Thursday, 16 June 2011

To “do an Obama”

When digging up some extra teaching resources for a statelessness workshop in South Africa last week, my attention was drawn by a recent article in Zimbabwean newspaper The Standard, entitled “Zim birth threatens Banda’s second-term bid”. The piece was about accusations raised by political opponents, that Zambia’s current President, Rupiah Banda, is not in fact eligible for the presidency under the country’s own laws. For the Zambia’s top job, the Constitution requires not only that the presidential candidate is a citizen, but that both of his or her parents are also Zambian nationals. Banda’s opponents are now claiming that he is of Malawian parentage and the fact that he was born in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) has further fuelled allegations about his non-eligibility for the presidential office.

This case is compelling for a number of reasons, not least because it isn’t the first time that the citizenship and heritage of a Zambian president has been questioned. Indeed, in one of the most remarkable statelessness-related cases that I have come across, the Zambian High Court ruled that Kenneth Kaunda, described by the New York Times as the ‘father of modern Zambia’, was stateless. Although not in power at the time, Kaunda had previously ruled the country as president for 27 years. And it was when Kaunda announced plans to run against the governing party and re-claim the presidency, that his political opponents challenged his citizenship in court. Should the court agree that he is not a national of Zambia, then Kaunda would automatically be barred from making good on his ambitions to return to office. After noting that Kaunda had renounced his Malawian nationality years before, the High Court ruled that he was also not a citizen under Zambian law, thereby declaring him stateless. (The following year, however, the Supreme Court overruled this judgment and Kaunda’s Zambian citizenship was recognised)

These Zambian cases are a perfect illustration of the politicisation of nationality. Although not always featuring such prominent individuals, the questioning and even manipulation of citizenship for political ends is not uncommon. Nor is it a tactic monopolised by countries that have recently embraced multiparty democracy, which brings me to the title of this post. In the Zimbabwean newspaper article that I referred to earlier and which inspired this piece, Rupiah Banda was reportedly being urged by his opponents to literally “do an Obama”, i.e. to substantiate his citizenship and eligibility the Presidency by responding to claims about his origins and ancestry. Earlier this year, the White House released President Barack Obama’s official birth certificate in order to refute, once and for all, the allegation that he was not born on US soil. Conspiracy theorists and political opponents had been pushing the rumour that Obama was born in Indonesia or Kenya (and was thereby unqualified for office), causing it to persistently resurface in the press since the time of the Presidential campaign. Having decided that these rumours were becoming an unhealthy distraction from important political debate, Obama released his original birth certificate which establishes his birthplace as Hawaii.

As organisations like UNICEF and Plan International continue to point out and Obama has now very publicly illustrated, birth registration is of critical importance to the protection of a person’s rights, throughout their lifetime. A birth certificate provides evidence of key facts about an individual, which can be used to verify identity, nationality and even eligibility to hold Presidential office. Worldwide, the births of some 50 million children go unregistered each year. Unless this is addressed, these children will not be able to “do an Obama” and produce a birth certificate when asked to do so in later life – for instance in order to obtain an ID card or passport, or to sit school exams. Yes, high profile cases like Rupiah Banda’s and Barack Obama’s are fascinating to follow, steeped as they are in political intrigue and conspiracy. But let’s hope that the underlying message is also received loud and clear: whatever your (political) ambitions in life, birth registration is key to giving you a fair start and can continue to play a part in protecting a your identity and rights throughout your lifetime.

Find out more about the link between birth registration and statelessness in this UNHCR policy note. To follow developments in the push for Universal Birth Registration, supported by UNICEF and Plan International, visit their websites. In the Netherlands, Plan has also set up a special campaign, Babies For Babies, through which you can directly support birth registration efforts.

Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme

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