Under a new proposed amendment to the Sudanese Nationality Act of 1994 the Sudanese government will withdraw Sudanese nationality from South Sudanese living in north Sudan unless they can prove residence since before 1924. That means to avoid statelessness South Sudanese will have to produce witnesses of 94 years old or older. A detailed account of the challenges facing Sudanese people with ties to South Sudan was published in our 7Dnews feature “Caught in Statelessness”.
Since 2011 Sudan has been split into two states, the Republic of Sudan, capital - Khartoum and the Republic of South Sudan, capital - Juba, following a divisive civil war. Now numbers of South Sudanese citizens living in the north risk losing their Sudanese nationality unless they can prove residence. The new bill has been approved by the Sudanese government and passed to parliament for review.
The Ministry of Interior announced in a press conference in March that the law will be amended so people of a South Sudanese father and a Sudanese mother can obtain Sudanese citizenship, enabling them to access health and education and enjoy citizen’s rights. The announcement was celebrated inside and outside Sudan by societies who had been working on statelessness and citizen’s rights. Joy was short-lived when copies of the bill were leaked. Human rights advocates fear that the law amendments will not help break the cycle of statelessness.
Catastrophic amendments, says human rights lawyer
Refaat Mekkawi, a human rights lawyer addressing citizenship and statelessness in Sudan described the proposed amendments as “catastrophic”. He identified two reasons why the amendments will discriminate against a large proportion of the population. First, he says the proposed bill clearly discriminates against children with South Sudanese fathers. While the law does not grant nationality to children of Sudanese women who acquired citizenship by naturalisation, children of non-Sudanese and non-South Sudanese fathers and a Sudanese mother by naturalisation can get Sudanese citizenship. Secondly, it is not clear according to the law who is Sudanese in the first place. He said, “The first law to define who is Sudanese was put in place in 1948 by the British. It stated that everyone who resided in Sudan between 1897 and 1924 was Sudanese. Then another law was put in place in 1957 which stated that everyone born in Sudan by or before 1956 is Sudanese. The nationality act of 1994 sticks to the year of 1956 as the identification date for who is Sudanese.”
Mekkawi says that when developing a new bill to identify who is Sudanese it makes sense to base it on recent residence not to go decades back when many potential witnesses will have died. He said the law usually defines “Sudanese” as people who have been in the country for 33 years. “It is the standard because you need people who have been there for 20-25 years to witness,” he says.
Mekkawi thinks the law is intended to exclude South Sudanese from getting Sudanese nationality. “There are no records of who has been residing in Sudan since 1924”, he says. Average life expectancy in Sudan is about 63 years so witnesses needed to prove residence probably died a long time ago.
The issue of citizenship is even more complicated for border tribes and nomads who would still face statelessness. “At that time the exact borders of Sudan were not formally recognised. In the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, the recognised borders were those set by the British in 1956. Sudan has been claiming the disputed Hala’ib triangle with reference to 1956 borders too”, Mekkawi said. He argued that border tribes and nomads would be left out in this new bill because it is nearly impossible to identify which territories belonged to Sudan in 1924, where those communities resided and when the regions became part of Sudan.
Legislators defend the bill
The head of the Security and Defense committee in Sudan’s National Assembly, Major General Al Hadi Adam Hamed, said his committee is reviewing the bill and will soon present it to parliament for approval. Hamed strongly defended the amendments and described them as flexible and said they will not exclude anyone who is entitled to Sudanese citizenship. “It is true,” he said, “that the amendments require residence in Sudan since 1924 to acquire citizenship but the Minister of Interior is entitled to grant citizenship to whomever he sees fit.” He stressed, “Every person with a Sudanese mother and father will be granted Sudanese citizenship.”
The State Minister in the Ministry of Justice, Tahani Tour Al Deba, said, “The amendments were prepared by the Ministry of Interior and our role in the Ministry of Justice is only to put them into a legal form.” She added, “We have discussed with the Ministry of Interior the residence period required to obtain Sudanese citizenship.” She said they are unaware of the reasons for choosing the year 1924 as the proof for granting Sudanese nationality to South Sudanese residing in the north.
Sources who prefer to remain anonymous pointed to a disagreement between the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior regarding the amendments in the laws of citizenship. The Ministry of Justice is believed to be against the condition of residence in the north before 1924 to acquire Sudanese citizenship. The amendments are expected to impact dozens and put them at the risk of statelessness.
According to Mekkawi the bill has been prepared by politicians not legislators intending to exclude South Sudanese from acquiring citizenship and can easily be reverted in the constitutional court. National human rights commissioners have refrained from comment, saying they are unaware of the proposed bill, which was not shared publicly although a few copies have been circulating among lawyers.