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Refugee Voices: A Nubian Elder’s Reflections on Ending Statelessness

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Although more than forty ethnic groups reside in Kenya, not all of them have been able to call that country home. The Nubian community, whose ancestors came to Kenya from Sudan in the late nineteenth century as conscripts of the British colonial army, is one group that has historically been denied citizenship.

Their applications for civil identification continue to be subject to a process known as “vetting,” where a panel of government officials and community elders scrutinize a range of documentation, previously including even grandparents’ birth certificates. Such excessive requirements became obstacles to obtaining citizenship, leading Nubians to suffer the effects of statelessness, such as lack of legal protection, inability to vote, vulnerability to harassment, travel restrictions, and lack of access to higher education and social services.

But as related by one Nubian community leader, the Nubians fought for their rights “tooth and nail.” On their own and with the help of non-governmental organizations such as the Center for Minority Rights Development, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, and the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Nubian community challenged their treatment and status. They filed complaints in the Kenya High Court in 2003 and in the African Commission of Human and Peoples' Rights in 2006. They also spoke publicly about their situation in national and international fora.

Over the last few years, conditions have improved. Nubian community leaders report that nearly everyone now has a national ID card and the registration process is no longer as onerous as before. They believe their actions have also helped reduce corruption in applicable government ministries. Characterizing the status quo as a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the government, a Nubian elder emphasized that the community refuses to stop at such informal solutions. “Long after we are gone,” he said, “national identification should be a matter of course.” In their view, the court cases must proceed and the Nubians must be recognized as an official ethnic group of Kenya.

Refugees International asked the elder what advice he could share for other groups in the world at risk of statelessness. Directing his answer to such groups, he concisely outlined five elements to the success of his community:

First, you must maintain your identity as a people. Be proud of your culture and avoid identifying yourselves with larger groups. Hold high your language, arts and crafts, and ensure ceremonies are practiced regularly. Assimilation is the worst form of social crime, as it can destroy your culture. It amounts to extermination. Instead, you must work for integration through a kind of ‘structural affirmative action.’”

Second, you must always be united. Unity is critical to delivering a clear message to your government, and for receiving messages from your government or other groups who might assist your cause. Be well-organized, but avoid at all cost, slipping into a privileged group and eating the big cake.”

Third, use the existing legal frameworks. Everything must be done officially. This approach demonstrates your commitment to a fair process.”

Fourth, engage constructively with authorities at all levels. There is no point to militancy, as it only begets militancy. Good lawyers are essential here as is professional structured engagement.”

Fifth, in extreme cases do not take it lying down, jump from the local level and internationalize the issue. Use international organizations and international law to apply pressure on your government to implement the law. Tickle the mind of decision makers.”

Nubians are conscious that their case could have far-reaching implications for other marginalized groups in Kenya and Africa as a whole. Their example should also be a source of hope and encouragement for stateless communities struggling to claim their rights all over the world.

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