Who Belongs? Statelessness and Nationality in West Africa
Bronwen Manby, 2016
At least 10 million people around the world are stateless, according to estimates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but the real number may be much higher. Statelessness severely limits a person’s human rights, including access to basic services such as health care and education. Often deemed to be illegally present in their country of birth and residence—even if their parents were also born there—stateless individuals may be unable to work in the formal economy, open a bank account, or buy land. A person without identity documents, usually dependent on nationality, is unable to cross international borders through regular channels. The right to vote or to run for office in national elections is restricted to citizens in most countries. As requirements to show official identification multiply, a person without a recognized nationality is increasingly unable to function in the modern world.
At the regional level, West Africa has moved furthest to address statelessness, as a result of advocacy from UNHCR and the existing policies and institutional frameworks of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In February 2015, the 15 ECOWAS Member States adopted the Abidjan Declaration on the Eradication of Statelessness, agreeing “to prevent and reduce statelessness by reforming constitutional, legislative and institutional regimes related to nationality in order to include appropriate safeguards against statelessness, in particular to ensure that every child acquires a nationality at birth and that all foundlings are considered nationals of the State in which they are found.” Of course, the declaration is just that—a declaration—and does not necessarily mean the promised action will take place. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable recognition at the regional level that the question of nationality in Africa needs to be addressed.
Migration and Nationality in West African History
The West African Sahel—the “coast” of the Sahara—has long been a zone of migration. Long-distance traders historically controlled the trans-Saharan routes, and migratory pastoralism was and remains the livelihood of many. The spread of Islam and the succession of great precolonial empires—Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Kanem-Burnu—both provoked and facilitated migration. With the late 15th century arrival of the first European ships along the sea coasts, migration for trade rapidly increased, all too soon degenerating into slaving. Once European political control was established in the late 19th century, migration—forced and voluntary—increased again within the region, especially within common colonial boundaries.
Nationality Laws Today
Since independence, West Africa, along with the rest of the continent (and indeed the world), has seen two particularly strong trends in nationality law: a reduction or removal of gender discrimination, allowing women to pass nationality to their children and spouses on increasingly equal terms with men; and acceptance of dual nationality. In nine of 15 ECOWAS countries, women and men now have such equal rights, and dual nationality is generally prohibited only in Liberia.
There has also been a trend to limit access to nationality based on birth in the country. In common with many Commonwealth countries elsewhere in Africa, each of the four former British territories has removed the right to nationality based purely on birth in the territory (as indeed the United Kingdom did in 1981). Sierra Leone also introduced a racial provision similar to that of Liberia, restricting citizenship attributed at birth to individuals of “negro-African descent” and establishing a double jus soli rule for those fulfilling this criterion.
Côte d’Ivoire and Niger have also reduced rights based on birth in the territory; although Niger, like the other former French territories, retains a double jus soli rule, which Côte d’Ivoire never adopted. Nigeria, The Gambia, and Côte d’Ivoire now provide no rights based on place of birth, not even the minimum provided by the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness for children who would otherwise be stateless, nor the presumption in favor of an abandoned child of unknown parents.
Who is stateless in Africa
Migrants and their Descendants
The largest number of people at risk of statelessness in West Africa are the descendants of migrants who no longer live in their countries or communities “of origin,” particularly those who migrated before independence. More recent migrants are generally not stateless, since, even if lacking documents, they retain knowledge of their origin country that would usually enable them to re-establish that nationality with the relevant authorities if need be. However, where rights to nationality based on birth in the territory are weak and birth registration does not confirm a connection enabling a child to claim the citizenship of a parent, statelessness becomes more likely for each generation born outside a notional country of ancestral nationality.
Among the migrants most at risk of statelessness are refugees and their children, especially where the cessation clauses of the 1951 Refugee Convention have been invoked. In West Africa, those who fled civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia are no longer considered refugees by UNHCR or host-country governments. Very few former refugees have been able to access naturalization in host countries. Thus, while those who have remained in other West African countries would have rights based on their status as ECOWAS citizens, they need confirmation of Liberian or Sierra Leonean nationality to stay where they are, as much as to repatriate. Yet during vetting procedures by Liberian authorities in 2013, some 1,000 formerly recognized refugees were denied Liberian passports, largely on the basis that they did not have enough knowledge of Liberia. Without documents, individuals such as these are left stranded, often unable to access services where they live, and subject to constant police harassment for lack of proper documents.