Irony of Citizenship: Descent, National Belonging, and Constitutions in the Postcolonial African State

Published: 1/Mar/2019
Source: Law and Society Review

By Bettina Ng’weno and L. Obura Aloo

Law and Society Review, Vol.53, issue 1, March 2019, Pages 141-172


In 2010, like many African countries since the 1990s, Kenya passed a new constitution. This constitution aimed to get rid of many past issues including the definition of citizenship. Globally, two general principles govern the acquisition of citizenship, descent from a citizen (jus sanguinis), and the fact of birth within a state territory (jus soli). In contrast to the prior Constitution that required both descent from Kenyan parents and birth in Kenya, the 2010 Constitution adopted a rule of citizenship by descent alone (jus sanguinis) from either parent. However, today Kenya is faced with a conundrum first articulated by Aristotle: how do you understand and operationalize citizenship by descent in a new state, or in the case of Kenya, one that has only just turned fifty? The crux of this conundrum is determining the basis of the citizenship of parents who precede the polity and therefore what they can transfer to their children. Understanding that articulations of citizenship are also systems of exclusion, this paper asks who can and cannot be a Kenyan citizen and why? What are the unintended consequences of efforts to escape Aristotle’s conundrum?


Themes: Acquisition of nationality, Acquisition by children, State Succession
Regions: Kenya
Year: 2019