The Nubian Predicament: A Story about Colonial Legacy, Discrimination, and Statelessness

The year was 1923, and Sebi Rajab* had worked for the King’s African Rifles—the British colonial army—since the end of the war. It wasn’t exactly what he had hoped to do with his life, but the British policy of forced conscription meant that people like Sebi had no choice.

Life by the Nuba Mountains—in present-day central Sudan—had certainly not been lush, but it had provided a sense of stability and belonging: it was a cultural and historical home difficult to leave behind. The British had made it very clear, however, that even once he was discharged, Sebi could not return to the mountains. Instead, he was expected to relocated in Kibera—a new Nubian home created by the colonialists on the outskirts of Nairobi, in what is today Kenya.

When the war ended, that is where Sebi went, following the promise of fertile land and enough space for a large family. Little did Sebi know that his predicament would develop into a multi-generational struggle against poverty and exclusion.

In 1931, Nubians in Kibera asked to be repatriated to Sudan, a request which was repeated in 1939 and 1950, and consistently refused. So Nubians remain in Kibera—and in villages and towns across Kenya—to this day. Many are now fifth or sixth generation, and have no ties to Sudan—which didn’t even exist as a country when their ancestors were forced to leave. Indeed, according to a recent survey, more than 99 percent of Nubians in Kenya identify themselves as Kenyan. But the government thinks otherwise.

How did this happen?

In 1964, a month after Kenyan independence, Sebi’s daughter, Asha, gave birth to her second child, a boy named Jafar. According to Kenya’s constitution, Asha and her first-born child, Hawa, should have been recognized as citizens, as both were born in Kenya before independence (Former Constitution of Kenya, Art. 87). Since Jafar was born after independence, his right to Kenyan nationality depended entirely on his parents’ status as Kenyan citizens (Former Constitution of Kenya, Art. 89). But Asha and her husband were both Nubians, and the prevailing attitude among the new Kenyan leaders was that Nubians were foreigners. Despite their constitutional rights, in practice Nubians were denied Kenyan citizenship. Nubians, who previously were British Protected Persons, became stateless.

And so the story goes. Jafar and Hawa grew up. They had children who became stateless. And then their grandchildren inherited the same quagmire.

Eventually, the Kenyan government agreed that some Nubians do have a potential claim to nationality. But not on the same conditions as other Kenyans. Local committees were set up in the 1990s to vet Nubians who claimed to be Kenyan. These vetting committees would often ask for a whole range of documents to establish a person’s status, such as grandparents’ birth certificates—which other Kenyans were not required to provide. Many Nubians were unable to meet these arbitrary demands, as the documents were either lost over the years or never received in the first place.

As a result, thousands of Nubians today live in a legal limbo, with no access to the rights that are afforded to Kenyan citizens, such as freedom of movement and diplomatic protection, or the benefits of health care and employment in the public sector.

Even Nubians who have managed to obtain identification find their citizenship questioned when they need to renew documents, and so live in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

A Nubian man who received a national ID card in the 1950s recently lost it. He told us a story about how he had visited the local police station seven times over the last several years but was unable to replace the lost card because suddenly his Kenyan nationality was questioned.

“Lack of an identity card has negatively affected me on numerous occasions,” he said. “I cannot vote, especially in a referendum that was done on November 21, 2005. This happened despite the fact that I have been patriotic enough to vote in all previous general elections.”

Another Nubian man told us this story:

“My cousin is from the Eastleigh neighbourhood of Nairobi. She was trying to get an ID card and she went to the registration office there…But they told her ‘You are a Nubian, you can’t get an ID card here.’ She went back twice, once with her local councillor and once with her MP, but they told her that Nubians could only get ID cards at Kibera…But when she came here, she had to bring three other Nubians to the office with her to testify that they knew her. She did this last year, and even now she still doesn’t have an ID.”

Ironically, Kibera—which comes from the word kibra in the Nubi language and means “land of the forest” —has now become one of Africa’s largest urban slums. It is a place where poverty and disease, crime and social exclusion are overwhelmingly present.

While a majority of Nubians were initially settled in Kibera, today only 50 percent of the community live there. The rest mostly reside in so-called Nubian villages across Kenya. However, these villages are generally also very poor. In terms of poverty, unemployment is a particularly big problem, with less than 30 percent of adult Nubians reporting that they are employed. Indeed, 12 percent of households report that they have no income at all. An additional 40 percent of households make less than 60 USD per month, which averages to far less than 1 USD per person per day.

A Nubian resident of Kibera recently put it this way: “We have no roads in Kibera, only one clinic run by the Germans, no police station and no proper drainage system. We have no electricity. We also have water supply for two days in a week. Kibera is the worst part of Nairobi. We are treated as third class citizens because everything is diverted to other places. We have been facing this problem for a long time because we have nobody in government to fight for our cause.”

