Who is Ivorian?

Two years after Ibrahim Kone applied to renew his national identity card, he found it by chance—floating down a river in this rebel-held Côte d’Ivoire town.

Kone believes the laminated document was dumped there with a box full of others by authorities who doubted he was Ivorian, and “never had any intention of issuing it”.

The question is at the heart of what sparked war in this once-mighty West African nation with a migrant population so large it accounts for more than one third of the country’s 17-million inhabitants: Who is Ivorian? And who has the right to be?

The issue, taken up by opposition politicians and rebels, has become more contentious as October 30 presidential elections approach.

South African-mediated peace accords call for the matter to be resolved by Friday, but the Parliament has made little progress on making changes rebels have demanded to nationality laws.

The proposed changes would allow those born in Côte d’Ivoire before independence in 1960 to claim citizenship, even if their parents were foreigners. Foreigners who marry Ivorian women will also be able to apply for citizenship two years after marriage.

Before, they were not entitled to citizenship at all.

President Laurent Gbagbo could use his executive powers to adopt the laws if the Parliament does not.

Under international pressure, Gbagbo stepped in on one prominent nationality case, that of the main opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara.

Gbagbo employed executive powers to temporarily reverse a constitutional clause barring Ouattara from standing in the upcoming poll—a key rebel demand.
The constitutional clause, which requires both a candidate’s parents be Ivorian-born, remains in place.

Ouattara was banned from past elections amid allegations he and at least one of his parents are from neighbouring Burkina Faso, allegations Ouattara denies.

Ouattara is believed to have strong support among northerners, many of whom complain they’ve been marginalised: denied jobs, citizenship and identity cards, harassed because their names easily give away their northern roots. Those living in the north are also predominantly Muslim, though sectarianism hasn’t been a serious issue so far.

“They think we’re sub-citizens,” said Yaya Kone (49) sitting in a flowing robe at his cafe in rebel-held Bouake. “They treat us as foreigners in our own country.”

Kone said both his parents were Ivorian. He says he showed authorities birth certificates to prove it.

“Every time I went to ask for it, they shook their heads,” said Kone, a warrant officer who quit the national army in 2002 to join rebels. “They always told me, ‘Come back later. It’s not ready yet.”’

At one entrance to the rebels’ military headquarters in Bouake, 121 names are tacked on a piece of paper on the wall. Kone said they were names of people whose ID’s had been found in dust-covered boxes in government offices, after rebels took over the town following a September 2002 coup that split the nation in two.

“If I’m not Ivorian, where am I supposed to be from? Kone said.

Richer and more fertile than its neighbors, Côte d’Ivoire welcomed millions of West African immigrants for decades, particularly poor labourers from neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana who came to work on cocoa, coffee and cotton plantations.

When commodity prices declined in the late 1990s, the welcome began wearing thin.

There are no reliable statistics to clarify exactly how many people in the north are immigrants from neighbouring nations—though estimates run as high as 40%.

Birth on Ivorian soil does not automatically translate to citizenship—a right reserved in most cases for those who can prove at least one parent was also born in the country.

Blurring the issue further, many native Ivorians have family ties that stretch across borders that were drawn by European colonisers in the 19th century.

Many immigrants in the Côte d’Ivoire do not want Ivorian citizenship—despite being born here, or having worked in the country for decades.

Before he was toppled in the country’s first-ever coup in 1999, President Henri Bedie seized on the issue, popularising the nationalistic concept of “Ivoirit”, or “Ivorian-ness”—pure Ivorian heritage.

Bedie used it for political gain against Ouattara, a former prime minister, barring him from standing in the 1995 vote. Gbagbo did the same five years later. Hard-line supporters of Gbagbo now fear rebels and their opposition allies will try to register millions of immigrants as Ivorians instead in a bid to secure more votes for Ouattara, who is immensely popular in the north.

“That’s all he wants, because if those laws are passed, he’ll get three million more votes,” said Appiah Kabran, an intensely nationalistic member of Parliament.

Yves Fofana, an opposition lawmaker, said the proposed changes in the laws would only affect about 700 000 people, and there was no way to know how they would vote. Regardless, they would new citizens wouldn’t be able to cast ballots for five years, he said.

“We’ll vote for these [laws] because we want peace,” Kabran said. “But let me be frank—nobody will enforce them. Côte d’Ivoire belongs to Ivorians, not foreigners.” - Sapa-AP

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