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Nubians in Kenya have right to nationality. Time to implement the African Union decision

19 October 2011

Mohamed Matovu, from MRG’s Africa Office in Kampala, Uganda, reflects on an historic decision to end statelessness for some of Kenya’s most vulnerable children.

The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in an historic decision, has found the Kenya government in violation of the rights of Nubian children when it denied them citizenship.

This decision is ground-breaking on a number of fronts; it’s the very first decision by the Committee and it’s also a first in Kenya with regard to minority children’s’ rights.

The Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) and Open Society Institute, who lodged the case on behalf of Nubian children in Kenya, should be applauded for this landmark achievement.

Even when the facts of this case seemed all too crystal clear to warrant any third-party intervention, the Kenya government was not willing to negotiate with the Nubian community.

Credit: UNHCR/Greg Constantine

Picture this. A community is forcibly relocated from their ancestral land, against their own volition, to a foreign land, and settles in the new land for decades to come. But when they want to make legal their stay in their new-found ‘home’ they are asked questions about their ‘origin’ or are referred to as ‘foreigners’. What can best describe such action if not utter discrimination?

The very first Nubians are said to have arrived in Kenya, from the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, in the 19th Century after forced evictions by the British colonial administrators. In fact, some Nubians participated in the anti-colonial struggles that eventually saw Kenya attain independence.

Since then, subsequent Nubian generations have been born and bred in Kenya and know not of any other place as home. But the government, for reasons best known to them, has denied Nubians their right to nationality and has failed to protect them against statelessness.

As a result of this blatant government action, an estimated 13 per cent of Nubian adults are still stateless in Kenya, according to Open Society Institute, with average household income at a paltry US$4 per day and unemployment at about 70 per cent.

The world is not short of national, regional and international legal frameworks protecting the right to nationality, and yet we continue to see governments abusing or selectively applying it for political reasons.

From using the right to nationality to purge political opponents, as has often been the case in several southern African countries, including Zambia and Botswana, to disenfranchising communities, as is the case of Nubians in Kenya, over 12 million people around the world continue to have their movement restricted due to lack of identification, whilst others may suffer detention without trial.

The situation becomes worse for minority and indigenous groups who, on top of missing out on all the basic indicators of human development, like access to health and education, also suffer social exclusion and exploitation.

Minority Rights Group International, through its internationally acclaimed global ranking, Peoples under Threat, has identified Nubians as amongst the minority groups facing a real threat of internal displacement. They are also likely to suffer discrimination based on religious lines as the majority of Nubians are Muslims – who constitute a religious minority in Kenya.

The decision may have been handed down but it is early days to celebrate as governments that perpetuate these rights violations are not always in any hurry to implement decisions from other legal entities, be they regional or international.

Over a year ago, the African Commission of Human and Peoples Rights found the Kenyan government in violation of the rights of Endorois community, a semi-nomadic indigenous group, when it evicted them from their ancestral land around Lake Bogoria, Rift Valley province. To date, the government is reluctant to implement the decision.

The African Union should devise mechanisms to ensure that states respect their decisions and fully implement them to the letter, otherwise it will be very difficult for it to shed the accusation that it’s a ‘toothless pet dog’.

Read the Committee’s decision.

Read more about Nubian people in MRG’s report Kenya: Minorities, Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Diversity.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.