation clause of the 1951 Refugee Convention has been invoked, including Angola, Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, but who have not returned home, nor obtained documentation of the nationality of their country of origin, and who are no longer recognized as refugees. These former refugees and their children have now become stateless in their host communities.

African states also face the same contemporary challenges of migration and inclusion as do states in other parts of the world in this era of globalization. Among those most at risk of statelessness are undocumented migrants in the informal sector, who are not only working without a formalized immigration status, but also lack documents of any kind. Once again, those who have themselves migrated are likely to be able to re-establish papers in case of need, but their children are at high risk of becoming stateless minorities in the country of their birth, especially if births are not registered or they are separated from their parents.

To these must be added the thousands of vulnerable children scattered throughout the continent who lack any formal recognition of nationality: especially those with foreign fathers affected by gender discrimination in law or practice, those born out of wedlock, child workers or trafficked children, children of mothers who have been raped in war, abandoned infants and orphans, and those separated from their parents (including street children). Though not necessarily belonging to or recognized as a minority, they nonetheless collectively constitute a not insignificant population that is amongst the most excluded in any state.

As elsewhere, the shortcomings and ambiguities of citizenship laws in some African countries can lend themselves to discriminatory interpretation or political manipulation – a situation that can put both individuals and entire communities at risk. These issues may be played out in individual, high-profile cases but have significant implications for other people with the same background, including members of minorities. For instance, politicians such as Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia and Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire (a former president and a former prime minister) were denied the right to run for office again on the grounds that their citizenship had been recognized in error. As is often the case, these individuals are members of groups whose citizenship has also been subject to questioning: Kaunda was the child of parents who originated in Malawi while Ouattara was alleged to have a father from Burkina Faso, his case emblematic of problems that many others of mixed parentage faced in Côte d’Ivoire. Other less well known cases encompass not only politicians, but also union leaders, journalists and academics whose opinions and activities have troubled the government of the day.

Africa has shared the global trend towards greater gender equality in nationality law and acceptance of dual nationality, reforms that may help reduce the prevalence of statelessness. There have also been some important specific initiatives to address statelessness among long established minorities within a country, such as descendants of migrants or refugees: for instance, efforts to register Makonde descendants of Mozambican farmworkers as Kenyan citizens, and the Tanzanian government’s naturalization of tens of thousands of long-term Burundian refugees. The continent’s continental and regional institutions have also made important commitments to ending statelessness, in order to address the legacy of the continent’s traumatic colonial history and related post-independence crises and conflicts.

Photo: Makonde in Kenya march against statelessness. Find out more about their success story in this film. Credit: Kenya Human Rights Commission.