Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation
NAIROBI, Kenya – Growing up in Kenya, Adam Hussein Adam received several attractive offers: a place on the national rugby team, a scholarship to study in New Zealand or work for international organisations in the Middle East and Somalia.
He was unable to realise any of his dreams for one simple reason: he could not get a passport.
Adam is a Nubian, whose ancestors were brought to Kenya from Sudan by the British during their scramble for empire in the late 19th century.
Many Nubians served alongside the British army as soldiers in the King’s African Rifles. They fought against Germany in World War One and were stationed in Somalia, Abyssinia and Burma among other countries during World War Two.
Despite living in Kenya for more than a century, Nubians say they are regularly denied the legal documents they need to work, vote, own a mobile phone, open a bank account, attend university or enter government buildings.
They are the forgotten pawns of Britain’s colonial history, living in the shadows, like criminals, they say.
“You cannot even go to town because you risk being arrested and you could rot in jail,” said Adam, a 41-year-old activist who has spent the last 10 years lobbying for Nubians’ rights.
“Your life is informal. Your occupation is informal. Everything you do is informal. You are actually a slave of whoever is hiring you because everything is dictated by the master and you have no say,” he told AlertNet.
By law, Nubians are Kenyan citizens. In reality, they say they are stateless, in some cases unable to prove their nationality, in others, deprived of the rights other Kenyans enjoy despite documents proving their citizenship.
NO PASSPORT, NO WAY OUT
While Asians brought over to build the Kenya-Uganda railway were offered British citizenship at independence in 1963, the Nubians were ignored.
“It is the British that started this by not recognising Nubians as a group. The independent (Kenyan) government just carried forward the same treatment,” said Adam, whose great-grandfather fought for the British in Somalia over a century ago.
In order to apply for a Kenyan passport, Adam was told to produce his parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ birth certificates.
This was impossible – Kenya did not start issuing birth certificates to its citizens until 1970, except for the few who needed a passport to travel abroad, Adam said.
Between 1992 and 2000, Adam unsuccessfully applied for a passport five times as the exciting opportunities slipped out of his grasp, one by one.
“You have to belong first before you can do anything,” he said. “You just are there. You don’t know whether you are in or out. You are always worried. It is a permanent temporariness.”
After producing 13 documents to prove his identity, Adam was eventually invited for questioning by a vetting panel at Kenya’s Ministry of Immigration. “I was told: ‘Nubians are not regarded as Kenyans,’” Adam said.
BELOW THE RADAR
The eight years Adam spent in limbo is not long compared to other Nubians.
His sister waited 17 years to be issued with a national identity card – the hallmark of citizenship in Kenya.
“Throughout the 17 years, my sister had to live a life that is below the radar. You don’t meet any government official. You don’t do anything,” he said.
In 2001, Adam set up the Centre for Minority Rights Development to lobby for the rights of stateless communities in Kenya, which he estimates at 100,000 people.
They include the descendants of Rwandans, Burundians, Ethiopians and Mozambicans who were brought to work on Kenya’s highland tea and coffee estates in the colonial era.
Similarly, the Swahili community on the coast face discrimination because of their Arab ancestry, even though many families have lived in Kenya longer than so-called indigenous ethnic groups.
Some ethnic Somali Kenyans are also stateless due to burdensome registration demands designed to weed out refugees and separatists.
“We have an entire clan of Somalis in Tana River. The government took away their identity cards 20 years ago and they have not been returned. Their children are technically stateless,” Adam said.
In 2003, Adam filed a case in the High Court, seeking an interpretation as to whether Nubians were Kenyans. If so, he argued, they should not face discrimination in the issuance of identity cards.
The High Court told him to collect 120,000 signatures from aggrieved Nubians plus documentation proving their identities.
“It beats logic that people who are complaining about being discriminated against for identity cards should be asked to give their identification as part of the proof,” he said.
In 2006, he took his case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Union body dealing with rights.He also petitioned the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, another AU body.
In March 2011, they found Kenya in violation of the rights of Nubian children to non-discrimination, nationality and protection against statelessness. The final ruling, with its recommendations, is expected soon.
Now with the Open Society Institute for East Africa, Adam is lobbying in support of a citizenship bill that aims to eliminate statelessness in Kenya within five years. It is due to be introduced before the end of August as one of the provisions of Kenya’s 2010 constitution.
“We are just part and parcel of the human community. And this community needs to belong somewhere for people to concentrate on development,” he said.
This story is part of an AlertNet special multimedia report on statelessness
By Katy Migiro