By Fred Odianosen Itua
Dr. Solomon Oseghale Momoh is a Nigerian lawyer and protection associate with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency in Nigeria. He recently completed a PhD research at Utrecht University’s Centre for Regulation and Enforcement in Europe (RENFORCE) where he sought to identify and address the gaps in law and policy in Nigeria on nationality and statelessness.
His particular focus was law and policy reforms to ensure safeguard for people exposed to the risk of statelessness in the country, the need for the domestication of the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and more, importantly, the need for Nigeria to develop a statelessness determination procedure.
Using the human rights approach, he examined different state practices with regard to statelessness protection, identification, prevention and reduction norms. He made recommendations based on international standards, including regional considerations for the same.
Statelessness often has a severe and lifelong impact on those it affects. Men, women and children are or become stateless often with no fault of their own. UNHCR, therefore, runs a global campaign, #IBelong, to end the scourge of statelessness around the world.
The study appraised the right to nationality under the Nigerian Constitution and other Nigerian instruments relevant for protection, identification, prevention and reduction of statelessness, comparing them with what is obtainable in other jurisdictions in Africa, Europe and the Americas, especially states with Statelessness Determination Procedures (SDPs).
Statelessness cases in Nigeria are handled within the existing asylum system, which is tailored only for asylum claims. The absence of an SDP or nationality verification mechanism in Nigeria makes it difficult for the stateless persons to present a claim before the authorities to be recognised as stateless, especially because only the asylum procedure is in place in Nigeria.
For a stateless person with an asylum claim in Nigeria, the government’s refugee commission assesses such individual and analyses the application under its Refugee Status Determination (RSD) procedures and grants such individual refugee status.
The implication of relying on RSD procedures for statelessness claims is, for an applicant who does not have an asylum claim in addition to statelessness claim, the grounds set out in the 1951 Convention or the Organisation of African Unity Refugee Convention will not avail any protection, even if the applicant is stateless, meaning his/her application will be rejected.
To achieve the objective of the study and to guide discussions and proposal for a statelessness determination procedure for Nigeria, including for any other state in the process of developing a procedure, standards and criteria for possible evaluation of a good SDP were formulated.
Specifically, to propose a bespoke SDP for Nigeria, the study needed to highlight international standards and best practices on SDP from different states with fairly good practice using the above-mentioned standards and criteria.
The selected states include Brazil, France, Ivory Coast, Moldova, Paraguay and the United Kingdom, all well known to have a SDPs, including the Netherlands for its alternative procedure, which will be very useful for Nigeria in the meantime. The practice in these states with the so-called good practice were tested against the standards and criteria mentioned above.
The gaps in the states were identified and recommendations were made on what to avoid for states like Nigeria yet to develop an SDP. Using the theory of legal transplantation, the study identified how legal, administrative and institution norms for protection, prevention and identification of statelessness can be transplanted or adapted by existing institutions in the country, bearing in mind the areas of commonalities, difference in legal cultures, and factors that could support or militate against smooth transplant.
The study discussed the risks and issues around statelessness in Nigeria and the impending challenges when the various government identity initiatives kick off. It suggested that the government begins the process of domesticating the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and, more importantly, adopt a statelessness determination procedure endorsed in law to avoid the challenges associated with statelessness.
It noted that it may sound like adopting a procedure would allow many more people access to compete for the meagre economic resources in the country. However, the study revealed that, in the long term, the exclusion of persons from citizenship is neither in the interest of the society and nor the state.
The gaps in law and policy, and the ambiguity of terminologies used in the 1999 Constitution, together with the absence of a statelessness determination procedure, were observed to expose many to the risk of statelessness in Nigeria.
The study also recommended the amendment of the Constitution and/or adoption of a citizenship legislation to provide clarity to the ambiguous terminologies used in the citizenship chapter of the Constitution and on modalities to acquire Nigerian citizenship.
Moreover, it recommended the designation of a government body to be charged with the responsibility of protection, identification, prevention of statelessness, including dissemination of data on statelessness.
In furtherance of the proposed law reforms, the study proposed a bespoke SDP for Nigeria, using international law standards that should guide policymakers in developing an SDP for Nigeria, as well as approach of legal transplantation of good state practice. As to legal transplants, the study identified some specific good state practice examples, and explained how these could be implemented and adapted by existing institutions in the country.
Momoh’s research supervisors at Utrecht University, Prof. Cedric Ryngaert and Dr. Hanneke van Eijken, noted that he had approached them with the request to supervise his PhD project on statelessness and that they chose to do so because of their combined expertise of international law and citizenship. On their impression of Solomon, Prof. Ryngaert stated that Momoh “knows very well the practical challenges facing stateless persons, especially in Nigeria. At the same time, in his research he was able to reach an academic level by applying theoretical concepts.”
•Itua is a senior political correspondent with The Sun Newspaper