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Why Is the Government of Tanzania Backtracking from Its Commitment to Fully Grant Citizenship to Burundian Refugees?

July 3, 2012
Fahamu Refugee Legal Aid Newsletter


Contributed by Zachary A. Lomo, St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge.


In April 2010, Tanzania’s then Home Affairs Minister Lawrence Masha announced that the naturalisation of a group of the 1972 Burundian refugees – a process which had begun in 2008 – had ended, with more than 162,000 refugees being granted Tanzanian citizenship. Tanzania was praised by many, including UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, for its ‘unprecedented generosity and courageous decision’.[1]

By granting citizenship to these refugees, Tanzania not only maintained a long tradition of generosity towards refugees, inspired by its late first president, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, but also demonstrated its commitment to observing its obligations towards refugees under the 1951 Convention, particularly under Article 34 of the 1951 Convention. Article 34 enjoins Contracting States to ‘as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees.’ 

The granting of citizenship to these 1972 Burundi refugees should mean that they will, upon completion of the process, cease to be refugees, as provided by Article 1 C (3) of the 1951, and will enjoy the full gamut of rights that Tanzanian citizens enjoy. Indeed, Minister Masha, when welcoming the naturalised refugees as Tanzanians, emphasised what it means to be granted Tanzanian citizenship: 

‘Effectively they have all the rights of every Tanzanian. They are free to go anywhere and enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. They are free to seek employment anywhere and are free to continue to live as normal Tanzanians.’[2]

But as is so often the case, there is a stark contrast between rhetoric and reality, and it seems the accolades may be premature. 

According to one regional commissioner, Dr. Rajab Rutengwe, the refugees being naturalised might not be given citizenship certificates after all. Instead, ‘they will be given permanent residence certificates’.[3]  Moreover, Rutengwe is quoted as having ‘categorically rejected’ any suggestion that newly naturalised Tanzanians (NNTs) will be granted citizenship if they remain living in the two old settlements.[4] Not surprisingly, and in line with their rights, the NNTs have expressed their wish to be allowed to move freely and choose where to live, including remaining in the settlements areas where they have lived for over thirty years.[5]  Citing security concerns, however, Commissioner Rutengwe argues that, ‘It is not proper and safe for our nation, according to their status (NNTs) they won’t be good to stay here’ (sic).[6]

When the newly naturalised Tanzanians were refugees, the Government of Tanzania (GoT) argued that encampment of refugees was necessary for security reasons – as have other refugee-hosting African states. Yet the same government is now contending that allowing naturalised refugees as Tanzanian citizens to remain in the camps has security implications. Why this apparent contradiction? 

There are three possible explanations. First, the statements are coming from a regional government official, suggesting that regional governments whose areas have been host to the 1972 Burundian refugees were not wholly supportive of their naturalisation or were not fully involved in the naturalisation processes. This apparent lack of support at a regional level for the naturalisation process is consistent with the findings from my own field research in Tanzania in November 2008. In a follow up meeting with a junior officer in the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), I had inquired about the principles underlying the GoT’s repatriation and naturalisation policies in light of the concerns of Burundian and Congolese refugees I had interviewed in Mtabila and Nyarugusu refugee camps.

The officer stated that, while Tanzania has an elaborate Refugee Act (although not as progressive as often claimed), policy, and structure in place, political pressure from regional governments was preventing them from effectively implementing policy decisions regarding refugees. 

The structure for implementing the law and policies has two levels: national and regional. The national level consists of the political executive branch: the president, the Prime Minister, and the Minister of HMA. The regional tier of the structure comprises local and regional authorities who have some say on refugee issues. 

In principle, these two levels of the structure should work in harmony. However, problems inevitably arise when national refugee policies and priorities and local ones do not reconcile. This, according to this officer, is where the problems with repatriation and naturalisation begin.

Moreover, the same officer explained that the situation is further complicated by the fact that most decisions are made during meetings that involve senior UNHCR staff and government representatives who are generally not conversant with the realities on the ground. Those who have been working with refugees on a daily basis are generally excluded from such meetings, which inevitably creates problems when implementing agreements and policy decisions made during such meetings. 

This raises the fundamental question of whether or not local and regional authorities were sufficiently involved in the decision to grant Burundian refugees Tanzanian citizenship. If they were involved, why is the regional commissioner raising issues of national security at this time? Or why should he be talking about granting naturalised refugees permanent residence rather than citizenship? One would assume that if this regional commissioner or regional authorities had been involved from the outset, some of the concerns now being raised would have been addressed.

