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Does the current political reform in Ethiopia require amendments of the nationality law on foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin? You must read this article before taking any political position in the regional state it concerns all the Ethiopian origin with foreign nationals. 
July 4, 2018

  1. Introduction

Ethiopia is currently undergoing significant political reforms. It has been negotiating to restore the peaceful relation with Eritrea. It established a 13 member legal and justice affairs advisory council mandated to provide amendment proposals to certain laws, including the constitution, the anti-terrorism proclamation, the civil society proclamation and other legislation considered to be  restrictive. Similarly, PM Dr. Abiy and leaders of regional States have recently made frequent calls to the Ethiopian diaspora, more than any time before, to create synergy and actively engage in the development of the country. These political developments, among others, necessitate to revisit the existing nationality law that applies to foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin. This short essay examines the current scheme available to foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin. The aim is twofold. First, to provide some clarifications to the Ethiopian diaspora about the existing legal space that enable their participation in the country’s affairs; and second to identify the limitations of the current approach and inform the relevant law reform bodies with respect to some issues that need amendment.

  1. The current approach

The Ethiopian nationality law provides that every Ethiopian national has a right to renounce his/her Ethiopian nationality and acquire a nationality of another state (article 33 of FDRE Constitution and Proc. No. 378/2003). Indeed, a huge number of Ethiopians around the globe have acquired foreign nationality due to their life circumstances in foreign countries, such as to take advantage of the opportunities available to nationals, or to avoid possible restrictions that apply to non-citizens in their work and everyday life, or various other factors. Since Ethiopia does not accept dual citizenship, an Ethiopian national will automatically lose his/her nationality upon acquiring a nationality of another State. The effect of this is that the individual will be treated as a foreign national and lose rights available (reserved only) to Ethiopian nationals. Yet, Proclamation No. 270/2002 allows foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin to obtain Ethiopian origin ID card so that they will enjoy various rights and privileges not available to other foreigners (article 3(1)). The very objective of such a scheme is to create a fertile legal framework (environment) to enable persons of Ethiopian origin to contribute “to the development and prosperity of their country of origin” (article 3(2)).

  • Who are nationals of Ethiopian origin?: a question of eligibility to obtain Ethiopian origin ID card

The proclamation broadly defines the term ‘foreign national of Ethiopian origin’. Pursuant to article 2(1) a ‘foreign national of Ethiopian origin’ means a foreign national who had been Ethiopian national before acquiring a foreign nationality; or at least one of his parents or grand parents or great grand parents was an Ethiopian national. It is clear that individuals who are born and raised abroad, who have Ethiopia ancestors to the third generation, are entitled to obtain the Ethiopian origin ID card. They are required to prove their Ethiopian origin by presenting, inter alia, one of the following documents: a birth certificate, or a copy of a previous passport, or a court document showing that the applicant is originally an Ethiopian or that one of his/her parents or grandparents were Ethiopians (see CoM Regu. No. 101/2004, as amended by CoM Regu. No. 252/2011). However, previously Ethiopian nationals who have acquired Eritrean nationality are excluded from this entitlement. In fact, it is less likely for an Ethiopian national to voluntarily switch his/her citizenship to Eritrean unless due to extraordinary circumstances. Thus, the proclamation must be primarily refering to the huge number of Ethiopians of Eritrean origin who were involuntarily deported to Eritrea, leaving their families behind, following the devastating Ethio-Eritrea war. The rationale for such exclusion is obvious: it relates to security reasons due to the seclusion (close door) policy the two countries have adopted for two decades following the war. Indeed, even though Eritrean is specifically mentioned, the proclamation also generally exclude citizens of any other country at war with Ethiopia from obtaining Ethiopian origin ID card (article 14(3) of Proc. No. 270/2002).

The proclamation also recognizes derivative rights. Firstly, it allows spouses of a foreign national of Ethiopian origin who possesses foreign nationality to be entitled to apply for an ID card specifying that he/she is the spouse of a person holding the Ethiopian origin ID card (article 8 (3)). This entitlement also applies to spouses possessing Eritrean nationality. This triggers a question: If an Eritrean national of Ethiopian origin is prohibited to get the Ethiopian origin ID card, why an Eritrean national spouse is allowed to get the ID card? Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose for which the prohibition is based? Secondly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Authority for Security, Immigration and Refugees Affairs have a discretion, by their joint decision, to grant to any foreign national residing in Ethiopia rights and privileges accorded to foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin even though he/she does not fulfil the requirements provided by the proclamation (article 8 (8)). Yet, it is not clear upon what circumstances these bodies base their discretionary decision: it seems that they have an open free discretion. Nor is it clear whether an Eritrean national is covered under this discretion-based entitlement: it seems possible, but less likely to happen.

In sum, any foreign national of Ethiopian origin who falls within one of the above catagories is entitled to get an Ethiopian origin ID card and enjoy the rights and privileges, and be subject to the restrictions, provided by the proclamation unless he/she is an Eritrean. What are the rights, privileges, and restrictions that apply to foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin?

