Kenya: Citizenship is a Right, Not a Political Tool

Published: 9/Oct/2023
Source: The Elephant (Nairobi)

If it appears that citizenship by birth can be granted to groups on the basis of discretion and not as a legal right, that can undermine the perceived authority of the constitution and the rule of law more generally.

By Dalle Abraham, Samantha Balaton-Chrimes, Mustafa Mahmoud, and Bronwen Manby

On 28 July 2023, President William Ruto declared the Pemba community to be an “ethnic community of Kenya”. At a citizenship award ceremony in Kilifi County he read aloud from a proclamation issued in January, which states:

“I, William Samoei Ruto, President and the commander-in-Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces, having considered the said petition and the consequent Parliamentary Report in light of the Constitution of Kenya, our National Values, and the Principles of Governance, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution, do recognise, proclaim and order:
That Kenyans of Pemba heritage constitute a community that is one of the ethnic communities of Kenya.”

This is the second group which a president has formally proclaimed to be a tribe or ethnic community of Kenya in recent years. Uhuru Kenyatta did the same for Kenyan Asians in 2017, and gave less formal forms of recognition to other groups in speeches and statements. In 2016, registration of the Makonde people was declared to be compulsory following a cabinet decision, and Uhuru handed out certificates of citizenship to community members at a function in 2017. Uhuru also supported citizenship for Shona people and in 2020, issued certificates and ID cards to them at a public ceremony on Jamhuri Day.

But citizenship is not granted to groups. Indeed, there is much that is not well understood about how citizenship functions in Kenya.

Citizenship is the relationship between an individual and the state. It is a social contract and a symbiotic relationship where the state recognizes the rights and entitlements of an individual while at the same time the individual recognizes their responsibilities to the state. It also expresses the relationship of an individual to a national community. It is the legal recognition of belonging. When presidents talk of granting citizenship to communities, they are affirming that belonging in order to right some historical injustices. But they are also (perhaps unintentionally) giving a misleading interpretation of the way that citizenship law works in Kenya – or indeed in most other countries.

In this article we examine the use of presidential decrees of nationality, and their relationship not just to a politics of belonging, but to the laws of Kenya. 

Read further:

Themes: Acquisition by children, Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious, Naturalisation and Marriage, Statelessness
Regions: Kenya
Year: 2023