After Long Struggle, Kenya’s Nubian Minority Secures Land Rights

After Long Struggle, Kenya’s Nubian Minority Secures Land Rights

NEW YORK—Kenya’s decision to acknowledge the land rights of the country’s Nubian minority, announced on June 2, 2017, marks a historic victory for community-based efforts to end patterns of entrenched discrimination against the Nubians, the Open Society Justice Initiative said today. 

On Friday, June 2, the Kenyan government issued a community land title to the Nubian community trust for 288 acres of land in the Kibera neighborhood of Nairobi—a move recommended by the African Commission in 2015 in response to a complaint filed by the community with the support of the Justice Initiative.

Members of the Nubian minority have lived in Kibera since at least the early 20th century, but they have faced the growing threat of evictions in recent years as land prices in Nairobi have risen. The land was originally part of a military reserve established by the colonial British, who initially conscripted Nubians from the Upper Nile region into their forces in Kenya.

After independence in 1963, the lack of formal title to the land where they settled under the British also contributed to the unwillingness of the government to recognize the Nubians as citizens of Kenya, leaving the community at risk of statelessness.

The title in favor of the community trust was handed over to Sheikh Issa Abdulfaraj, the chairman of the Council of Elders of the Kenyan Nubians, by Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta. The Council said:

“The Nubian community is elated, and we appreciate the commitment of President Kenyatta to right this long-running injustice. This outcome demonstrated how turning to the human rights institutions of the African Union can yield results, with sustained commitment by communities and a willingness on the part of the government to act.” 

The decision by the Kenyan government follows concerted legal and community activism by the Nubian community over the land issue.

In 2015, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights recommended that Kenya recognize Nubian land rights over Kibera by granting them “security of tenure”, and to address what it called “discriminatory and arbitrary evictions” of Nubians by ensuring that all actions follow international human rights standards.

The Commission was responding to a complaint initially filed in 2006 by the Justice Initiative, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa and the Kenyan NGO CEMIRIDE (Center for Minority Rights Development) on behalf of the Nubian community, which argued that Kenya’s discriminatory treatment—in citizenship and land tenure—was a breach of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. 

James A. Goldston, executive director of the Justice Initiative, welcomed the Kenyan government’s decision to acknowledge the land rights of the Nubian community:

“This is a historically important recognition by the Kenyan government of a long-running injustice—which follows both successful legal action at the African Commission, and committed efforts by the Nubian community to organize to advocate for their rights. We also welcome President Kenyatta’s commitment to continue to work with the community as decisions are now made about the economic development of Kibera. It is vital that the whole Nubian community participates in this process.”

The lack of legal clarity on land ownership has been a barrier to the development of adequate government infrastructure and services in Kibera, a densely populated informal settlement where many residents live in poverty.

At the June 2 ceremony at Nairobi’s State House, President Kenyatta reportedly said his government will now work with the community to make their land “a model city” by providing proper planning and public utilities, a process that he said would include forming partnerships to invest in development. It is critical that the Nubian community has the support, the agency and the negotiating power to lead in the process of translating this vision into reality.

The Nubians continue to face significant obstacles in their efforts to secure national identity documentation – and are the only non-border minority whose are subject to special vetting procedures when applying for their national identity card at age 18.  

The Justice Initiative has been working with Kenya’s Nubians for over a decade as part of its broader support for efforts to eradicate statelessness around the world. This includes providing legal support for community-based legal outreach that helps people negotiate the process of attaining proper identity documentation.