The Horn of Africa: Multiple Citizenship of the Ethnic Somalis



The extremely ambiguous criteria for citizenship in Kenya and the countries of the Horn of Africa are a result of the way in which Africa was divided up by the colonial powers in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The present-day borders of Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Kenya were determined by this carving up of the continent, carried out without the knowledge of the local populations and without taking into account their nomadic life-style. Thus, considerations of state citizenship were superimposed on the realities of belonging to a clan (or ethnic group) with fuzzy territorial limits that could be changed by consensus or by wars with neighbouring clans (Former Director of the Teacher Training Programme of the Somalian Ministry of Education, Mogadishu 23 May 1991; Hargeisa Group 21 May 1991). The coexistence of these two conceptions of territoriality, one based on the principle of the state and the other on clan (or ethnic) membership, is at the root of the inconsistent rules that govern the granting of citizenship in the African Horn countries. In order to acquire a better understanding of these inconsistencies, we shall examine the realities of the region's nomadic populations and compare them with the Western idea of a state.

Before going any further, let us clarify the terms used in this paper. `Somali', whether used as a noun or an adjective, refers to the members of the large family of clans making up the ethnic group to which the nomadic populations dealt with here belong. `Somalian', also used as both a noun and an adjective, refers to the citizens of the Democratic Republic of Somalia. It should be noted that almost all Somalians are also ethnic Somalis.


2.0        General

In international law, a state is an entity with a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to maintain relations with other states (League of Nations 1936, 25). The government should define the relationship between the state and the individual (rights and duties) and respect its international obligations. As we shall see, these criteria are inapplicable in the context of the Horn of Africa.

2.1                Presence of a Permanent Population

The criterion of a permanent population cannot to applied to nomadic groups that regularly cross national boundaries, forced by climatic and seasonal variations to seek fresh pastures. The urban populations too are extremely mobile - many families spend several months in one country and several months in another because of business or family obligations, while students do the same because of their studies (Former Director 1 Feb. 1991).

2.2              Defined Territories

The borders that are so clearly marked on maps bear little relation to reality, for they do not stop the continuous migrations of the nomadic population (Former Director 1 Feb. 1991; Hargeisa Group 21 May 1991). The Somalians who live in the region consider the frontiers to be `artificial' and the states defined by them to be abstract entities bearing no relationship to the boundaries of their ancestral territories (Nelson 1982, 14; Day 1987, 128-129; Oberlé and Hugot 1985, 80-81; Laitin and Samatar 1987, 2). This attitude can give rise to rather curious situations. For example, it has happened that three Somali brothers belonging to the Gadaboursi clan each worked for a different government, one as the Somalian ambassador to the United Nations, another as the Ethiopian ambassador to Egypt, and the third as the Djiboutian ambassador to Egypt (Absieh and Botrol 1986, 64). The modern frontiers reflect the arbitrary nature of the divisions created by the former colonial powers.

2.3   Existence of a Government

Governments, even if they are internationally recognized, are often perceived as representing the interests of a particular clan (in Djibouti and Somalia) or ethnic group (in Ethiopia and Kenya) (Laitin and Samatar 1987, 90-92). The Somalis accord considerable importance to religious and traditional authorities. These parallel power structures often function better than the centralized state government and sometimes offer greater civil and political freedoms than those associated with the citizenship of any country (Oberlé and Hugot 1985, 38-40).

Furthermore, relations between the individual and the state are not always clear. All the citizens of a state do not have equal status, some being considered `second-class' citizens or even `unwanted subjects' (Laitin and Samatar 1987, xvii). This is notably the case in Kenya and Ethiopia, where Somalis are truly second-class citizens with few real rights (Laitin and Samatar 1987, xvii). For example, Somalis are deported from Kenya if they cannot furnish written evidence of their place of birth (Kenyans belonging to other ethnic groups are not discriminated against even if they have no proof at all of their place of birth), while in Ethiopia they are almost totally excluded from administrative posts and positions of power and have little access to health care and education. In Djibouti too, Somalis of the Gadaboursi and Isaaq clans are treated as foreigners and often deported to Somalia (Oberlé and Hugot 1985, 124; Africa Watch 30 Oct. 1989, 8).

2.4         Relations between States

Relations between the various states in the region are often turbulent. Somalia has laid claim to the Ogadan and Haud regions and the Northern Frontier District, which it calls its `missing territories', and accuses Ethiopia and Kenya of colonialism for occupying these areas. Ethiopia and Kenya counter with charges of `Somalian expansionism'.

It is thus clear that the realities of the countries in the Horn of Africa do not correspond to the Western concept of a state, since neither the countries nor their citizens respect their mutual obligations. This situation has arisen because of the imposition by the colonial powers of a political structure based on a sedentary lifestyle and totally unsuited to the political realities and the traditional nomadism of Somalian clans. The citizenship laws in these countries reflect this contradiction.


3.1         Somalia

Act No. 28, passed on 22 December 1962, states that a person can acquire Somalian citizenship either by fulfilling the conditions set forth in the law or by special dispensation (Haji 1972, 301-306). Acquiring Somalian citizenship by virtue of the law is theoretically possible for any person whose father is a Somalian citizen (not necessarily a resident of the Democratic Republic of Somalia), who belongs to the Somali nation by virtue of his or her origins, language and traditions, and who renounces any foreign citizenship or status as subject of a foreign country. Somalian citizenship is transmitted through the father, which means that the children of a Somalian father are considered to be Somalian even if their mother is a foreigner (Ibid.).

