Kenyans from the Nubian community continue to live on the margins of society, blocked from acquiring national identity cards and other vital documents necessary to work officially, go to school and even vote.
“Our community does not put money in commercial banks because of a lack of identification cards. Personally, I don’t even have a bank account,” 23 year-old footballer Ashiff Obwaka explains, adding that he does not have a birth certificate or an identification card.
If he or a family member gets sick, they organise fundraisers to pay hospital bills, because they cannot access Kenya’s national health insurance.
He is a member of Kenya’s 100,000-strong Nubian community, whose ancestors were forcibly brought from Sudan in 1900 by the British army to help them secure Kenya.
Locals say the Nubians have been perceived as siding with the British since Kenya’s independence in 1963, which has kept them perpetually sidelined by the government.
Obwaka, plays for Shaban FC, and previously with the Nubian Kings, applied for an ID card two years ago so he could vote.
“Our community would like to vote, but we don’t have voters’ cards,” he told RFI’s Africa Calling podcast.
Long path to documentation
In the late 1970s some Nubians were able to receive ID cards and birth certificates, but the situation gradually changed as the population increased.
Today, every Nubian application for an ID card is vetted by a local grassroots committee before it is officially sent to the capital Nairobi.
Ismail Ali Babala, a Nubian elder and a government appointee in his village says that his is the only community required to be vetted to access documents.
And the process is long and difficult.
“It’s in Nairobi where there’s a delay,” says Babala. “Applicants are always told to wait, sometimes we get told some information doesn’t match.”
He takes out a list of 21 teenagers who applied in November 2020.
“Only one applicant on that list has his ID, and he is a Muslim from the Kisii community,” Babala says.
Hussein Obagah regularly visits the offices of the Nubian Rights Forum in the Kibera slums, south of Nairobi, for help and updates on the status of his card.
Vetted and given a waiting card when he applied in 2017, Obagah, a father of two, says he cannot get a job, even if there are many to be had.
“I would like to tell the government that we’re Nubians and we’re also Kenyans,” he says.
Abdul Said Shaban, a music student at Kenya’s Daystar University, says a lack of ID blocks students trying to obtain higher degrees.
His parents struggle to pay his campus fees, and yet he cannot apply for a government loan.
“I applied for my national identification card in November 2020,” he says.
The university accepted him based on his parents’ identification cards and birth certificates, but they cannot be used for a student loan.
Historical land rights
The Nubians’ problems date back before independence, when the British tried to pacify tribes as they looked to develop the country.
“During the colonial times there were reserves for every tribe, which de-tribalised communities,” says historian Jamaldin Yahya.
The Nubians were the biggest community, and though they were given land in the 1950s, nothing was formalised.
“The Nubians pressured the British government, asking, ‘Why don’t you give us documents to prove this is our land?'” says Yahya.
As a result, Nubians today are a bit like stateless people, says Hawa Ali, a paralegal officer and activist in Kisii, in the Nyanza region.
“It’s time government sat down to understand that Nubians are Kenyans,” she says.
“They are unique people who need to be acknowledged and be given their basic rights, not discriminated against and sidelined.”
The marginalisation of the Nubian community is a human rights violation and the government is turning a blind eye, says Shaffy Ali Hussein, executive director at Nubian Rights Forum.
“I have drafted a petition to parliament on this issue of inclusion, but the clerk of the National Assembly sent a reply telling me to take the matter to court,” he says.
MP Imran Okoth did take up the issue, and parliament issued a report which was sent to the Secretary for the Interior, Fred Matiangi, who has 90 days to put procedures into place to give Nubians status, and possibly voting rights for the upcoming national election on 9 August.