Citizenship law in Africa

As citizenship law is to a large extent a reflection of ideas of belonging and identity, an understanding of historical processes is key to understanding the functioning of contemporary citizenship law. Having previously discussed how citizenship has developed in different continents or civilisations (see our posts on Europe, China and Latin America), today we turn to Africa.



We have previously seen that some issues – for example cross-border voting – are very specific to the African context given the many porous borders on the continent, the highly mobile populations, and the need for elections to encompass neighbouring borderlands and diasporas. It was also explained that in some parts of Africa supranational frameworks are being built to facilitate free movement and that a Draft Nationality Protocol has been discussed within the African Union to collectively address issues of nationality. African countries recognise that only through collaboration they can solve problems such as arbitrary denial of access to citizenship, which has become one of the major factors that have led to conflicts, impaired economic and social development in Africa, and constitutes a threat to the achievement of the 2063 Agenda of the African Union.


Bronwen Manby, in Citizenship in Africa: The Law of Belonging, shows how the political and historical context in which the law applies is essential to the functioning of citizenship on the continent – to such an extent that more informal regulations “may in practice be at least as important as the constitution or legislation in shaping the understanding of the government officials responsible for issue of identity and other documentation, and thus access to proof of nationality in practice”. Emphasizing that borders were arbitrarily drawn at the 1885 Berlin Conference with the result that “African states are only too obviously neither unified cultural families nor voluntary coming-togethers”, the African nation-states neither fit the (European) ideas of the “nation” (people linked by common characteristics) nor the model of a “republic” (people voluntarily assenting to a government). This aspect, as well as others such as the nomadic lifestyle of many African populations, set Africa apart from continents or civilisations that have developed a sense of unity or shared identity. Although colonisation was a relatively recent phenomenon, especially compared to Latin America where colonisation started in the 15th century, African countries did not seek to rediscover pre-colonial modes of belonging upon gaining independence but instead adopted laws based on the templates provided by the former colonizing powers.


One of most important current developments in Africa is the adoption of national identity card systems, which sometimes create havoc and violate the traditional informality of arrangements on the continent. In particular, as access to the appropriate formal documentation is becoming ever more important at the expense of informal channels, discrimination on the basis of ethnicity becomes a real danger and services that could previously be accessed are being denied based on lack of an ID card, access to which is complicated by inter-state conflict, displacement and corruption.


Africa has also witnessed a few prominent cases of state succession, with Eritrea seceding from Ethiopia and South Sudan from Sudan. Manby’s analysis of these cases studies could have relevance for the discussion on state secession in Europe (Catalonia, Scotland and potentially other regions too).


In addition to unreliable censuses, lack of birth registration a large informal economy, another characteristic is the considerable difference between law and practice and thus the relationship between formal and informal determinations of belonging. This means one must always approach the legal texts somewhat sceptically and also look at their practical implementation. Still, a number of trends can be witnessed across Africa, including a stronger focus on descent-based acquisition of citizenship at the expense of territorial links to the country as well as the wider acceptance of dual citizenship. At least half of the African states now allow dual citizenship in almost all circumstances; 18 accept it under certain circumstances; and only 10 prohibit dual citizenship in almost all circumstances.


Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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