Taking advantage of the ambiguous nature of the citizenship laws, the Somalian government led by Siad Barré has enrolled Ethiopian refugees to fight against opposition forces. These refugees, for the most part ethnic Somalis, are considered to be Somalian citizens subject to the same laws and having the same obligations as any other citizen (Amnesty International AI Index: AFR/52/26/88; UNHCR 1989; Le Droit 2 Nov. 1987). Not only is the seven year minimum residency requirement for acquiring citizenship generally ignored in practice, but the renunciation of other citizenships also does not seem to be necessary for the government to automatically and arbitrarily consider someone as being subject to the laws of the Republic of Somalia (The Associated Press 13 Dec. 1990). Applicants for Somalian citizenship are usually not discriminated against on the basis of their clan membership; anyone who gives a big enough bribe to the civil servants responsible for applying the law can become a citizen (Hargeisa Group 21 May 1991).

3.2       Ethiopia

The Constitution of Ethiopia states that any person with one parent who is an Ethiopian citizen automatically acquires Ethiopian citizenship (Blaustein and Flanz 1990, 24). Unlike the patrilineal Somalian system, Ethiopian law allows children with an Ethiopian parent to become citizens whether that parent is their father or their mother. However, Ethiopia does not recognize dual citizenship.

According to a University of New York professor, the Ethiopian leaders have always been hostile toward Somalis (Professor of Anthropology at the University of New York at Cortland Feb. 1990). In fact, Somalis living in Ethiopia are regularly ill treated and are considered `unwanted subjects' (Laitin and Samatar 1987, xvii). Information obtained from Canada's Department of External Affairs indicates that Issas and other Somali clans living in Ethiopia are periodically roughed up by the government and the population at large (Department of External Affairs 17 Oct. 1989). Thus, Ethiopian citizenship does not provide Somalians with a guarantee that their human rights will be respected or that they will be permitted to return.

3.3                Kenya

The Kenya Citizenship Act of 1967 states that any individual of African descent born in Kenya, or whose parents were born in Kenya, can acquire Kenyan citizenship (The Kenya Citizenship Act 1967, 1-19). People who acquire another citizenship, whether by marriage or otherwise, may have their Kenyan citizenship revoked.

Kenyan Somalis are often harassed and discriminated against because of their ethnic origins, for example by being frequently subjected to identity checks (Africa Watch 30 Oct. 1989, 10). The last major screening operation, which took place in late 1989, resulted in about 500 `illegal' residents of Somali origin being deported to Somalia. Even Somalis who have always lived in Kenya are considered to be aliens by Kenyan authorities if they cannot furnish proof of their identity (The Los Angeles Times 30 March 1990; Africa Watch 6 Dec. 1989, 1-2). Nor are Somalian refugees treated any more sympathetically by Kenyan authorities. A press agency reports that 60 Somalian refugees were sent back from Kenya to their country of origin, and that 18 of them were executed by the Somalian army while the others were imprisoned (The Los Angeles Times 30 March 1990). There is thus no guarantee that Somali Kenyans who are unable to prove their citizenship (because of the absence of birth or marriage registers in a society based on oral tradition) will be treated any better if deported to Somalia.

3.4                Djibouti

The full text of the citizenship code is currently not available to the IRBDC. Whatever the official text may say, however, it would appear that Djiboutian citizenship is granted and taken away on the basis of arbitrary criteria (Absieh and Botbol 1986, 39).

Any dissident who orally, in writing, or through gestures calls into question the ruling sub-clan's monopoly on power or the one-party system is liable to have their Djiboutian citizenship unilaterally and definitively revoked. For example, a book that does not praise the President and the government is considered sufficient grounds for revoking the author's citizenship (Jeune Afrique July 1986). Similarly, one of the founders of an opposition party that criticized the only party to hold power since independence has been deprived of his citizenship (Rabeh 1984, 169; Absieh and Botbol 1986, 140).

Citizenship rights are given to anyone who happens to belong to the `right' clan (or sub-clan) (Absieh and Botbol, 39). For example, Issas fleeing difficult conditions in Ethiopia and Somalia have been granted Djibouti citizenship and important jobs in the Djibouti government, which gives preferential treatment to the Issa clan (Le Monde 9 Feb. 1991; Jeune Afrique 7-13 Nov. 1990; Jeune Afrique 6-12 March 1991). On the other hand, refugees belonging to clans considered undesirable in Djibouti are liable to be deported to Somalia or Ethiopia and have little chance of acquiring Djibouti citizenship (Former Director 23 May 1991). Economic power is currently changing hands, with the Issas apparently determined to oust the Afars and Gadaboursis from the business and economic sectors (Jeune Afrique 6-12 March 199l). The latter groups' `rights' as citizens do not protect them from economic discrimination.

4.         CONCLUSION

The Constitutions of Kenya and the countries in the Horn of Africa deal with the acquisition and loss of citizenship. However, the arbitrary nature of the applicable `rules', compounded by rampant corruption in the system, makes it difficult to determine in which country a person can claim protection, what the nature of this protection will be, and how long it will last, given that the region is being torn apart by civil wars. The migrations of people who totally ignore official borders and roam freely from country to country only add to the uncertainty (The Associated Press 20 March 1987).

In addition, the Horn countries do not possess all the attributes of a state since they do not protect their citizens in a satisfactory and efficient manner. For example, Djibouti considers some members of its population to be `aliens', Kenya treats some groups as `second-class' citizens and Ethiopia has a class of `unwanted subjects' (Oberlé and Hugot 1985, 124; Laitin and Samatar 1987, xvii).

It therefore appears important to keep in mind the historical and political circumstances that have shaped the criteria for acquiring citizenship in this part of the world. The ambiguous nature of the concept of citizenship in this region, the arbitrary manner in which citizenship is granted and revoked, and the inability or unwillingness of non-functional states to provide protection are factors that prompt people with no clearly defined citizenship to seek refuge abroad.

5.       APPENDIX: MAP

See original

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