Unblocking access to citizenship in the global South: Should the process be decentralised?

The trouble with decentralising citizenship in Ethiopia’s ethnic federation

Yonatan T. Fessha (University of the Western Cape, South Africa)

Ethiopia was the first country to adopt a nationality law in Africa in 1930. Since then, ius sanguinis has been the preferred mode of attributing citizenship in that country. The current citizenship law, adopted in 2003, which is based on the 1995 Constitution, has maintained the ius sanguinis framework by providing that ‘any person shall be an Ethiopian national by descent where both or either of his parents is Ethiopian.’ There is no element of ius soli in the law. It also provides for citizenship by naturalisation for foreigners that seek to acquire Ethiopian nationality. The Immigration, Nationality and Vital Events Agency, a federal agency, is given the power and duty to provide and revoke Ethiopian nationality for foreigners in accordance with the law.

Although it is a federal country, Ethiopia has not adopted a decentralised nationality regime. Citizenship, or nationality as Ethiopia’s federal constitution calls it, is unambiguously a federal matter.  According to the Constitution, the federal government ‘shall determine matters relating to nationality’. More specifically, the House of Peoples’ Representatives, the lower house of the federal parliament, has the power to enact specific laws on ‘nationality, immigration, passport, exit from and entry into the country, the rights of refugees and of asylum’. 

Most Ethiopians formally declare their nationality when they complete a form for nationally administered exams, register for elections or request a residential identification card at Kebeles, which are the lowest unit of local government. The most credible document that establishes the nationality of Ethiopians is the passport, which is needed for international travel and issued by the Immigration, Nationality and Vital Events Agency.  Bereft of a national ID system until now, the issuance of passport by the federal agency heavily depends on IDs obtained from the Kebeles, which is perhaps the only way of establishing who is already a citizen. This has made local governments key players in determining citizenship status, opening the room for the kind of decentralised naturalisation that Imke Harbers alludes to in her contribution on Mexico.

The procedures that the Kebeles follow when issuing an identification card is not uniform. Often a form has to be completed. Personal knowledge of the applicant, however, plays an important role. Sometimes the Kebele managers might ask the applicant to produce witnesses that can confirm his or her affiliation with the Kebele. A person that wants to take residence in another Kebele might have to produce supporting testimony from the Kebele he or she has left behind. This emphasises the point that Kebele ID is a confirmation of residence and not of origin.

Based on this, one may argue that adopting Bronwen Manby’s proposal to localise citizenship, including naturalisation procedures, would not be introducing a radical change to the system in Ethiopia. It would merely formalise the existing national system that heavily relies on decisions made by local government authorities.  But this conclusion would underestimate the impacts of the formal devolution of a power on an identity-related matter to ethnically defined subnational units in a country that uses ethnic federalism to manage its divisions.

In an ethnic federation, decentralising citizenship risks reinforcing minority exclusion

Unlike in some federations, where geography or administrative conveniences have been used to structure the federation, ethnicity has been the basis for the reorganisation of the Ethiopian state. The federation is composed of nine states that are largely demarcated along ethnic lines. Five of the nine states are not only predominantly inhabited by one particular ethnic group but they are also designated by the name of the dominant ethnic group inhabiting the territory. The internal organisational structure of the remaining four states includes ethnically-based local governments, named, again, after the numerically dominant ethnic group, which indicates that ethnicity is taken seriously in the political and organisational make-up of the states. The geographical configuration of the federation has the effect of dividing the population of the component units of the federation into owners and guests (also known as settlers). In fact, this is stated explicitly in some of the state constitutions that identify and declare some of the ethnic communities as the owners or founders of the state.

Individuals that do not belong to the locally empowered group often face discrimination with regard to political rights, employment and other benefits offered by the states. Citizenship seems to be de facto differentiated in many ways. Reports of evictions of those that are considered as ‘outsiders’ are disturbingly common. In this context, decentralisation of citizenship could be used as yet another tool to marginalise persons that do not belong to the titular regional or local majority. Subnational authorities could use their power to either deny citizenship to individuals that are regarded as settlers or outsiders or make it difficult to establish their citizenship status. The issuance of citizenship certificates may also become a political instrument that is deployed for partisan purposes. The days leading up to local government elections often see local politicians making a flurry of promises to the so-called settlers in return for votes. If citizenship is decentralised, it is likely that a promise to issue citizenship certificates in return for votes from members of communities that are otherwise known as settlers would be common.

In states where no one particular ethnic group is numerically dominant and ethnic groups compete for the control of the state, the power to establish citizenship can be used as a political ploy to attain numerical advantage. This is particularly the case in states where an ethnic power-sharing arrangement is put in place and population size has a direct impact on ‘who gets what and how’. It is not difficult to imagine local elites using their newly found power to maintain or fabricate local majorities by keeping the door of citizenship wide open to ‘their kin’ while limiting it to others.