*Note: The author uses "Sebi Rajab" and his family as a composite to represent the common challenges faced by Nubians in Kenya.

9 Comments

Hi Sebastian, Interesting read...so whats the way forward?. It would be interesting to have the governments (GoK) side of the story.

Thanks, Pamela!

Personally, I think the GoK needs to address the problems of the Nubian community in a comprehensive manner. There is an important citizenship/statelessness issue here which bars many Nubians from accessing rights and services that are available to other citizens. For instance, without an ID you cannot register for the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) or for the National Health Insurance. This means that when you get to the hospital without an ID they will classify you as an alien and you will be forced to pay accordingly. There are actually cases of people who have received treatment, then been detained at the hospital because they are unable to pay the steep fees.

However, the problems go beyond citizenship: there is a complicate land rights issue, poverty is rampant, and education may become even harder for Nubians to access as the GoK introduces a requirement for birth certificates to access schools (or rather, to graduate).

A comprehensive approach to these problems would involve mass registration of people as nationals, and issuance of ID cards. This needs to be for free otherwise some people are not going to be able to afford it (currently Nubians have to pay to go through vetting). The practice of vetting people, beyond a mass registration campaign, must stop since it is discriminatory and in many cases leave people waiting for several years just to obtain a decision about their nationality. This is unacceptable.

The land rights issue also needs to be addressed. I'm no expert in this area, and I understand that Kibera in particular is very complicated from a land title point of view - in part because it is overcrowded and in part because the GoK continues to claim that it is government land. However, the government could recognize individual and collective property right for Nubians in Kibera and provide them with sufficient land title without having to give away the entire area to the community. Also, compensation could - and should - be offered where land title is not an option. In fact, already back in 1933 the Kenya Land Commission (the Carter Commission) said that Nubians should either receive title to their land (in Kibera), or be offered compensation.

In order to address the poverty issue, the GoK needs to do more to provide basic services such as clean water, a functioning sewage system, electricity, schools and health services in Kibera.

I agree with you that the GoK’s view on this matter would be interesting – and it is certainly very important. On the land issue, the President in 2007 said that the Nubian community would get title to their land in Kibera within three years. Now that 2010 is coming to an end it looks like this promise is not going to be honoured.

The GoK’s views on the history of the Nubian community in Kenya are somewhat different from my own views. They argue that the majority of the community arrived in the 1940s and did not get citizenship at independence on the basis that they were not born in Kenya. While it may be true that some people arrived in the 1940s, Nubians have been present in Kenya since the 19th Century. This is supported by the fact that in 1904 the British colonial administration assigned Kibera to the Nubians. Furthermore, the above-mentioned Carter Commission discussed the land issues at length already in 1933, suggesting that the size of the community was quite significant at that point.

The GoK also argues that there is plenty of proof to show that many Nubians by now have acquired Kenyan citizenship. This is certainly true. The community as a whole is no longer stateless. However, many thousands of Nubians are still stateless. In addition, Nubians as a community suffer from discrimination in access to nationality: first, because they are required to go through vetting in order to obtain documents regardless of whether they are born in Kenya or not, and regardless of their parents’ citizenship status; and second, because their nationality is frequently questioned (when they apply for passports, when they lose their IDs and try to get new ones, and so on).

This ended up being a rather long response, but I hope to post another piece on the Nubians in Kenya in a month or two.

Very interesting piece. Hopefully various strategies: litigation, lobbying, awareness raising etc can help to bring an end to the plight of the Nubian people in Kenya.

Uganda has a sizeable Nubian community who seem to have intergrated into the local communities

Sabastian,

Yours is yet another version of the historical perspective of the Kibera Nubian predicament extensively covered in the press and electronic media over the last decade or so - thanks to the recurrent upheavals (1995, 2001, 2009)in Kibera resulting from mishandling of Kibera/Nubian issues.This aspect has now been exhausted and the debate must now shift to the next level.

Key players (Nubian leadership, GOK, and the British Government)should be brought together for a concerted effort to clear the predicament once and for all. Being the source of the relocation of the original KAR ex-Sudanese soldiers, the British Government has the moral responsibility to exercise its residual enormous influence in Kenya to help resolve this matter and safeguard its legacy. The Government of Kenya should discourage politicians from exploiting the schism within the Nubian leadership and use its administrative machinery to promote unity of purpose among the Nubians. And the Nubian leadership should stop burying their heads in the sand and see the sense in having one united front, in the name of the community,to address this long standing predicament. Parochialism they are displaying now smacks of political cronysm so common in our country.

