Press release

Lack of Citizenship Rights a Major Cause of Conflict in Africa

October 21, 2009
Brooke Havlik

KAMPALA, Uganda—The lack of citizenship rights generates conflict and undermines democracy in many countries in Africa, according to two new studies by the Open Society Institute. The reports, the culmination of years of research, analyze citizenship laws from all 53 countries in Africa.

Released today on African Human Rights Day, the reports recommend that countries amend their constitutions and laws and that the African Union adopt a treaty on the right to a nationality.

"Throughout Africa, millions are stateless and denied basic rights," said Bronwen Manby, senior adviser on Africa at the Open Society Institute and author of the reports. "The African Union needs to sit up and take notice of this crisis."

The denial of citizenship rights has devastating human consequences. Millions of Africans without citizenship are deprived of the right to vote, to cross borders, and to access state health or education services.

Citizenship discrimination is a major cause of conflict in many countries, most notoriously in Côte d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Politicians in both countries have demonized particular ethnic groups and discrimination in the application of the law has stripped millions of people of their nationality. In these countries and many others, individuals born and raised on a country’s soil are barred from ever obtaining citizenship purely because of their ancestry.

The studies document how incumbent governments have also manipulated citizenship laws to exclude prominent individuals from claiming public office. Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda and Ivoirian prime minister Alassane Ouattara are two prominent cases discussed in the reports.

The reports will be unveiled at a special summit in Kampala, where African heads of state are set to adopt an agreement on the protection of internally displaced persons. Lack of citizenship—a frequent cause of conflict and displacement—can be especially problematic for Africa’s almost 12 million internally displaced persons. Without citizenship protections these people are easily excluded from services and political rights.

"The idea that someone can live here but belong nowhere is plainly un-African," said Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, senior legal officer of the Open Society Justice Initiative. "By enshrining the right to a nationality in national and continental law, African governments would honor our traditions of building inclusive communities and help to eliminate conflict."

Key findings include:

  • Only a handful of African countries provide in law for children born on their soil to have a right to their nationality if they would otherwise be stateless, despite the provisions of international treaties that require this protection.
  • The laws of at least half a dozen countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Uganda, include provisions that restrict nationality from birth to members of certain ethnic groups.
  • More than half of Africa’s countries still discriminate against women and deny them the right to pass citizenship to their children or husbands.
  • Though almost all countries have laws allowing foreigners to naturalize, in practice, citizenship is often almost impossible to obtain.
  • Half of Africa's states allow revocation of a person’s birth nationality and in many countries governments can rescind naturalized citizenship on highly arbitrary grounds.

Encouragingly, more than a dozen countries have amended their laws in recent years to reduce or eliminate gender discrimination. More than half Africa’s states now allow dual citizenship, recognizing the reality of contemporary patterns of migration.

Moreover, the laws in more than half of the continent’s countries grant children born on their soil the right to nationality at birth if one of their parents was also born there, or the right to claim birth nationality when they reach the age of majority—though the observance of these laws is often lacking.

The reports include a detailed set of recommendations for African countries to reform national citizenship laws and adopt a protocol on the right to a nationality to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

“The first step is for African countries to follow the international conventions and ensure that all children who don’t have a right to nationality anywhere else, have the right to nationality where they are born,” said Manby.

The two publications released today are:

  • Struggles for Citizenship in Africa, published by Zed Books, which highlights case studies of citizenship crises in Africa. More details available on the Zed Books website.
  • Citizenship Law in Africa: A Comparative Study, published by the Open Society Institute, which provides a detailed comparative analysis of the citizenship laws of all 53 African states.

They were produced as a collaboration between two programs of the Open Society Institute: AfriMAP and the Open Society Justice Initiative.


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