Citizenship Law in Africa: A Comparative Study

Manby, B. (2010). Citizenship law in Africa: A comparative study. Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project (AfriMAP) & Open Society Justice Initiative.


Laws and practices governing citizenship in too many African countries effectively leave hundreds of thousands of people without a nationality. These stateless Africans are among the continent’s most vulnerable populations: they can neither vote nor stand for office; they cannot enrol their children in school, travel freely, or own property; they cannot work for the government; they are exposed to human rights abuses. Statelessness exacerbates and underlies intercommunal, interethnic, and interracial tensions in many regions of the continent.

Few African countries provide for an explicit right to a nationality. Moreover, though the laws in more than half of the continent’s countries grant children born on their soil the right to citizenship at birth or the right to claim citizenship when they reach the age of majority, the observance of these laws is often lacking. The laws of some African countries explicitly restrict citizenship rights on racial or ethnic bases, and in many other countries ethnic or racial discrimination in the recognition of citizenship is widespread in practice. The legal provisions of at least half a dozen African countries effectively ensure that those persons who do not have the “right” skin colour or speak the “right” languages at home can never obtain nationality from birth, and neither can their children nor can their grandchildren. 

The citizenship laws of more than half of Africa’s states discriminate against women. Women in these countries are unable to pass on their citizenship to their foreign spouses or to their children if the father is not a citizen. Encouragingly, however, in recent years laws drawing on the international conventions on women’s rights have introduced gender neutrality in many countries, and others have enacted reforms providing for greater gender equality.

Another cause of statelessness is the failure by many African states to provide effective naturalisation procedures, especially for refugees. In practice, even where the law is unproblematic, some countries’ procedures are available in theory only. A final critical problem is the widespread lack of due process protections, especially when the government wishes to revoke citizenship. The laws in too many countries give almost unfettered discretion to the executive, allowing for incumbent governments to abuse the law in order to silence critics and exclude political opponents from public office. 

African states should address the problems of citizenship that the continent’s history of colonisation and migration has created and should bring their citizenship laws into line with international human rights norms. They should adopt a protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the right to nationality. The African Union and its Regional Economic Communities should lead a process to harmonise national laws and to ensure their compliance with the basic principles of nondiscrimination and due process already enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The laws, and preferably the constitutions, of African states should provide for an explicit right to a nationality from birth. In general, laws should provide for citizenship (whether from birth or by naturalisation) to be granted on the basis of any strong connection to the country, including birth on its territory, having a father or mother (including adoptive father or mother) who is a citizen, marriage to a citizen, and long-term residence. The laws regulating citizenship should not refer to membership of any particular race or ethnic group as the basis for inclusion in or exclusion from citizenship rights.

Citizenship rights should be based on gender equality in all respects, including the right of a woman to pass her citizenship on to her children and spouse. African states should take legal and other measures to ensure that members of all ethnic groups resident in their territory are given equal rights to citizenship, and in particular to ensure that members of groups that have historically been excluded from such benefits are included from now on. Obtaining citizenship by naturalisation should be possible for anyone able to prove legal residence in a country for a reasonable period. Any additional requirements—such as knowledge of national languages—must be reasonably possible to achieve for someone who has arrived in a country as an adult.

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