The decentralisation of citizenship might also add another dimension to the communal tension that characterises some of the states located at the periphery and bordering neighbouring countries. For example, the state of Gambella, bordering South Sudan, has continuously been embroiled in political violence that pits the Anguak against the Nuer, the two major ethnic communities that inhabit the state. In the battle for the control of the state, it is common to hear Anguak elites labelling the Nuer as foreigners. The political entanglement is complicated by the fact that the Nuer are also located in South Sudan and have been crossing the border to Ethiopia in search of a safe haven. The status of refugees from South Sudan lies at the heart of the ethnic tensions in the state. Some Ethiopians, like some in parts of India, lament about ‘the seemingly massive presence of undesirable “outsiders”’, as explained by Sujata Ramachandran, Anguak politicians often argue that Nuer refugees from South Sudan manage to easily become Ethiopians. Under a decentralised citizenship regime, the Anguak dominated state government will not be keen to see the naturalisation of Nuer refugees from South Sudan. They might even make it difficult for Nuers from Gambella to get citizenship on the ground that they are refugees masquerading as Ethiopians. A Nuer dominated state government, on the other hand, would make it easier for Nuer refuges crossing from South Sudan to obtain citizenship. 

It is clear that decentralisation of the nationality regime would complicate the situation in the peripheral states. In fact, the perception that the Nuer from South Sudan have easy access to citizenship is already contributing to the ongoing tension in the state of Gambella. And Gambella is not the only state inhabited by transborder communities that share ethnic bonds with Ethiopian groups. Ethiopia is a home for ethnic groups straddling national boundaries. Tigrigna speaking peoples live in Eritrea and Ethiopia. People of Afar origin live in Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea.  The same can be said about the communities living along the borders that Ethiopia shares with Sudan, Kenya and Somalia. Gambella is also not the only state that hosts thousands of asylum seekers and refugees with whom some of the communities that inhabit the states share ethnic bonds.   

The central government is taking back some control

It is not also clear that decentralisation of naturalisation would enhance inclusivity. The experience of the Rastafarians who started immigrating to Ethiopia in the 1950s and have been living in limbo since then, suggests the contrary. Despite the fact that many were born in Ethiopia and have established strong ties with the land, the local authorities refused to issue them with identity documents.  That had made life for Rastafarians extremely difficult, as the Kebele IDs are crucial for accessing many social services. Without ID cards, they were not able to own property, get employment, travel outside Ethiopia or send their children to university. Frustrated by the response of local authorities, they appealed to federal authorities. In 2019, the federal government announced its decision to give Rastafarians who have been living in the country for over a decade the status of ‘Foreign National of Ethiopian Origin’ and to provide them with national residence cards. Although this gives Rastafarians most legal rights in the country, the absence of a clear road to citizenship is still a concern to many Rastafarians that regard Ethiopia as their only home.

From the foregoing, one cannot but conclude that decentralisation of citizenship to state and local governments is a potentially risky move. It might further entrench differentiated citizenship. It may also be used as a weapon of ethnic exclusion, making persons that do not belong to the regionally empowering group dependent on the whims and caprices of local authorities. It may serve as an instrument of political patronage. In short, it might contribute to the political entanglements that have gripped the Ethiopian federation. This is not to suggest that the current arrangement is acceptable. It is not transparent. Neither is it predictable. Although there are no statistics, it is clear that the current practice, which is largely arbitrary, has allowed for the naturalization of very few applicants, if any. There is no doubt that the centralised system of citizenship needs to be reformed.

Although its effect on the existing citizenship regime is not clear, the federal government is currently introducing a series of measures that diminish the role of local governments in establishing citizenship, taking back control of its constitutionally recognised power over citizenship. This is motivated by the increasing unreliability of the informally decentralised system of citizenship. As it is the case with many documents that have to be issued by government offices, Kebele IDs, both real and fake, can be purchased in the marketplace. This has become a source of income for local authorities and their intermediaries as well as the professional forgers that have mastered the art of producing fake IDs. The absence of even a semblance of a birth registration system until recently has also effectively crippled the predominantly descent-based citizenship regime and made the works of the agency far more difficult. This has prompted the federal government to recentralise decisions made around citizenship by improving the birth registration system and introducing the national ID system. Birth registration is now compulsory. The government has launched a National ID Pilot Project that aims at harmonising and digitalising identity documents. Although these measures might address some of the problems that arise from the unreliability of the informally decentralised identification system, there is no guarantee that they will improve access to citizenship.  The potential net effect of the implementation of the new identification system is to take away the management of identity documents from the hands of local governments. Obviously, this indicates that Ethiopia is actually moving away from its, albeit informal, decentralised system of citizenship.


Yonatan Tesfaye Fessha and Beza Dessalegn, ‘Internal Migration, ethnic federalism and differentiated citizenship in an African federation’ in Alain-G. Gagnon and Arjun Tremblay (eds) Federalism and National Diversity in the 21st Century (2020) pp.269-288, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, available at https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030384180

Berihun Adugna Gebeye, ‘Citizenship and Human Rights in the Ethiopian Federal Republic’, Ethiopian Constitutional and Public Law Series Vol. 10 (2019) pp.9-44, available at  https://www.academia.edu/43793364/Citizenship_and_Human_Rights_in_the_Ethiopian_Federal_Republic

Yonatan Tesfaye Fessha, ‘The original sin of Ethiopian federalism’ Ethnopolitics Vol.16 No.3 (2017), pp 1-14.  available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17449057.2016.1254410 

Fasil Nahum, ‘Ethiopian Nationality Law and Practice’, Ethiopian Journal of Law, Vol. VIII-No.1 (1972), pp 168-183, available at https://journals.co.za/content/jel/8/1/AJA00220914_321

Zecharias Fassil, ‘Report on citizenship law: Ethiopia’ GlobalCit (April 2020) available at https://cadmus.eui.eu/handle/1814/66827