Revisiting some important questions about citizenship

On November 4, 1985, at Diamond Jubilee Hall, Mwalimu Nyerere addressed Tanzanians for the last time as President of the United Republic. He had been at the helm for 24 years, first as President of Tanganyika and 18 months later, the President of the United Republic of Tanzania. One would expect that in his final address he would only touch upon what he considered most important. Those matters that he would wish to be remembered most – his legacy.

In a simple eight-page address, President Nyerere covered eight topics that truly sum up his term in office as Tanzania’s first President. Nyerere touched upon Nation Building, Constitutional supremacy and respect to rule of law, peace and security, the economy, international relations, citizenship and Pan-Africanism, liberation struggles, and National cohesion in terms of tribalism and religionism. A concise summary of what was and still remains critical to the wellbeing of our country. Nyerere’s final speech should be required reading for all students in Secondary Schools in Tanzania and the East African Community.

What I will touch upon today is the matter of citizenship and how it has become in today’s Tanzania a weapon to silence dissent and freedom of expression. I do not wish to revisit history and paint our founding president in a different light, he was an authoritarian who sometimes came hard on dissenting views, but his views were based on principle, logic and an intellectualism that allowed debates which ultimately attained consensus. Where he acted harshly or unfairly, he would reflect and retract openly.

“Nationalism without Pan-Africanism is anachronistic….” JK Nyerere

Nyerere stated that one of his critical contribution to international peace and justice lay in a clear understanding of Africa’s colonial history and its implication to newly formed nation states. He states:

“We in Tanzania have always understood that the nation states that Africa inherited from the colonialists cut across a natural geographical and cultural unity among our continents many peoples. We therefore understood cooperation cannot be confined within our own national boundaries, and that total African Liberation and Unity is important for all Africa’s peoples – including ourselves. Because of this understanding we have given hospitality to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from war or persecution elsewhere in our continent. ….some of the refugees have now become Tanzanian citizens, equal with all others, and others have settled among us and are contributing to our production and development while time and events determine their future. But in all cases we have lived up to our African traditions, and served the cause of future peace and justice in our continent”

This is the spirit of Tanzania’s Nyerere. We welcomed our neighbours in need at great material cost to ourselves and for those that chose to become Tanzanians and do so, they become equal with all others. This was the treatment provided to acknowledged outsiders.

In today’s Tanzania, we cast doubt on citizenships and nationalities of everyone based on political views, outspokenness, racial lines, even geographical location of origin. The perception of many right-thinking Tanzanians is that it is an expedient tool used to serve a particular purpose. Citizenship should be sacrosanct and a right. Not something to be trifled with at the whim of technocrats.

Proof of citizenship

There are three types of citizenship in Tanzania. Citizenship by birth, descent and registration or naturalisation. The third category is not contentious as it is recordable and there is a Certificate of Citizenship provided to a qualifying person. Citizenship by birth and descent is where the real challenge is and could be subject to abuse.

The vast majority of the adult population of Tanzania have no birth certificates. Most persons born outside urban centres before the 1990s do not have birth certificates and hence difficult to prove they were born in Tanzania or one of their parents were born in Tanzania as the Citizenship Act stipulates. Further every citizen born in any border region in the country can have their citizenship or nationality questioned, all northern regions, western regions and southern regions. Our borders are porous, communities mingle, marry and settle easily across boarders.

The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania are but a single community. Wahangaza or Waha of western Tanzania are no different to Rwandans and Burundians. Makuas and Makondes of southern Tanzania are no different to those from northern Mozambique. May be only the Wagogos from central part of the country in Dodoma maybe immune to this doubt. That said, our system of administration is very well organized at rural level. There is always a way of finding out a certain family and their roots. It however depends on the presence of good faith. If the desired outcome is to find that one is not a citizen, it is very easy to do so due to the absence of formal documentation.

What is required is the understanding and spirit of Mwalimu on matters related to citizenship and all rights pertaining to citizenship. The burden of proof should be with the Immigration authorities to prove that any individual is not a citizen and if there is a clear absence of such proof, an individual should be declared a citizen. This reversal of current legislation is necessary to minimize abuse and harassment that are widespread and build public confidence that such cases are not politically motivated.


Abdullah Mwinyi is an experienced corporate lawyer. He was also a member of the East African Legislative Assembly for ten years