Politics

Doubts Linger as Kenya Promises to Give Makonde Group Long-Awaited Citizenship

 

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Alois Safisha Mkwemba displays a placard urging the Kenyan government to grant citizenship to members of the Makonde community. The Makonde people in Kenya have been stateless for generations. Lilian Kaivilu, GPJ Kenya
Kenya

Only 3 percent among thousands in the Makonde community, members of which began arriving in Kenya from Mozambique in the 1920s, possess crucial identity cards, and some have waited for decades to receive them. Kenya’s president has directed that by December all Makonde will get the cards, which are required to open a bank account or buy a home, among other basic activities.

NAIROBI, KENYA — Alois Safisha Mkwemba rests under a tree in this capital city as he holds a placard that states, in Kiswahili, “Patia Makonde Vitambulisho” ─ in English, “Issue Identity Cards for the Makonde.”

Mkwemba, a 65-year-old grandfather, is one of about 300 people who walked for four days from from Kenya’s Kwale County to petition the government to recognize members of the Makonde community as citizens. The caravan was accompanied by human rights activists and members of other groups seeking recognition.

“My father came from Mozambique and settled in Vipingo area since 1945,” Mkwemba says, referring to a region on Kenya’s coastline. “I was born there in Vipingo in 1951. Every time I want to obtain an identification card, I am told that I am not a Kenyan.”

Mkwemba’s predicament could end this year, if the government honors a promise President Uhuru Kenyatta made in October after meeting with Makonde community leaders. Kenyatta apologized for the fact that the group had been stateless for so long, and directed the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government to issue identity cards to members of the Makonde community by December.

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Members of the Makonde community, along with human rights activists, marched in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, to protest their stateless condition.

Lilian Kaivilu, GPJ Kenya

But many Makonde are skeptical.

Recognition is something that, in theory, should have bee granted long ago. According to Kenya’s Constitution, a person who has lawfully resided in the country for at least seven years can apply to register as a citizen.

But only 3 percent of the people in the Makonde community have Kenyan identity cards, and 23 percent have waiting cards for their identification documents.

When asked why so many Makonde did not have identity cards, retired Maj. Gen. Gordon Kihalangwa, the director of immigration, told GPJ that his department is working to implement the president’s directive to register members of the Makonde community as Kenyans. But he did not explain why some Makonde members are still waiting, after decades, to receive identity documents.

An identity card is required for many basic activities in Kenya, including opening a bank account. Police officers can demand to see identity documents to determine whether someone is in the country legally. Buying a home or other property is out of the question without a card. Even higher education is dependent on one’s identity card.

Patricia Nyaundi of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights says the Makonde have been repeatedly let down by the Kenyan government.

“The Makonde people have been subjected to statelessness even after the constitution clearly indicates the right procedures for citizenship by registration,” she says.

It’s not even clear how many Makonde are in Kenya, Nyaundi says, because they’re not registered anywhere.

A February 2015 study, carried out by UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, the Kenya human rights commission and other organizations, found that there are just over 3,000 members of the Makonde community, about 1,500 of whom are children. Only 2 percent of the community is formally employed.

The Makonde people have been subjected to statelessness even after the constitution clearly indicates the right procedures for citizenship by registration.

Some members of Mozambique’s Makonde community began arriving in Kenya in the 1920s, in search of work. At the time, many borders were porous. Now, most of the community lives along Kenya’s coastline. Even those who have married Kenyans struggle to access basic services.

Hemed Mwafujo, 45, is a Kenyan citizen married to a Makonde woman.

“My wife cannot even travel, because once the bus is stopped by the traffic police officers, she has no identification and she may consequently end up in trouble with the officers,” he says.

Some Makonde who came to Nairobi to join the protest say they wouldn’t have otherwise traveled. Vuai Haji Vukasha, 45, says he’s in the capital city for the first time.

“We cannot access government services such as health care,” he says.

Whenever a Makonde person asks for an identity card, Vukasha says, registration officials say that the cards are in progress.

Oscar Andrea, 62, married a Kenyan woman in 1978, but she died in 1992, so none of the couple’s children have been able to get identity cards.

He says he remembers a time about five years ago when the government called upon the Makonde community to register to receive identity documents.

But, he says, “it was just a lie, because we never got any feedback since then.”

 

Lilian Odhiambo, GPJ, translated some interivews from Kiswahili.