Dealing with statelessness in sub-Saharan Africa: The way forward

michael_addaneyAuthor: Michael Addaney
Student (MPhil Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa), Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

‘Statelessness is a profound violation of an individual’s human rights. It would be deeply unethical to perpetuate the pain it causes when solutions are so clearly within reach.’
– Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Statelessness as a legal problem has far reaching political and economic challenges which have attracted rising attention from scholars, human rights activists and international organisations in recent years. Officially, statelessness means a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law. The UNHCR started collecting data on stateless persons in the world in 2006 and confirmed in 2011 that the number of stateless persons around the world is in excess of 10 million despite conceding that obtaining the actual statistics is difficult.

The most affected are regions that have suffered or are experiencing armed conflicts or economic migration. Large numbers of stateless population are largely due to policies and laws which discriminate against foreigners despite their deeper roots in the states concerned. For instance, more than 120 000 persons in Madagascar are stateless on the basis of discriminatory citizenship laws and administrative procedures. Moreover, about 170 000 Burundian refugees who fled their country in 1972 are recognised as stateless in Tanzania despite cogent attempts by international and local organisations to have the situation rectified.


In 2014, the UNHCR revealed through its 2013 Global Trends Report that sub-Saharan Africa is home to about 750 000 stateless persons with 700 000 in Cote d’Ivoire and 20 000 each from Kenya and Madagascar respectively. The report however admits that DR Congo, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Madagascar are hosting significant but unquantifiable stateless persons within their territories. This situation is worrisome, precarious and alarming.

Stateless persons are denied their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms which are universal and inherent. They are deprived of access to health services and education and are also prevented from securing employment due to their inability to obtain appropriate documentation to prove their nationality. These conditions make them defenseless without enjoying any clearly defined rights in the countries that they find themselves.

Acting on the global conditions of stateless persons, the United Nations (UN) initiated a global campaign in 2014 to end this phenomenon within a decade. The success of this initiative in the sub-Saharan Africa region requires resolute commitment and pragmatic effort from the African Union (AU) and its machinery as well as the requisite political will from national governments.

The AU machinery must begin to recognise the seriousness of the problem and design pragmatic policies as well as result-driven advocacy at various strategic levels to pressure national governments to widen the right to nationality within their territories.

In ending statelessness, national policies and legislations that comply with article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and article 6(3, 4) of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) that guarantee the right to nationality of every child particularly where the child would otherwise would be stateless should be urgently pursued.

The AU and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) must vigorously exert pressure on their members to remove all gender discrimination from nationality and citizenship laws as well as to formalise quicker naturalisation of stateless migrants to grant them protection. The AU and its agencies, the RECs and Civil Society Organisations as well as stateless persons must all work together assiduously to support African governments to achieve monumental results in eradicating statelessness within the continent.

Finally, the era where issues of nationality were left at the discretion of the state must end and transformation of the normative practices in individual African states to adopt special human rights laws that promote and protect the condition of stateless persons must be pursued. In the meantime, the UNHCR and the AU must embark on rigorous programmes and strategic advocacy to put the situation of stateless persons on the spotlight and to exert more pressure on sub-Saharan African states to address the issues.


B Manby ‘How will the UNHCR’s statelessness campaign affect Africa?’ African Arguments12 November 2014 available at (accessed on 30 April 2015)

JA Okertchiri ‘The Right To Belong: Ending Statelessness In West Africa’ The Daily Guide 10 January 2010 available at (Accessed on 30 April 2015)

F Ngubane ‘Solving statelessness in Southern Africa’ IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis 30 January 2013 available at (Accessed on 30 April 2015)

UNHCR ‘Who is stateless and where?’ available at (accessed on 30 April 2015)

About the Author: Michael Addaney holds BSc Development Planning and Postgraduate Diploma in Education from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and the University of Cape Coast respectively, both in Ghana. Michael is a Corporate Member of the Ghana Institute of Planners (Social Policy option) and a candidate of MPhil in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria in South Africa. His research interest focuses on International Humanitarian Law, Conflict Transformation and Security Studies, Public Policy Analysis and Child Rights.

One Comment on “Dealing with statelessness in sub-Saharan Africa: The way forward”

  1. Ayalew says:

    Nice read, just for your information, there is a Draft Protocol on nationality and prevention of statelessness currently under consideration at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. the ACERWC has also adopted a General Comment on article 6 of the African Children’s Charter, which among other things, aims at setting principles with a view of preventing statelessness among children in Africa.

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