Kenya’s Nubian Minority Pushes Forward for Equal Treatment
By Laura Bingham
This April, a mobile registration team was hard at work again in the Kibera neighborhood of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. For five days, a team offered people help in securing national identity cards—a document that also serves as vital proof of Kenyan citizenship—setting up in mosques, car parks and community halls that are frequented by members of the country’s Nubian minority.
Historically, the Nubians of Kibera have been denied citizenship by Kenya, despite having lived there continuously since before independence in 1963 (their ancestors were brought to what is now Kenya in the 19th and early 20th centuries as conscripts into the British colonial army).
Today Nubians still undergo a separate set of administrative steps in order to acquire national identity cards when they turn 18, including a process known as “vetting.” This entails appearing before a special committee designed to ascertain the Nubian applicant’s identity and entitlement to Kenyan nationality. The process is discriminatory: it only applies to certain ethnic groups, and Nubians are the only community impacted that does not live on the country’s borders.
One might think Nubians who make it through vetting and obtain a national identity card should have even more security in their nationality than other Kenyans who face no such hurdles—but the opposite is true. Nubians are vetted and revetted their entire lives. There will be renewals of lost IDs to contend with, introduction of next-generation IDs with new security measures, passport applications—and the process begins again with the birth of every new child. The technical issue of access to identification, the de facto bureaucratic proof of Kenyan nationality, and the social and political question of belonging in their country of birth (the country of their ancestors’ birth) are inextricably connected.
The mobile identity card registration team, led by the Nubian Rights Forum with officials from the national registration office, and supported by community-based paralegals, is an effort to help people negotiate the bureaucracy to get access to the national identity card they need to exercise their rights and access opportunities equally with other citizens of Kenya. The day-to-day effort by the Nubian Rights Forum is supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative and Namati.
These registration projects are linked to a parallel, less visible effort, to bring about fundamental changes in national policy that would dramatically simplify this entire process—while bringing Kenya in line with its international human rights obligations, and its commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goal of providing “legal identity for all” by 2030. Those efforts have included bringing complaints by the Nubian community to African regional human rights mechanisms: the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which in a 2015 decision found that Kenya’s treatment of Nubian minority amounted to discrimination, and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which also found Kenya’s practices in violation of children’s rights norms.
In May this year, that effort continued in Maseru, Lesotho, before the experts committee—which has a mandate to promote and protect the rights of children under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. In a 2011 decision, the experts committee found that Kenya’s nationality vetting approach was discriminating against Nubian children (in its first ever ruling on a complaint) and violated their right to a nationality, leaving Nubian children at risk of statelessness. The committee laid out a series of recommendations for Kenya to address this issue. This May, during the committee’s regular session, it conducted a review of Kenya’s progress in addressing the problems identified (this was also the first time this committee has reviewed a state’s compliance with one of its decisions).
The government’s participation in the report-back session and the committee’s engagement on implementation are critical steps. The Kenyan delegation included representatives from several ministries with portfolios covering children’s rights, social development, immigration and civil registration. Kenya’s actions indicate that it is serious about implementation of this decision.
The Nubian community was also represented at the session—no longer as “complainants” but rather as partners in changing a system that remains flawed. Yusuf Ibrahim Diab of the Kenyan Nubian Council of Elders captured the spirit of the session in his remarks: “Without lamenting, we make proposals about what could be done to implement the decision in everyday life.”
One thing the committee’s session in Maseru, Lesotho, made clear was that reforming vetting and ensuring that Nubians are recognized as Kenyans on equal footing with their compatriots requires a dedicated, solutions-oriented, informed and structured process, including the elaboration of a roadmap with shorter and longer-term goals.
In preparation for the hearing, the Open Society Justice Initiative, Namati, and Nubian Rights Forum drew on data from their community paralegal project in Kibera—tracking each case from inception to conclusion—to support a set of detailed recommendations to the committee and the Kenyan government. Chief among these recommendations is the proposal that the government must approach confirmation of Kenyan citizenship and issuance of documentation of identity on a nationwide basis, applying transparent processes fairly and uniformly to all.
Fatuma Abdulrahaman Afisi, a community activist and member of Nubian Rights Forum, also participated in the hearing on behalf of the community. “For the best interest of the child,” she told the experts committee, “we must work as a team, protect their access to services like healthcare and education. That’s how we see ourselves as the Nubian community and we are willing to work with the government wherever we can.”
At the urging of the committee, the government delegation agreed to a private meeting with the community representatives following the public hearing. In just a few hours in Maseru, the exchange of ideas, information, and perspectives, both in the session and in a closed meeting across a negotiating table, has helped to clarify the present position of the government when it comes to implementation and facilitated the clear communication directly to the government of a set of recommendations from the community. With further commitment on all sides, progress can be made, turning human rights into a better reality for the Nubians and other Kenyan minorities—and their children.
Until October 2021, Laura Bingham was the senior managing legal officer for equality and inclusion in the Open Society Justice Initiative.