It also calls into question of whether UNHCR, when deciding to establish ‘zones’ for relocating the refugees, sufficiently consulted with the local and regional administration. If not, it is not surprising that they are now making their objections to the naturalisation process known. Indeed, in the past relations between UNHCR and local governments were known to be at times strained or even acrimonious because decisions were being imposed on them without their input or in total disregard of local realities. 

The failure to sufficiently engage local governments is certainly not unique to Tanzania. For instance, during research conducted in Uganda (1997 - 2000), local governments in refugee hosting areas often made known to us their objections to certain UNHCR/Government of Uganda policies. For example, the local and district administrations in Arua, Adjumani, and Moyo often resented the idea that they should be implementing policies, especially health policies on refugees, for which they took no part in formulating and which ignored the interests of their communities.[7]

Second, the idea that naturalised refugees will have to relocate to other parts of Tanzania, while unacceptable to the refugees, appears to be deeply rooted in Tanzania’s own approach to citizenship. Under its founding president, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, Tanzanians were forcibly removed from their home regions and relocated to other regions. Chiefs from one region were moved to other regions. Students from one region had to complete their secondary education in other regions. These actions, while drastic, were taken in order to foster a sense of citizenship that transcended ethnicity.[8] And Tanzania remains, at least for now, one of the few African countries where ethnicity has not featured prominently in national life, unlike in the majority of post-colonial African states. Seen from this perspective, the insistence of the GoT to relocate the NNTs to other parts of the country is based on sound and tested principles of creating a truly inclusive citizenship.

However, the citizenship-fostering explanation for the GoT’s insistence that naturalised refugees relocate to other parts of the country, though plausible, is undermined by the third possible explanation: the existence of pressure from foreign multi-national corporations that have already bought large swathes of the land on which refugees were encamped for large-scale farming. According to a study conducted by the Oakland Institute (OI), ‘over 4 million hectares (ha) of land have been requested by foreign investors for both agrofuel and food production in Tanzania.’[9] Of these, over 640,000ha have been allocated and 100,000ha leased. This has had implication for both local Tanzanians and refugees, including those now naturalised as Tanzanian citizens.

According to OI’s report, one of the multi-national companies, AgriSol Energy LLC, an Iowa-based investment company that specialises in agribusiness and is represented in Tanzania by AgriSol Energy Tanzania and two other companies, has acquired land from three ‘abandoned refugee camps’: Lugufu (25,000ha) in Kigoma province, Katumba (80,317ha), and Mishamo (219,800ha) both in Rukwa province.[10]  In January 2011, in one of its proposals to the Prime Minister of Tanzania in which it identified areas of ‘Critical Government Assistance’, Agrisol mentions ‘refugee hosting area evacuation completion’.[11]

In light of this, it is plausible to conclude that the pressure on naturalised refugees to relocate from their homes of over thirty years to other parts of Tanzania comes from multi-national corporations to whom the land had already been sold and who now want to utilise it. Moreover, the withholding of the citizenship certificates and the idea of granting the naturalised refugees permanent residence instead of citizenship are veiled threats aimed at compelling them to relocate. 

None of these reasons are compelling enough to justify withdrawal of citizenship or changing to permanent residence status.  Naturalised refugees as Tanzanians should be allowed to exercise their right and freedom to decide where to live.



[1] UNHCR, ‘UNHCR welcomes Tanzania’s decision to naturalize tens of thousands of Burundian refugees’, 16 April 2010.

[2] Id.

[3] See, Khalfan Said, ‘Government backtracks as ex-refugees await citizenship papers’, The Guardian Newspaper, IPPmedia, 19 May 2012.

[4] Id.

[5] See, e.g., CSFM, IRRI, & SSRC, ‘Going Home or Staying Home? Ending Displacement for Burundian Refugees in Tanzania’, Citizenship and Forced Migration in the Great Lakes Region Working Paper No. 1, November 2008.

[6] See, Khalfan Said, ‘Former Burundi refugees in Katavi long for full citizenship’, The Guardian Newspaper, IPPmedia 21 May 2012, available at:

[7] On this aspect, see, e.g., Verdirame & Harrell-Bond, Rights in Exile: Janus-Faced Humanitarianism (Berghahn Books, 2005).

[8] On this aspect, see, e.g., Godfrey Mwakikagile, Tanzania under Mwalimu Nyerere: Reflections on an African Statesman (New Africa Press, Dar es Salaam, 2006).

[9] Oakland Institute, Understanding land investment deals in Africa: Country Report: Tanzania, (2011) 2.

[10] Id. at 20.

[11] Id., at 22.