For Africa’s Nomads, Refugees, and Political Exiles, a Champion of Belonging

By fighting for the rights of stateless people on the continent, Chidi Odinkalu of The Fletcher School has offered hope to millions 

When refugees seek asylum, they leave one country for another. But what happens when they don’t have a country that recognizes them in the first place?

That’s the problem that Chidi Odinkalu, a professor of the practice at The Fletcher School, has spent nearly two decades trying to solve. He and his fellow human rights crusaders made a breakthrough with a new treaty to protect citizenship rights and eradicate statelessness, signed by the African Union in February.

Statelessness affects millions of people around the world. They may have their citizenship denied by their native country through war or conflict or they may be caught between arbitrarily drawn lines from former colonial powers and fall into a legal limbo that can make living anywhere incredibly difficult.

Odinkalu, a human rights lawyer who was himself displaced from Nigeria in the 1990s, has devoted his life to the cause of human rights in Africa. He previously chaired Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and has been involved in the Protocol for the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights through its adoption by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). He joined Fletcher in 2021, teaching a new generation of human rights advocates at the same time he has continued his international legal work.

Here, he discusses the significance of statelessness with Tufts Now.

What is statelessness, and why is it important to address?

Chidi Odinkalu: We can sometimes take it for granted that we have countries we come from, and lots of people don’t know how important that is. Whether it’s a blue passport or a red passport, it entitles them to all manner of social services, the right to vote in elections, and consular support overseas.

On a higher level, citizenship offers a sense of belonging, and without that, you can be excluded and rendered expendable—and in certain situations, that can be the difference between life and death. When you are stateless, you really are on your own.

What causes statelessness in Africa?

Statelessness affects between 5 and 7 million people in Africa.

The classic example are nomads, pastoralists, and the descendants of pastoralists, nearly 40% of whom globally come from Africa. Their relationship with the land has basically been determined by the grazing of their herds, and they’ve moved across territories, undocumented and unregistered.

Other cases arise from state succession, where colonial powers break up and people are caught at the intersection of borders, where their status may be unclear—for example when one parent is born in one country and the other is born in another, and both countries decide the child is not from either.

How is the problem exacerbated by war and conflict?

Oftentimes statelessness occurs as a result of stripping of citizen status, forced expulsion, or forced population transfers of minority ethnic groups. For example, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians of Eritrean descent had their Ethiopian nationality canceled, and hundreds of thousands of black Mauritanians were expelled from Senegal, both in the 1990s. In Cote D’Ivoire, 30% of the population was denationalized in the early 2000s.

Other times it occurs from political retribution. I was involved in the case of a major politician from the opposition party in Botswana, who was transferred back and forth between Botswana and South Africa, and finally settled in a “No Man’s Land” between the two countries for seven years. It ruined his life and the lives of his family, and towards the end of his life, he said, you’ve got to fix this.

How has this work been informed by your own experiences?

I am a child of the Nigerian Civil War, during which there were 3 million casualties in 30 months between 1967 and 1972—as many as occurred during the Vietnam War in 20 years. My parents were internally displaced, and in many ways that experience has shaped my outlook on this.

One of the most difficult things you can have is a lack of belonging. There are lots of things money can buy, but belonging is not one of them.

I became exiled to the United Kingdom by the military government in 1993. That was as a consequence of the presidential elections that took place in Nigeria, when I was part of a coalition of groups called the Campaign for Democracy, and we decided to shut the country down.

How were you able to get the treaty passed?

The work started in 2007, when I wrote a draft of the treaty along with my Ph.D. supervisor from the London School of Economics, Chaloka Beyan, who is from Zambia, and our colleague Bronwen Manby. Then it became a question of going through the process for 15 years, gathering support from leaders, including founding president of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda, who himself narrowly escaped being rendered stateless. Kaunda’s parents originally came from Malawi and his family is spread across three countries: Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia.

There was a fair amount of resistance from North Africans, but we ultimately overcame it by having heads of state who could speak to their peers at their level to buy into the vision of the treaty.

What does the treaty accomplish?

First of all, going forward there is a requirement that prohibits statelessness amongst children, so that every child born on the territory of any African country must be registered when they are born. There are also provisions with reference to the determination of nationality for nomadic populations, and dispute resolution mechanisms in reference to the state succession in the aftermath of colonialism or other instances of preclusion.

What are you most pleased with in this process?

While the statelessness treaty is a source of tremendous satisfaction, unquestionably, the things I am proudest of come down to shaping other people. I worked with two people who joined my team as receptionists and are now lawyers. What I tell my students is that we have got to sell credible hope to people—not just hope, but hope that is credible. It’s got to be necessary to infuse in everyone a sense that there is something to live for. Whether you are looking at Gaza or Sudan or the Gulf of Aden or the South China Sea, there are a lot of people looking at the world and thinking things are not possible—but the fact that we’ve produced this treaty in 2024 shows that lots of things still are. That really is the point of the statelessness treaty.

Back to Top