Ivory Coast struggles to ID its citizens

Before elections this fall, the divided nation is trying to tackle the contentious citizenship issue.

According to the Ivorian government, Karamoko Fofana doesn't officially exist.

The shoe salesman from this northern city has no official identity card and that, he says, hurts his livelihood as a traveling salesman hawking knockoff Speedo slippers, faux leather sandals from China, and loafers from Benin.

But the failed coup d'état in 2002 left the country divided in two, and Mr. Fofana, whose parents are originally from Mali, is no longer able to travel because he has no official national identity card.

"I don't go [to the government-held south]. I'm afraid," he says. "As soon as you arrive [in the south], they are going to ask a lot of questions like: What proves that these papers belong to you? Where is the photo? They are going to take [$8 to $10] from you at each roadblock."

Millions of Ivorians are in Fofana's shoes. Thanks to decades of corruption and loose or nonexistent documentation practices, the Ivory Coast has sunk into an identity morass. The lack of identification papers for Ivorians is one of the root problems of the crisis and a major grievance of the opposition forces.

But now, thanks to a push by the prime minister and the international community, the country has begun a controversial campaign to document more than 3 million residents – many of whom originate from neighboring countries.

"It's an answer for a long-awaited reform," says Jean-Mathieu Essoh Essis, a professor of political science at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and a former Ivorian government official. He says that the process shows the "UN is capable of doing something to end this conflict."

The parallel disarmament process, along with identification, are both prerequisites for elections that are slated for the end of October. While identification has chugged ahead, the laying down of weapons has not. Last week, disarmament of militias was stopped in western Ivory Coast because too few weapons were turned in. Complicating the matter further, President Laurent Gbagbo said he would prolong his stay in office. That prompted the New Forces, the opposition fighters who control 60 percent of the country, to pull out of disarmament talks.

In mid-July, the transitional government dispatched mobile courts – complete with a judge, prosecutor, and court reporter – throughout the country to hold hearings for those seeking birth certificates or certificates of nationality. Once these are obtained, residents are eligible to receive national identity cards and able to vote.

Mr. Gbagbo unexpectedly, however, announced last week that the mobile courts could not issue certificates of nationality. A coalition of political parties opposed to Gbagbo has called on the prime minister to let the mobile courts issue nationality certificates. At their peak, some 30 courts were operating. But wrangling and confusion over the magistrates has reduced the number of teams to 11.

Pascal Affi N'Guessan, the head of Gbagbo's political party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), has said that the process is a ploy to swell the ranks of voters in favor of the northern presidential candidate. Gbagbo's camp has expressed concern that identity could be given to non-Ivorians – including outsiders who have only recently crossed the border and who would then be able to vote. Mr. N'Guessan called on Ivorians to oppose the identification process "by all means necessary." Young Patriots, the youth supporters of Gbagbo, clashed with security officials and youth aligned with other parties. At least two people were killed before the FPI called for calm.

The identification problem is embedded in the fabric of Ivory Coast's history. In the 1960s and '70s, then-President Felix Houphouet-Boigny opened the country to foreigners, who flooded in and filled manual labor jobs on the booming cocoa and coffee plantations.

Many children were born in villages, not in hospitals, and were never registered. Also, officials duped immigrant parents – and others – into paying for false birth certificates, negating their children's future ability to get national ID cards. More recently, during the early stages of the conflict, police and army officers manning checkpoints would destroy or confiscate ID cards of those who had northern names, accusing them of supporting the New Forces.

New Forces officials say they will refuse to disarm before the identification process is over because southern forces might attack them.

Observers say that the attempt to block the identification process is a political method used by the ruling party. "This is where the election is being won," says Mr. Essis. Gbagbo "is interested in controlling the mobile courts in order to win the election. If he can't win the election, the system will be wrecked."

Back at the market in Bouaké, Fofana is hanging shoes under an umbrella full of holes. He says he watches TV each night, waiting for word of when the mobile court will come to his neighborhood. "I was born here. I have the right to be an Ivorian. I'm going to have a paper. I'm sure of it."

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