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July 23, 2009
Ethnic Nubians live on the margins in Kenya

About 100,000 Nubians live in Kenya. Brought by British colonialists to the area as soldiers from different parts of Sudan, the Nubian community in Kenya now has a shared ethnic identity. While the group retains no ties to Sudan, Kenya has historically refused to recognize this ethnic minority.

Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera, is largely populated by Nubians. Photo: Flickr user MothersFightingForOthers

Nubians in Kenya are one of the groups that Worldfocus is exploring on our extended coverage project Stateless to Statehood.

Adam Hussein Adam, project coordinator of the Open Society Initiative for East Africa, writes how his community’s plight is largely unknown outside of Kenya.

Kenyan Nubians have been defined as stateless people because their identity is questioned. They are without doubt one of the country’s most invisible and under-represented communities – economically, socially, politically and culturally. This is because they have been silent victims of discrimination, exclusion and violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms for as long as they have been in Kenya…

My great-grandfather worked in the service of the British in Somalia around the First World War and later resettled in Meru, a small town on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. His father before him worked for the Turko-Egyptian army in the Sudan. I, like my parents, was born in western Kenya.

Although I am well-educated, I have experienced serious difficulties in interacting with government officials. Between 1992 and 2000, I applied unsuccessfully for a passport five times, losing jobs in the process. One manager once asked me why I did not have a recognisable ethnic identity and that this was why I could not be promoted. Apart from studying to university level, which is an exception rather than the rule, mine may as well be the story of most Nubians. It is a story characterized by the need to survive through challenges that are never explained to you. It is a story characterised by limited interactions with state officials who always remind you it is your privilege to be served by them. It is a story characterised by assuming false identities in order to belong…

Before I encountered these challenges in my own life and found out that many of my Nubian colleagues gave up hope of productive careers because of delayed or denied identity cards, I had accused most of them of being lazy. Today I understand that Kenyan Nubians, whether citizens or not, do not belong.

The Kenyan government uses both ethnicity and territory to establish belonging. Since both Nubian ethnicity and their territory of occupancy are contested by the government, most Nubians live as de facto stateless persons without adequate protection under national and international law, irrespective of the fact that they should be considered Kenyan citizens under the Constitution. In Kenya nothing defines your citizenship more than your ethnicity. Nubians face institutionalised discrimination in issuance of documents. They are subjected to a vetting process of ethnic determination in order to acquire an identity card or passports.

Kenya today does not have official figures of Nubians and does not include them in census reports. There is no official recognition of the community; the Kenyan government had classified the community as ‘other Kenyans’ or just ‘others’ and has only recently started a process of recording Nubians as a named clan of other Kenyans.

Above all, Nubians live in temporary structures throughout Kenya and often on contested lands. Most Nubians’ settlements do not have title deeds and are only occupied on a Temporary Occupational Licence (TOL), leaving the present generation of Nubians as mere squatters.

Stateless individuals and communities like the Nubians are assumed to be hopeless and helpless victims, dependent upon the goodwill of others. Under the assumption that citizenship is the only vehicle for having a civic and political voice and that therefore stateless people lack any political identity, stateless people become less than fully human and are reduced to mere targets of humanitarian assistance. All energies are thus focused on how to acquire citizenship for stateless people as fast and as easily as possible.

What are the Nubians’ issues?

Obstacles to citizenship are also faced by other minority groups in Kenya such as Kenyan Somalis and Coastal Arabs although the Nubians have experienced some progress. The real progress in Nubian experience is in their adaptation and mastery of living in Kenya without belonging…

In 2003 the then Chairperson of the Kenyan Nubians’ Council, the late Yunis Ali, encouraged a procession of Nubians marching to Kenya’s High Court thus:

“My people! For a century, we have sought a compassionate hearing from all authorities in Kenya but we got none. Today, we march to the Kenyan High Court for justice – if not to get it, then as testimony that we stood up for our rights.”

In the end, the challenge of standing up to statelessness – or any human rights abuse – is that as a victim you see it through the emotional lenses of feelings and experience; others will then judge you as subjective. When you stand apart and subject the issue to objective criteria, legal definitions limit one’s expression; most of the legal terms are not expressive enough for local realities. For Kenyan Nubians the lack of a link to the state, lack of integration and lack of social acceptance have been part of our existence. We are neither Sudanese nor accepted as Kenyans.

As a statelessness advocate, I believe that legal links are important for anyone belonging in contemporary society; however, without addressing the social acceptability of any community of a people, groups like the Nubians will continue to live from one crisis to another.

The original article was published in Forced Migration Review, 2009. No. 32.

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I thank my fellow brethren mr Adam for the well intended scrutinized outcry of the nubian minors. Kenya since time immemorial through egoistic hegemony has subjected the nubians to a position of handicappcy.Despite all these odds all is not lost since majority of this minors are coming to there senses to demand for there legal rights.Most ethnic groups of kenya migrated to their current country of existence almost in the same manner,so i dont see why this vast discrimination should come about.for me what the government should do, is to address these grievances without favour but consent should be the order of the day.Nevertheless, the minors should pursue there challenges perceiving them as future opportunities and fight for social, economic and political superiority despite being thwarted along the way!because unity determination and execution of our intended hopeful goals will pay some day.


Dear Adam
Thank you for your note. I reviewed the situation of the Nubians during the last constitution review process. I tried in the CKRC and Bomas to ensure that Nubians would get citizenship. If Bomas draft had been adopted, the constitution would have given them this right. Please send your note to the Committee of Experts.

Yash Ghai


I wish to comment on your article by firstly congratulating you for it. People refuse to face the fact that unofficially even as we say we count ethnic groups in our censuses ( in the past but the coming one is questioned) Kenya is tribal and racist. This is a fact. All through our independence years, we have not wanted to know our minorities, even the ones accepted so that we can help them be culturally, politically and economically integrated. No. We want to know them so as to discriminate them. What a shame that the Ogiek had to keep on speaking as Ogiek and coming to Nairobi with all their problems to be recognised and still they are not. What about their Njemps and how their ancestral lands near Lake Bogoria was usurped by politicians and they even lost their graves and are totally a disrupted people. How then can we expect peace? Now, the question of the Nubians is amazing… it is just so wrong. But I congratulate them for being able to live on and not be intimidated through non- recognition and for standing up to statelessness. I have a longer article that shows how in our police stations we use an archaic form to describe ourselves first by tribe and how the NFD now North Eastern Province was always discriminated against. Yesterday, I listened in disbelief when Rukia Subow told us that the Northern province, called the Northern Frontier District (NFD) had its citizens recognized so late. And still they suffer serious discrimination on identification grounds. Kenya must learn to embrace herself as a nation. This cannot be done without the struggle for the Nubians.

Philo Ikonya
Writer and Human Rights Activist
PEN Kenya Chapter,

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