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Nationality and identity are at the root of the four-year conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, a country whose instability threatens peace and security in West Africa.
Statelessness in Africa, as in many places throughout the world, has been caused by state succession, gaps in citizenship laws, and targeted discrimination. It is estimated that more than a quarter and possibly more than a third of Côte d’Ivoire’s 18 million inhabitants do not have effective nationality, mainly among the large numbers of migrants from neighboring states who responded to the invitation of the first president with the promise of land to those who cultivated it. Côte d’Ivoire is presently not a signatory to the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on stateless persons, which define a stateless person as someone who does not have the legal bond of nationality with any state.
Once considered the showplace of West Africa, since 2002 Côte d’Ivoire has been wracked by internal conflict over nationality, documentation, voting rights, land tenure, and other issues. The government of President Gbagbo controls the prosperous south and western part of the country while the opposing Force Nouvelle controls the physically larger but poorer north. Humanitarian aid by the United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), largely funded by the European Union, has been able to prevent humanitarian catastrophes in the north, where government services have practically ceased, and in the south, which houses large numbers of displaced.
Both parties are responsible for violations of human rights, forced displacement and resistance to fulfilling the various peace agreements. The violent stalemate has worsened the humanitarian situation, evident from the breakdown of water and sanitation systems and outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever in 2006. Resolution of the root causes of the conflict awaits the implementation of the negotiated peace settlement between the parties and respect for the political and civil rights of all the legal residents of the country regardless of their ethnicity or ancestral origin.
The current identity crisis emerged in response to the flood of foreign workers who were invited into Côte d’Ivoire during the 1970s. Residents resented newcomers benefiting from the country’s financial boom. Politicians were able to manipulate the migrant labor issue, producing xenophobia as the country’s economy declined. In 1995, then President Henri Konan Bédié used the concept of “Ivoirité” as part of his campaign against Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara, a northerner, was accused of not being truly Ivorian because of his parents’ foreign background.
Since 2004 a UN peacekeeping mission (UN Operations in Côte d’Ivoire or UNOCI) has separated the opposing forces. The UN Security Council (UNSC) appointed a neutral Prime Minister to head the transitional coalition government, which includes ministers favorable to President Gbagbo and to the opposition. Rebels, fearing their supporters will not be found eligible to vote, have insisted that documentation and creation of new voter lists proceed before full disarmament and demobilization takes place. President Gbagbo seeks disarmament and cantonment first.
In May 2006, the Prime Minister’s office created a mobile pilot program, “Audiences Foraines,” to document people over 13 years of age who lacked birth certificates or other proof of citizenship. With lessons learned from the pilot program, the Prime Minister then invited the transitional government to stipulate that the documents from these Audiences, the “judgment supplétif,” would constitute a birth certificate but not evidence of nationality. These adjusted public Audiences Foraines were to begin in July. The President’s party, however, refused to cooperate, vowing to take “all measures” to oppose them. The program stopped within days.
RI interviews point to political opposition, rather than administrative hurdles, as the main obstacle to creating new voter lists for national elections. The UN Security Council was forced to agree to a final one year postponement of the elections and continuation of the transition government, but urged cooperation of the parties while backing the work of the Prime Minister in issuing birth certificates and creating new voter lists. The Prime Minister tried to resume the process in December 2006 but failed as President Gbagbo refused. Another attempt was reportedly undertaken in late January 2007.
The government’s wish to issue new identity documents to the entire population is unquestionably an administrative challenge but the effort is essential to resolve the critical questions facing this country with large migrant populations. Who is a citizen of the country and who rightfully should be? Who should own land? One international worker told RI, “People have been living for decades without documents; now it is even harder to get them. Everyone understands the problem cannot be solved in six months, but it is important to advance the operation.” Residents are expected to return to their place of birth, which is difficult while the conflict is unresolved.
Some government officials claim there are over three million undocumented (some estimates are as high as five million) West African immigrants (about half from Burkina Faso) living in the country with questionable eligibility for citizenship. Birth on Ivorian soil does not automatically confer citizenship, but only one parent must be a citizen for the child to become one. Blurring the issue further are family ties and intermarriage that stretch across borders. Most marriages in the country are customary and unregistered with the state, and many lack birth records, thus proving an Ivorian parent may be difficult. There may also be some migrants in Côte d’Ivoire who do not wish citizenship. The pilot program on documentation found that approximately 16 percent of those seeking nationality documentation were ineligible and thus at high risk of statelessness.
Life for the undocumented is difficult. Some displaced lost their documents during flight, others have had them confiscated. Still others lost their proof of citizenship when government buildings were destroyed during the conflict. Northerners complain they’ve been marginalized, denied jobs, citizenship and identity cards, and harassed because of their northern names. RI was told that the police and military personnel routinely abuse and harass those they deem non-citizens or to be northerners. One humanitarian worker reported, “Checkpoints make life almost impossible. Every couple of kilometers travelers assumed to be foreign have to get down from the vehicles and pay.” Another source said, “Individuals are harassed, sometimes taken to jail, and if they can’t pay, their documents may be taken away. They become stateless.” Lack of documentation prevents formal employment not only for individuals who were born in Côte d’Ivoire but also for those who are citizens of member countries of the Economic Community of West Africa, even though they have the right to live and work in any ECOWAS member country.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which had previously focused on protecting and aiding refugees, now must deal with protecting and finding solutions for well over half a million internally displaced persons and undertake efforts to prevent statelessness by assisting residents in their efforts to develop proof of citizenship. Based on the pilot experience, Côte d’Ivoire’s new documentation and nationality process could create a large group of persons needing assistance in proving their citizenship, appealing denials, and retaining their residence and ownership of property. UNHCR, the agency entrusted by the UN General Assembly with preventing statelessness and aiding stateless persons, has engaged with the government, opposition FAFN leaders, and UN agencies in efforts to inform residents of their rights and responsibilities and to encourage measures to prevent widespread statelessness.