Bronwen Manby Bronwen Manby Sacha Ruland

The right to citizenship

Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Wednesday, 20 January 2016 15:14

External PhD candidate Bronwen Manby, a British lawyer, visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and consultant, is committed to improving the fate of stateless persons on the African continent and ensuring the right to a nationality for all, as promised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "Without proof of nationality of course you can’t vote or stand for office, but you may also not be able to access public health care or education, or even get a sim card, a bank account or a job in the formal economy."  

Manby had heard of Maastricht, certainly. Thanks to her legal training she is well acquainted with international treaties such as the Maastricht Treaty, which laid the foundations of the European Union as we know it today. She was less familiar, however, with the city and the university. That she chose to pursue her PhD here can be attributed to Professor René de Groot, whom she describes as a renowned expert in international law. “A few years ago he offered to supervise my PhD, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.”

She is staying at a hotel, defending her dissertation and leaving again the next day. The main claim of her dissertation, entitled ‘Citizenship and statelessness in Africa: The law and politics of belonging’, is that the provisions of nationality law have a daily impact on the lives of many ordinary Africans and, where the law has excluded many people from access to nationality, have also had an impact on political stability in certain countries. This holds even in Africa, where weak states are the order of the day and things get done by way of informal structures. Access to a nationality means becoming a ‘citizen’, and acquiring rights and thus protection.

Turbulent developments

She suspects her interest in Africa is linked to her mother’s South African heritage. Growing up, the turbulent social and political developments in South Africa were a frequent topic of discussion. Trained as a lawyer in Britain, she worked for several years for South African organisation Lawyers for Human Rights, and a decade each for Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Foundations. She describes her work as a continuous cycle of observing, interviewing, reporting, seeking publicity and, above all, supporting the "people on the ground", the national organisations. "They’re the ones who take the real risks."

In her dissertation, Manby compares the nationality laws of 54 African countries. She shows how these laws can positively or negatively affect the formation of nations and national identity in former colonies after independence. Some people are granted access to citizenship, whereas others are excluded. Manby argues that nationality laws of an exclusionary nature ultimately lead to more conflict. "Those that are more inclusive and generous give rise to greater stability, as well as a higher degree of consensus on who has the right to feel connected to a certain state."


Manby notes that it is hard to know how many people are stateless in Africa, because so many do not have documents even if their nationality is not in doubt. It is often only after multiple failures to obtain documents that a person may realise that their nationality is not recognised—that they are stateless. "Statelessness can result from gender or racial discrimination, or gaps in the law, or simply from the fact that a child’s birth was not registered. The groups at particular risk include the descendants of historical migrants, refugees and former refugees, ethnic groups divided by colonial land borders, orphans and abandoned children. 

Documents are becoming increasingly important in Africa, thanks not only to concerns about national security and migration, but also efforts to improve the effectiveness of service delivery and the fairness of elections. "Without proof of nationality of course you can’t vote or stand for office, but you may also not be able to access public health care or education, or even get a sim card, a bank account or a job in the formal economy." Politicians in some countries have also abused nationality laws to exclude political opponents from running for office – or to deny whole groups the right to vote.


Manby argues that, ultimately, states and politicians should strive to develop clear legislation that allows 'aliens' to become citizens. The right to a nationality ultimately means the right to belong. Individuals should be offered citizenship of the country with which they have the strongest ties; among the rules that ensure this are provisions giving nationality when two successive generations were born in a particular state, or when a child born in a given state still lives there upon reaching adulthood.

According to Manby, in the past five years there has been a real push to strengthen the protections for the right to a nationality in the African human rights system. In July 2015, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a draft protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the right to a nationality. The protocol, which Manby collaborated on, contains a set of detailed principles concerning the recognition of citizenship, the revision of laws and procedures in the interests of nomadic groups, the promotion of gender equality, the prohibition of racial and religious discrimination, and other aspects of nationality law.


It’s a step in the right direction, but Manby warns that there is still a long way to go. The big 'but' is whether the protocol will actually result in changes to national legislation – and this depends on individual countries. She is expecting fierce resistance from some countries. Besides, even if the protocol is adopted, this is no guarantee of progress: "After all, there’s no international police force to enforce it." But Manby remains hopeful. "As the pressure to respect these principles increases, states will gradually start revising their laws."

Should the protocol be ratified, making it a formal treaty, this would lead to a unique situation whereby the right to a nationality and the protection of stateless persons would be better regulated in Africa than anywhere else in the world, including Europe – on paper, at least. "It would be the most progressive document in international law. A global milestone, with Africa leading the way for other regions."


Bronwen Manby (1963) is an independent consultant in the field of human rights, democracy and good governance, focusing on sub-Saharan Africa. She has written on a wide range of human rights issues in Africa, especially South Africa and Nigeria, and on continental developments in human rights law.

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