In Ivory Coast, a president's push to redefine citizenship is personal

President Alassane Ouattara announced that he would push for constitutional reform that would scrap a nationality clause that once prevented him from running from office — and could broaden the scope of what it means to be Ivorian.

Schalk van Zuydam/AP
People celebrate the victory of Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara after elections in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015. Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara easily won re-election in the first vote since a disputed poll five years ago sparked violence that killed thousands in the West African economic powerhouse, the electoral commission announced early Wednesday.

Now that President Alassane Ouattara has been sworn in to his second term, Amirah Diallo is hoping for a chat. 

The issue she wants to discuss: how she can finally fulfill her path to Ivorian citizenship. 

“I have worked in Ivory Coast since I was 14,” she says. “I was born here, have my friends and family here, but I still don’t feel like I belong.” 

Ms. Diallo’s mother, originally from neighboring Mali, died soon after she gave birth to her daughter, and the small village never officially registered Diallo’s birth. Now, the 22-year-old shopkeeper is limited to low-paying jobs found through referrals from friends and family. 

A ghost in her own country, Diallo’s exclusion from the national civil registry means she does not have access to education, legal work, land ownership, nor can she legally marry. 

Indeed, she is one of the up to 700,000 stateless people in Ivory Coast, according to the Justice Ministry, a longstanding issue within the West African country that is responsible for decades of ethnic conflict and one of the root causes of the 2002 civil war. Though the unofficial number is probably much larger, the cocoa-growing nation is home to one of the largest populations of stateless people in Africa.

“These people are hidden, unseen, but are actively living amongst us all,” says Innocent Sangara of the UN High Commission for Refugees in Abidjan. 

Earlier this year, President Ouattara indicated that if re-elected, he would push for constitutional reform that would expand the parameters of Ivorian citizenship. The concept of “Ivoirité,” or Ivorian nationality, is one that Ouattara also has had to grapple with. For years, he was denied the chance to run for the presidency because of an article in the Constitution that excludes the children of immigrants from holding the top office.

Indeed, it is this particular article 35 that the president announced he would tackle first in expanding the scope of citizenship, making the national issue of statelessness also a personal one.

“I want to seize this opportunity to have a constitution which is more coherent,” Ouattara said in an interview with the Associated Press after his re-election in October.  “I want a constitution that is modern, that is coherent, and that will respect the rule of law.” 

Defining citizenship

Confusion over citizenship first began after Ivory Coast gained its independence from France in 1960. At the time, the Constitution stated that all living in the state before independence, including foreigners, would be granted nationality. 

But as Ivory Coast entered a period of economic growth in the next decade, an influx of immigrants from bordering countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana prompted the the creation of new laws that made the path to citizenship more difficult. A 1972 constitutional amendment prohibited foreigners who hadn’t already previously registered themselves and their families from becoming citizens, leaving hundreds of thousands of an estimated two million Ivorian-based immigrant families stateless.

By the time Ouattara wanted to run for office in the 2000 election, the laws had created a migrant-heavy and disenfranchised north that saw Ouattara,  also a northerner as their leader. The issue of citizenship then became politicized when Ouattara's political opponents lobbed claims that his parents were foreign-born, despite claiming otherwise.  

A 2000 referendum officially kept Ouattara from from that presidential election, forcing him to prove his legitimacy for elections to come. In the migrant-heavy north, many people saw the referendum as a blatant attempt to curtail Ouattara's rising power and the political participation of northerners, sparking, observers say, the civil war that followed two years later. 

"For President Ouattara, this is more than a legal issue. It's personal," says Cassandra Theano of Open Society Foundations, an NGO that works with international governments to promote democracy. "This is an important legacy for Ouattara."

Ivoirité today

Experts say that Ouattara has been strategic to wait until after he was re-elected to introduce any referendums, because it could have created a backlash that would impact the country’s first post-war elections this past October. Ouattara won by a landslide margin of 83 percent, despite a low voter turnout and certain opposition parties boycotting the vote. 

Stephane Kouassi, an Ivorian historian and political analyst, says the country is ready for this type of change and that the peaceful elections demonstrated a growing understanding of democracy. “In Ivory Coast, a very multicultural, multiethnic, multinational place, it make sense for this to happen because we live in a world now where people come from everywhere,” Mr. Kouassi says.

Though there is no clear timeline as of yet, any proposed changes to the Constitution would require backing from parliament, currently dominated by Ouattara's party, before being submitted for a referendum. But for Diallo, the shopkeeper, it is still a start.

“I try to tell myself that one day, I will become a citizen and go to university,” she says.  “But I can’t focus just on my dreams because it makes me sad to think it may never happen.”

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