Author:Hale, Aaron


Statelessness is an issue and a concept that is not widely discussed in African politics, although related concepts such as state failure, collapse, and forced displacement are often associated with African states. Nevertheless, international organizations are increasingly interested in understanding and applying this concept to African countries, particularly given the occurrence of state failure and the predominance of weak states on the continent. In a world where civil war, natural disasters, and interstate wars have contributed to population displacement and led to increased concern and attention for people designated as "stateless," it is important to understand whether this concept is applicable and what interventions are best suited to help these populations. The purpose of this article is to provide some insights into these questions.

The concept of statelessness was constructed at a time when the idea of what constituted a state or a citizen was understood from a top-down, Webe-rian perspective. This article looks at these issues from a more intersubjective perspective on the African continent, where politics are shaped not only by formal state institutions and rules that are rooted in Weberian understandings but also by informal local social norms and politics that are much more fluid and dynamic. Weberian understandings of concepts such as citizenship are important and are codified into international law and international legal instruments, but these rules and norms contend with more fluid variables such as identity and social perceptions that shape the daily socioeconomic affairs and interactions of individuals and communities in a country such as Sierra Leone. Social dynamics are less fixed there and social, political, and economic realities crisscross and interpenetrate each other to shape how politics is practiced and what actually happens on a daily basis. (1)


This study examines the issue of statelessness in the context of postconflict, and now post-Ebola, Sierra Leone. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that up to ten million people around the world are stateless and the organization has urged countries to take steps to address this problem. (2)

Sierra Leone has undertaken a series of initiatives to address statelessness and in fact in 2017 was commended by Filipino Grandi, the high commissioner for refugees, during the UNHCR's 68th plenary session in Geneva for its commitment to the issue. (3) He did this for three reasons. First, Sierra Leone has recently adopted the 1954 and 1961 conventions on statelessness. (4) Currently, there are eighty-nine states parties to the 1954 convention and sixty-seven states parties to the 1961 convention, only a few of which are in Africa.

Second, in 2016, Sierra Leone concluded a constitutional review process that sought to address some of the shortcomings of its 1991 constitution and juridical system to better harmonize domestic practices with international law and with the state's responsibilities and obligations. The Constitutional Review Committee made several recommendations that touched on the issue of statelessness and citizenship, which included adding a chapter to the constitution dedicated to citizenship, removing all references to race and gender in the part of the constitution devoted to acquisition of citizenship, and adding language that would give stateless children under the age of five found in Sierra Leone citizenship status. (5) Although it is unclear whether these recommendations will be accepted, they are quite sweeping.

Third, Sierra Leone recently concluded a National Civil Registration process in June 2017 that was geared toward ensuring that all citizens in Sierra Leone, including foreign nationals, were included. While full data has yet to be released and identity cards have not yet been issued, it is hoped that the registration exercise will help address the problem of statelessness in Sierra Leone. (6)

In principle, it would appear that statelessness is an issue of concern in Sierra Leone and that the nation should be commended for steps it has taken to address it. Concerns about the acquisition of citizenship, including criteria for eligibility, are not new in Sierra Leone and date back to the early days of independence. As the law is currently written, there are three ways to become a legal Sierra Leone citizen. One is by birthright: being born within the national territory (jus soli). The second is through descent from grandparents, a father, or a mother (jus sanguinis), regardless of a child's place of birth. The third is through a costly and time-consuming naturalization process, (7) and there are provisions in the law that regulates this process that can contribute to statelessness. In practice however, political insecurity, weak national institutions throughout the region, the absence of real economic upward mobility or opportunities, and fluid social identities all combine to call into question the value of the concept of statelessness and stateless individuals in the context of postconfiict Sierra Leone, despite international concerns about the issue.


We conducted field research throughout five districts in Sierra Leone in November and December 2013. (8) We collected data using participant observation, a literature review of relevant academic and practitioner work, semi-structured and in-depth interviews, and several site visits throughout Sierra Leone.

A review of the current literature on statelessness reveals that the topic is largely underexamined in the African context. (9) Much of the literature that exists is practitioner-based and is focused quite heavily on central and eastern European countries, particularly those that were former Soviet republics. (10)

We conducted interviews with employees of national ministries and government agencies in Freetown. These include the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Ministry of Social Welfare. We also interviewed public servants in government agencies working on disparate issues of concern. These agencies include the National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA), (11) the Department of Immigration Services, the National Registration Secretariat, (12) the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone, (13) and the National Electoral Commission. (14)

In addition to visiting public sector institutions, we visited key United Nations agencies, including UNHCR, (15) the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, UNICEF, (16) and UNDP, (17) which generated a wealth of information on various issues related to statelessness, including access to land and formal education and the presence of social discrimination. We also interviewed staff members of both local and international NGOs that work on statelessness. These included the Campaign for Good Governance, Conscience International, the International Rescue Committee, the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, and Plan International.

Site visits and participant observation took place in select areas and towns: the disputed Yenga territory, (18) Kailahun town and its environs, (19) Zimmi, (20) Pujehun town, (21) and Bo. (22) Several of these sites are border towns and fluid cross-border migration provided rich environments for data collection. At these sites, we interviewed key informants and community residents using an open-ended format to discuss their personal histories, their current legal status, and their goals as they continue to reside in Sierra Leone. These interviews helped contextualize the issues surrounding statelessness in Sierra Leone.

Map 1 identifies the number of African states that were signatories to the two international conventions on statelessness at the time we conducted our research.


Statelessness as a concept is rooted in Weberian understandings of what constitutes a nation-state, the rule of law, and political order. These understandings lead to the concept of nationality, which refers to the condition of a legal bond that exists between a state and an individual or the condition of legal citizenship that a state has conferred on an individual. (23) International law is constructed on these basic norms and understandings. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Sierra Leone is a signatory, states that "everyone has the right to a nationality" and that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality." (24) These concepts, however, limit who constitutes a national and what or how a national can be defined. What emerges from the convention is a very narrow understanding of what constitutes a national; one is either a national of a territory or is not.

Statelessness can be further divided into de jure stateless and de facto stateless. De jure statelessness refers to the legal and formal aspects of citizenship and rights that can be granted to or revoked from an individual. For example, if a child does not possess a birth certificate from their country of residence, he or she may be denied access to public education. In addition, an adult can be denied access to a passport or the right to vote if he or she does not possess a birth certificate or is not a recognized citizen. (25) De facto statelessness refers to the more practical or daily aspects of being a stateless individual with no legal protections or rights.

The literature on statelessness further makes clear that stateless individuals are more likely to be ethnic minorities, children, or women who have been displaced. If our understanding of statelessness and what constitutes a stateless individual is solely based on the United Nations' definition, internally displaced peoples and refugees are highly susceptible to statelessness or to becoming stateless in...

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