  • Rights of, and restrictions to, holders of Ethiopian origin ID card

Holders of Ethiopian origin ID card enjoy a number of rights and privileges not available to other foreigners as provided under article 5 of the proclamation. First, they are not reguired to have an entry visa or residence permit to live in Ethippia; and have a right to be employed in the country without a work permit. Second, they would not be subjected to the exclusion that applies to foreign nationals regarding coverage of pension scheme under the relevant pension law. Third, they have a right to be considered as domestic investor to invest in Ehiopia under Investment law; this means that they have a right to invest in investment areas reserved to Ethiopian nationals, such as financial sectors. Fourth, restrictions imposed on foreign nationals regarding the utilization of Economic, Social, and Administrative Services would not be applicable to foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin holding the ID card. Fifth, restrictions imposed on foreign nationals under articles 390-393 of the Civil Code regarding the ownership of immovable property does not apply to Ethiopian origin ID holders. Putting it differently, they have a right to own immovable property except land, as it is under the government ownership pursuant to article 40 (3) of the FDRE constitution.

Nonetheless, the rights and privileges of foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin holding the Ethiopian origin ID card are subject to limitations, matters that differentiate it from Ethiopian nationals. Article 6 of the proclamation imposes two important restrictions on Ethiopian origin ID card holders. First, they ‘have no right to vote or be elected to any office at any level of Government’. The proclamation neither clarifies as to what the expression ‘offices at any level of government’ means, nor does it provide an ellustrative list of such government offices. Literarily, it refers to the three wings of government: the legislative, executive and judiciary branchs, both at the federal level and regional structures down to the grassroot levels. Yet, it is clear that the restriction applies only to the right to vote and be elected. Thus, participation in such government bodies in any other shapes and forms, or membership and participation in political parties of ones own choice, is possible unless specifically restricted by other special laws. Second, they ‘have no right to be employed on a regular basis in the National Defense, Security, Foreign Affairs and other similar political establishments’. The last term, ‘other similar political establishments’, is a basket term and needs further clarification. The restriction of employment in those bodies arises from the person’s allegiance (loyalty) attached to his citizenship, which may have an impact on the security and national interest of the country. Yet, since what is prohibited is employment on a regular basis, employment in such offices as an advisory or consultant or in any other capacity on an ad hoc basis is permissible.

All in all, it is possible to say that the approach followed by the Ethiopian nationality law as regards foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin has almost an equivalent effect as dual citizenship. The restrictions are so limited and relate only to employment in certain politicaly-driven public offices, the military and security sectors. Even in those offices, employment on an irregular basis is permissible.

  1. The way forward

Consistent with the current developments in the political sphere of the country and an enormous motivation of the diaspora, two important limitations of the current law on foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin needs reconsideration (revision). First, given that Ethiopia and Eritrea are at the verge of restoring their peaceful relationship (and if succeded), the raison d’être for restricting Eritrean nationals of Ethiopian origin from obtaining Ethiopian origin ID card will cease to exist. Thus, the restrictions applicable to Eritrean nationals of Ethiopian origin should be reconsidered to be lifted, which in turn requires amendments to the relevant provisions dealing with this matter.

Second, if the PM’s and regional leaders’ call to the diaspora is comprhensive enough to allow them to engage in all aspects of the country including politics and other public offices, it may be necessary to consider recognizing dual citizenship. We have witnessed that the Ethiopian diaspora living in countries that recognize dual citizenship, such as the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Sweden, Australia, and South Africa, have had a significant influence in the political life of the country. It is, therefore, necessary to harness this expertise and energy to the democratization of the country by allowing the diaspora to fully engage in the country’s political issues. Dual citicenship provides that opportunity. Certain African countries, including Egypt, Kenya, Sierra Leone and South Africa, recognize dual citizenship.

If recognition of dual citizenship is considered useful (acceptable), I suggest that the recognition should follow two lines of approaches. First, for foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin, it only takes to replace the requirements for obtaining Ethiopian origin ID card with dual citizenship so that the restrictions currently available would be automatically removed. Second, for non-Ethiopian origin foregners who want to acquire Ethiopian nationality as their second citizenship, it is possible to generally continue to apply the currently applicable naturalization law (articles 5-12 of Proc. No. 378/2003) or by adding more requirments (if necessary). It is also possible to limit the eligibility of dual citizenship by non-Ethiopian origin foreigners only to nationals of a limited number of countries as practiced by some States. Thus, recognition of dual citizenship takes a simple adaptation of the currently applicable laws. One common misconception should be clear here. Recognition of dual citizenship does not necessirly mean that Ethiopia should recognize the other nationality; it rather means that Ethiopia recognizes an individual as its citizen by allowing a foreign national of Ethiopian origin to retain his citizenship upon acquiring the nationality of another State, or by naturalizing a non-Ethiopian origin foreign national.

In conclusion, it is the right time to make necessary amendments to the relevant provisions of appropriate legislations, including the constitution, proclamations and council of minister’s regulations dealing with nationality. Yet, if there is no political will to recognize dual citizenship, I still believe that the current scheme is so spacious to allow the diaspora to contribute in a number of sectors, if not in political establishments. I, therefore, strongly suggest the diaspora community to take advantage of the available special scheme, and to accept the current Ethiopian leaders’ call for joining hands to build the country together

By Rasaas