Sabastian, your comments on the British angle and possible assistance from the International community would enhance the debate. Please note that virtually none of the many internationally supported NGOs operating in Kibera have an agenda to partner with the Nubians. Why?

Hi Sabastian. Its means so much to us that actually people outside Kenya care for the walefare of Nubians in Kenya and any help we get on our pursuit for justice an right of wellbeing is highly appreciale. I would just like to clarify some small fact about Sebit Rajab rahmatullahi allaihi. He was My grandfather and never had the son Jafar and or daughter Asha. Althoh he had two Daughters namely Halima and Zuhra. And five sons. Majid, Ibrahim, Yusuf, Hussein, Hassan.

Hey Sabastian. I'm a direct descend of Sebi Rajab.I appritiate what you have done to our people but I think the best one can do at this point is to unite the community first. We are fighting against ourselves so much that we cant demand for our rights. One faction says this,the other says another thing,its like we're playing Marco-Polo or something.
The government has an obligation to its citizens,to protect their rights no matter what and with the new constitution,its time that we seek recognition and assistance from the British Government because the are the ones who brought us here in the first place.

Thanks all for your comments.

Abdul and Ahmed,and any one else who may identify with the story of Sebi:

This is actually a fictional character. It's a composite character in which I have included many different stories and destinies that people have told me about. It's primarily a way of explaining the consequences of Kenya's old constitution, as well as policies of both the British colonial administration and Kenya's independence government. I'm terribly sorry that this was not clear.

Ismail:

For an international audience I still think the history of the community is important. Many people will never have heard of the Nubian community in Kenya. Also, the history of the 20th C is very important to properly understand the current challenges.

I entirely agree with you that the community itself needs to come together to more effectively advocate for its cause. In-fighting is never productive. However, lack of cohesion within the community does not mean that the GoK does not have important responsibilities with respect to citizenship, land, health care, education and so on.

Regarding the role of the UK, and the international community in general: I believe that the UK may have some role to play in terms of setting the historical record straight. However, I really do think there are limits to how productive UK involvement in Kenyan politics can be. Perhaps there are ways to mitigate some of the effects of colonial time policies on ethnic minorities today, through targeted foreign policy or aid. But this would require careful policy making.

As for the international community at large, I believe it has a responsibility to deal with citizenship discrimination and statelessness in general, anywhere in the world. The Nubian situation happens to be one which I am somewhat familiar with but there are so many people and populations facing similar problems in every corner of the world. As a matter of priority, the international community should significantly increase its funding to the UNHCR for statelessness related activities (as opposed to refugee related work - most stateless people are not refugees). This would include international protection when necessary, and collaboration with national governments to regularize the legal status of stateless persons. The international community also needs to start recognizing the right to nationality as the human right that it is. Currently it is unfortunately one of the least respected rights in the Universal Declaration.

Sebastian

Sebastain,

Many thanks for your comprehensive further input, and for providing this platform to promote debate on the Nubian predicament.

This forum would gain additional value and substance if the key players I referred to earlier were to participate in it directly. That way we would get to a position where we could identify bottlenecks that may be hindering progress towards resolving the dilemma and craft the way forwrd. Perhaps you might want to consider drawing their attention to the debate. The UK has always remained aloof and disengaged.

I do appreciate your comment that the UK's involvement in Kenyan politics is limited. However it is precisely by politicising the Nubian situation that it gets murkier. It should be approached as a moral, legal, and historical reality that must be corrected. We are always reminded of the ethnic diversity of Kenyan society and the need to positively preserve and exploit it. The very rich Nubian culural heritage (language,dress,dance,cuisine,wedding, architecture, etc)that is supposed to contribute to this diversity now faces gradual extinction for lack of a basic suitable environment to grow it. Needless to say, other Kenyan communities have ample space to remain cohesive and preserve theirs.

In light of the new constitutional dispensation we are in (with generous human rights provision), the Kenya Human Rights Commission's silence is defeaning! They should come out and speak on this issue the way they do for IDPs. After all history might prove that the Nubians in Kibera could be among the very oldest IDPs in Kenya in view of the numerous relocations and dislocations they have suffered. I totally agree with you that UNHCR should be funded and mandated to focus more on situations such as the Nubians'.

Please involve more interested parties in the discussions.

I have found this thread extremely interesting and informative. I am currently researching the legal situation of the Nubian people in Kenya and citizenship, statelessness and social justice is the focus of my PhD thesis.

I will endeavour to correctly document the plight of the Nubians since they were brought to Kenya by the British and would appreciate any further discussion around the subject that would help to enrich my research. Hopefully my findings will be published sometime in the future and will help to publicise the situation and support the decree of a helpful solution.

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