The political outcasts of Africa

Published: 26/Feb/2007
Source: Citizenship Rights in Africa Initiative (CRAI)

by L. Muthoni Wanyeki

What does it mean to be a citizen in Africa?

Consider the case of Trevor Ncube, chief executive of the Mail and Guardian in South Africa and one of the last independent publishers still operating in Zimbabwe. A product, as he puts it, of the federation of the former Nyasaland and Rhodesia, he was born and brought up in Zimbabwe. He has suffered the ignominy of having his passport detained. A court ruling got it back. Then, when he needed his passport renewed, he was informed his citizenship had lapsed as he had not renounced his Zambian citizenship. His protestations to the effect that he had never been a Zambian citizen were to no avail.

He was forced to formally renounce a citizenship he had never had at the Zambian High Commission in Zimbabwe and endure another court battle to obtain a judgement to the effect that he was, indeed, a Zimbabwean, that the government had to issue him a passport and refrain from interfering with his citizenship and his freedom of movement ever again.

Closer to home, consider too the case of Jenerali Ulimwengu, CEO of Habari Media in Tanzania. His father, born in German East Africa, had a long history in the political movements that brought about Tanzanian independence. He himself, born in Tanganyika, was an active Chama cha Mapinduzi member for almost all his working life – working for the government of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and campaigning for the first two presidents who succeeded Tanzanian’s founding president. He too was declared stateless, purportedly on the grounds of his Rwandan ancestry, even though, like Ncube, he had never been a Rwandan citizen.

He was eventually allowed to remain in Tanzania as an ‘investor’ until, eventually, he was forced to ‘naturalise’ himself as a Tanzanian. This process took over five years, during which he had to travel, when necessary, on a document he likens to a ‘medical certificate.’

Both Ncube and Ulimwengu say their cases were cruelly elaborate, dehumanising and yet petty attempts to silence political dissent. That they were not routine attempts to regularise citizenship matters is attested to by the facts that none of their siblings – who had the same citizenship status as they did – were affected.

But, as Maria Nassali, formerly of Uganda’s Kituo cha Katiba, points out, “African women do not even need to antagonise state power to be denationalised.” Many African states, ours included, still deny women the right to full citizenship. Obtaining citizenship only through our fathers and husbands, many African women still do not, by law, have the right to pass on our citizenship to our spouses or to our children.

And then there are all of those Africans whose families and communities found themselves, at the stroke of a pen in Berlin, on different sides of the new borders. (Which is what, for example, has allowed for the recent disgrace of having Kenyans of Somali descent illegally detained and deported to Mogadishu for questioning over the Islamic Courts Union issue.) Or the Africans who are products of mixed marriages – not just between Africans and non-Africans but also between Africans of different African states.

There is something deeply painful about being assumed not to belong. Or being forced to make choices about one’s identity to belong. Or to have one’s belonging snatched away. Lacking citizenship (itself a human-rights violation) renders one vulnerable to more human-rights violations. We need to settle the question of who is an African by tossing out limiting notions of our states and ending the priority given to descent over naturalisation.

Themes: Acquisition by children, Naturalisation and Marriage, Loss and Deprivation of Nationality, Statelessness
Regions: Pan Africa
Year: 2007