Citizenship worries compromise Ivory Coast stability

by George Fominyen | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 23 August 2011 10:45 GMT
Tensions over citizenship and nationality that have fuelled instability in Ivory Coast still need to be resolved to achieve lasting peace

This story is part of an AlertNet special multimedia report on statelessness

DAKAR (AlertNet) - Tensions over citizenship and nationality that have fuelled instability in Ivory Coast still need to be resolved for lasting peace to return to the once prosperous West African nation, analysts say.

Members of northern-based, mainly Muslim, ethnic groups known as Dioula have been the target of discrimination over their citizenship and nationality based on their common ancestral links to migrant communities from other West African countries – particularly Mali and Burkina Faso.

 Analysts say despite the rise to power of President Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim from the north who had been prevented twice from running for presidency on the grounds that he was not Ivorian, the issue of who is Ivorian has not been settled yet.

"Ouattara being in power does not mean that the nationality issue is resolved," said Gilles Yabi, West Africa director of the think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG).

"It means that political exclusion of northerners might be over but work has to be done both on constitutional and legal reforms (and) also on education on citizenship and reconciliation to get all Ivorians to accept an open and modern view of nationality and citizenship," Yabi added.

Since the 1990s some politicians, including former presidents Henri Bedie, Robert Guei and Laurent Gbagbo, have pursued a restrictive interpretation of Ivorian nationality law, which limits citizenship to people whose parents are members of the indigenous ethnic groups of the country.


Many northerners, whose ancestry is traced to neighbouring countries as a result of migration encouraged by the French colonial administration and the post-independence government of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, viewed this as making them foreigners or stateless by default.

The new rules made it hard for some to obtain identification cards or gain access to land and many had difficulties being promoted in the army and civil service.

"Under the operational law they should be Ivorian but the issue as always is can you get the document?" said Bronwen Manby, author of the book Struggles for Citizenship in Africa. "Without documentation proving your citizenship, your theoretical right can be irrelevant for practical purposes.”

The electoral law and constitution were also amended to forbid individuals from running for political office unless both of their parents were Ivorians by origin. 

The estimated 4 million Dioulas saw this as a ploy by Ouattara’s political rivals to prevent the former prime minister under Houphouet-Boigny -- who commanded huge support among the northerners in the country -- from running for president.

Analysts say a civil war in 2002/3 that split the country in two – with a rebel- held north and a government-controlled south – had roots in the citizenship issue.

“If the presidential candidate representing a big part of the population is disqualified from standing from election and that is repeated at many ranks below him, and people are told you can’t vote or stand for an election because “you are not Ivorian” the conditions for a rebellion by the representatives of those people are clearly set,”  Manby told AlertNet by telephone from London.

The African Union and West African regional body ECOWAS recognise citizenship as critical for a return to peace in Ivory Coast and made it a central issue throughout peace negotiations, said Manby, who is also a senior adviser at the Open Society Foundations.

“We’ve heard statements by rebel leaders in Cote d’Ivoire to the effect that ‘we will put down our guns when you give us our ID cards.’ So that’s definitely a root cause of the conflict there,” said Sebastian Kohn, an expert on statelessness at Open Society Foundations.

A peace deal negotiated by Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaore, in 2007 stipulated the reform of the contentious nationality identification system and paved the way for elections in which Ouattara was allowed to stand for president last November.


The brutal post-election unrest, in which more than 3,000 people were killed after incumbent Gbagbo, a Christian southerner, refused to cede power, highlights challenges for the new authorities.

Until ill-defined citizenship laws, which fail to make a distinction in the status of various groups of migrants and their descendants, are clarified, there will still be concerns over the stability of Ivory Coast, experts say.

“The nationality code says that you are Ivorian if you were born on the territory unless both parents are ‘foreigners’, but ‘foreigner’ is not defined,” Manby explained. 

“ If both parents were ‘foreigners’ and  the person was a habitual resident there was the right to opt for Ivorian nationality within one year (after independence), but many people wouldn’t have known of this provision – or if they did, they may have had no idea that in fact their parents were considered to be ‘foreigners.”

Ouattara has spoken of the need to amend the Ivorian constitution. He said  it is a key task for the new members of the country’s highest court, the Constitutional Council, which will also supervise the organisation of parliamentary elections expected to be held this year.

The constitution in its current form includes articles which limit citizenship and participation in elections to people of indigenous Ivorian origin and this may be a source of confusion in the run-up to parliamentary elections.

 “Of course (the question of) who was entitled to be on the electoral roll of the recently contested election was a huge issue; and it is far from being settled and remains a critical issue for the central government,” Manby said.


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