Ethnicity plus nationality do not equal citizenship

Published: 22/Jul/2009
Source: The Standard (Nairobi)

By Muthoni Wanyeki

Last Sunday, the Nation Media Group published an editorial responding to donor and civil society’s concerns about the inclusion of questions as to ethnicity in the upcoming Kenyan national census. Civil society has, in the past, urged the government to exclude questions about ethnicity from the census and instead focus on counting the numbers of Kenyan citizens. The Sunday Nation’s editorial argued that, whereas ethnic identity has been used as a mobilisation tool by politicians, skipping ethnic questions in the census would not solve our ethnic woes.

This argument is plausible. We should indeed find ways of appreciating our ethnic diversity without turning it into a tool for division and unfair distribution of resources. But, while the potential for fresh ethnic violence has been one of the reasons for civil society to advocate against the inclusion of questions about ethnicity in the census, the main concern has been, in fact, that past censuses have failed to accurately establish the total number of Kenyan citizens and have excluded vulnerable groups.

Recently, the government announced that Migingo islanders will be counted in the census. This was supposed to be a symbolic act, to the effect that Migingo islanders are Kenyan citizens. But how is the government going to know that they are Kenyans and not Ugandans—or Australians for that matter?

Silly question perhaps, but did you know that the census doesn’t actually count who is Kenyan and who is not? Instead, it counts the number of people in each tribe—but only within tribes that have a so-called tribal code in the census questionnaire, which leaves many Kenyans out. The government relies on an incomplete colonial listing of ’42 tribes.’

What is the point of counting a population if we are not seeking to find out who are citizens? Or if we are excluding tribes apparently deemed too small in numbers to matter? In the census, the government will ask: ‘What is your tribe or nationality?’ If you belong to one of the recognised tribes, such as the Gikuyu, Taveta, Luo or Gosha you will be given a specific code.

This is based on the assumption that everyone who belongs to these tribes is automatically a Kenyan—something which is not true either in law or in practice. Kenyan citizenship is based primarily on the citizenship of your father and not on your ethnicity. Generally, if your father is Kenyan, you are Kenyan—a discriminatory law and practice which the Kenyan women’s movement is still trying to change.

There are exceptions, however. Take Winifred, a Kenyan living with her husband Joe and son in Nairobi. Both Winfred and Joe are Luhya. Joe is Ugandan but lives in Kenya, where he runs several successful businesses. Their son Eric is 12 years old and was born in Nairobi. At birth, he got Ugandan citizenship through his father because the family was considering moving to Kampala. He was not entitled to Kenyan citizenship through his mother. In the census, however, both Joe and Eric could be categorised as Luhya, and thus both assumed to be Kenyan.

This is why a census question which conflates tribe/nationality and citizenship does not work. Even more problematic is the assumption that if you do not belong to one of the recognised tribes, you are not Kenyan. Granted, there is a category for ‘other Kenyans,’ but we know from experience that many people who have been in the country for generations—people who see themselves as Kenyans and have never even visited another country—are categorised as foreigners in the census.

Why is this important? First of all, the government has certain responsibilities vis-à-vis its citizens, such as providing education for children, healthcare and other social services. In order to plan for delivery on these responsibilities, it needs to know how many citizens there are. All governments need to know this. Moreover, for people to be told that they are foreigners even though their grandparents were born in Kenya and they have no other citizenship is wrong. These people have a right to citizenship and denying them one creates tensions that the country could do without—not to mention breaching international law.

Think, for example, of Hassan, who lives in Eldoret. His grandparents were all born in Kenya before 1963 and should therefore have got Kenyan citizenship at independence. This did not happen. As a result, Hassan’s father never got Kenyan citizenship and so neither did Hassan. The absurd thing is that Hassan, his brothers and sisters, as well as his parents, have never set foot outside Kenya. But they are unable to get identity cards, without which a job in the formal sector is out of the question. Hassan worries about one day having to go to the hospital since he is not sure that it will admit him. ‘It’s strange,’ he said ‘to be rejected by your own country.’

From a policy perspective, it is largely irrelevant who is Gikuyu and who is Luo—since all citizens are equal—yet it is absolutely essential that the government knows how many citizens it must cater for. It also needs to know where they live and what challenges they face. The census could tell us all of these things, provided that it asks the right questions.

In addition to this, it is important to note that the question of ethnicity is the reflection of a systemic problem, not a xenophobic reaction to the 2007/8 post election violence. Had the violence not happened, we would still be faced with the systemic problem.

Kenyans are rightfully proud of their ethnic identities. The fear is what the data about our ethnicities will be used for by the few who will have access to it—especially if it is collected and not released. Let us learn from Rwanda that has discarded this practice. Particularly given that the results of the 1999 ethnic profiling were not released. But that census data still guided the recent period of economic growth. Is this not a sign that we can eliminate ethnic profiling altogether?

A census that conflates tribal affiliation/nationality with citizenship is fundamentally flawed. For that reason we urge the government to ask people their citizenship. This would help to reduce ethnic tensions, while at the same time allowing the government to appropriately plan for all its citizens regardless of their ethnicity/nationality.

Read further: here.

Themes: Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious, Gender
Regions: Kenya
Year: 2009