Constitutional Review Proposes Radical Changes to Citizenship Law

Tanzania is just starting a major debate on a new constitution for the country, to replace the version adopted in 1977. Among the many reforms proposed to existing laws, the draft proposed by the Constitutional Review Commission will make radical changes to the framework of citizenship law established by the 1995 Citizenship Act.

Some of these changes are clearly positive, especially the removal of gender discrimination in the law, allowing a woman to transmit her nationality to her husband, thus bringing Tanzania into line both with African human rights standards and the strong trend across the continent. Others are more controversial, such as the proposed ending of a ban on dual nationality; which, however, would also be very much in line with continental trends in the past two decades. However, perhaps the most important shift has been least commented upon, which is the removal of the automatic right to citizenship that currently exists for (almost) all those born on Tanzanian soil. In this, Tanzania would also be following a continental trend for Commonwealth countries; but it would be advised to look rather to the precedents established in the former French territories or in some of its southern neighbours for long-term stability.

At independence in 1961, Tanzania’s citizenship law followed the same pattern as that of other Commonwealth countries. As a transitional provision for those already alive at the date of independence, the constitution granted citizenship automatically to all those who had been born in the country with one parent also born in Tanzania. People who had been born in the country and were ordinarily resident there, but did not have a parent also born there, had the right to register as nationals, a non-discretionary process; other long-term residents had the right to naturalise providing they fulfilled other conditions related to good conduct etc. The independence constitution also provided, again in line with the common provisions across the Commonwealth, that those born in Tanzania after the date of independence would obtain Tanzanian nationality based solely on the fact of their birth in the country (with some standard exceptions).

Almost all other Commonwealth countries in Africa that had these same provisions have already changed that system (with the sole other remaining exception of Lesotho), removing the right to nationality based simply on birth in the territory (in East Africa, Uganda did this in 1967, and Kenya in 1985, with retroactive effect). While there are variations, none of the other Commonwealth countries that were bequeathed these provisions has provided any residual rights at all based on birth in the territory, though children of unknown parents may be presumed to be citizens.

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