Citizenship Discrimination in Africa: An Obstacle to Nation-building and Lasting Peace

Issues of belonging, identity, and citizenship in Africa do not always appear to be direct causes of violent conflict. However, when linked to access to land and other resources, limited state capacity, and corruption and poor governance, citizenship discrimination can fuel political and socio-economic grievances and lead to violence.

Key Conclusions

Peacemaking initiatives and political processes such as elections provide opportunities to address long-term citizenship discrimination that constitute a significant element of conflict and a structural cause of violence. However, for countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan and South Sudan to transform into homogenous nations and achieve sustainable peace, efforts that go beyond electoral processes and the signing of peace agreements are needed to overcome issues of statelessness and citizenship. In addition, these efforts should call for greater and deliberate involvement of the international community.

These issues were discussed in-depth at an event I attended last week that considered the cases of Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan and South Sudan (the event was organized by the International Peace Institute and Open Society Foundations).


In Côte d’Ivoire, the concept of “ivoirité,” which was engineered to exclude foreigners from the benefits of a declining economy starting in the early 90s, led to the marginalization of over 400,000 northern-based Ivorian nationals, mainly Muslim, who shared names and cultural ties with ethnic groups in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. The ensuing crisis resulted in the eight-year division of the country, with its northern part controlled by rebels.

While the contested presidential elections of November 2010 eventually facilitated a political transition and brought to power President Alassane Ouattara, a northerner twice previously excluded from running for office, a nationality law defining clearly who is Ivorian has yet to be adopted. According to Gilles Yabi, International Crisis Group West Africa director, “Ouattara being in power does not mean that the nationality issue is resolved. It means that political exclusion of northerners might be over, but work has to be done both on constitutional and legal reforms (and) also on education on citizenship and reconciliation to get all Ivorians to accept an open and modern view of nationality and citizenship.” Meanwhile, the remnants of the violent post-election crisis persist, illustrated by killings such as the recent murder of seven Nigerien peacekeepers serving with the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) in the southwest region of the country.

In the DRC, xenophobic sentiments against Congolese Rwandophones – the Kinyarwanda speakers with Rwandan ancestry – are seen as the source of citizenship discrimination and justification of restrictive legal frameworks. Suspicions that Congolese Rwandophones of both Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups are maintaining close ties with Rwanda and Burundi is fueling the local populations’ rejection of them, particularly in the eastern region of the DRC.

With the latest United Nations and Human Rights Watch reports alleging the recruitment of Rwandan soldiers to fight in the new rebel group M23, tension between Rwanda and the DRC is spiking again, threatening a fragile March 23, 2009 peace agreement signed between the Congolese government and the Tutsi-led National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). The agreement had facilitated the arrest by Rwandan forces of the Congolese ethnic Tutsi rebel Laurent Nkunda, who was reported to be supported by the government in Kigali. The M23 rebellion, whose name derives from the 2009 accord, is composed of followers of Rwanda-born and mutinied General Bosco Ntangada, also suspected of Rwandan backing, and who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In Sudan and South Sudan, citizenship is one of the post-referendum issues that needs to be addressed following the secession of South Sudan in July 2011. Immediately after the South Sudan Nationality Act was put into action after the country’s independence, Sudan revised its 1994 Nationality Act so that it stripped Sudanese nationality from those in the north entitled to South Sudanese nationality. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the number of ethnic southerners living in Sudan to be 700,000, many of whom have not been in South Sudan for decades. While over 300,000 of them had crossed the border back to South Sudan by mid-2011, disenfranchisement threatens southerners in the north, many of whom having lost their official residency status and their means of livelihood. UN agencies such as UNHCR, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) do provide assistance —training, legal aid, and technical and material support — to facilitate registration processes. Nevertheless, the restrictive Sudanese nationality law is used as another tool to subordinate a group that has long been marginalized.

In the south, many Sudanese have left since the country’s independence, though the same level of exclusion that ethnic southerners encounter in the north has not been reported. However, historically difficult tribal relations and the limited capacity of newly-established government structures mandated to provide national documents to all identified South Sudanese combine to hinder the implementation of the July 2011 Nationality Act. Illegal requirements under the official vetting process, and increased xenophobic feelings towards nationals from neighboring Kenya and Uganda have led to discriminations against some ethnic southerners.

A March 2012 framework agreement saw Sudan and South Sudan agree to respect the “four freedoms” of residence, movement, economic activity and property rights for Sudanese nationals living in South Sudan, and South Sudanese remaining in Sudan. Despite being considered a notable step forward, this agreement is yet to be implemented. Negotiations on citizenship issues have been overshadowed by the humanitarian crisis caused by thousands of refugees fleeing fighting in the Sudanese states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, further fighting in April between Sudan and South Sudan in Heglig, and both states’ squabbling over oil revenues and border demarcation.

The UNHCR estimated the total number of stateless people around the world to be 12 million in 2010. While progress has been recorded in the attribution of nationality, facilitated in part by the reduction of gender discrimination and the acceptance of dual nationality, citizenship discrimination has not yet received the necessary attention from policymakers at international level as a critical element of human dignity and sustainable peace. Political dialogue and mediation, rather than legalistic means, are seen as useful tools to confirm the will of assorted groups, who often have little in common, to live together to build homogenous nations. In all the countries considered, such efforts, which call for a more deliberate involvement of the international community, have yet to materialize.

Mireille Affa’a-Mindzie is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute. She tweets at @affaamm.

About the photo: The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) provides transport for a group of South Sudanese returnees after their arrival in Juba in May 2012.