IVORY COAST

The (Un)Settled Life of Others

Informal checkpoints are scattered on most roads and highways around Ivory Coast, or Côte d’Ivoire. Those who patrol them arbitrarily scrutinize identification. Red clay roads twist through a thick green forest. In a remote village in the southwest of the country, dark red cocoa beans cover the ground and dry in the sun. A man rests in a mesh hammock in front of his house. Thirty-nine year old Fatumata holds her documents. She has had them for several years, but they do her little good. “The people in this village are originally from the north of the country and moved here over fifty years ago,” she says. 

A map of West Africa is drawn in chalk on the wall of a home in a remote village in southwestern Côte d'Ivoire. The nationality of hundreds of thousands in Cote d'Ivoire is in question.

A map of West Africa is drawn in chalk on the wall of a home in a remote village in southwestern Côte d'Ivoire. The nationality of hundreds of thousands in Cote d'Ivoire is in question.

“We all have northern names. We’ve lived here a long time and we are Ivorian. Many of us have documents but the documents are only proof of our identity. The document is not a National ID card. We are refused the ID because we have northern names, and we are punished for this almost every day.” 

In the 1920s and ‘30s, French colonists began exploiting Ivory Coast’s land and natural resources. Thousands from French West Africa, particularly from Haute Volta or Burkina Faso, were resettled into Ivory Coast to work on vast coffee, timber and cocoa plantations. After independence from France in 1960, the country’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, opened the country up to large-scale immigration. The Dioula from the Muslim north of the country, as well as foreigners from surrounding countries, were encouraged to settle in the southern Ivory Coast to develop the country’s agricultural sector. These workers were the backbone behind the explosion of the Ivorian economy in the 1960s and ‘70s. Many from the south abandoned their village life and migrated to cities like Abidjan, informally selling their land to the migrants. The “Ivorian Miracle” turned Ivory Coast into one of the most successful and stable countries in Africa.

A statue of Felix Houphouet-Boigny stands in Abidjan. As Cote d'Ivoire's first president from 1960 to 1993, Houphouet-Boigny encouraged foreigners from surrounding countries and people from northern Cote d'Ivoire to immigrate to the south to develop Cote d'Ivoire's growing agricultural sector.

A statue of Felix Houphouet-Boigny stands in Abidjan. As Cote d'Ivoire's first president from 1960 to 1993, Houphouet-Boigny encouraged foreigners from surrounding countries and people from northern Cote d'Ivoire to immigrate to the south to develop Cote d'Ivoire's growing agricultural sector.

"when we came here eighty years ago, the french told us to come here. And since then, we have stayed. But we are seen and treated like foreigners in our own country."

Houphouët-Boigny’s “miracle” permanently changed the country’s ethnic balance. The citizenship status of the Dioula and others, primarily from Burkina Faso, was never fully established, yet they would come to represent almost one-third of the country’s population.  This led to a rise in anti-foreigner sentiment. In 1972, nationality laws were changed to grant citizenship through the right of blood rather than the right of soil. Hundreds of thousands became stateless. When the Ivorian economy crashed in the 1980s, the Dioula became an easy scapegoat for larger issues paralyzing the country. Unemployed youth moved back to their villages, sparking competing claims over land ownership. 

Not long after Houphouët-Boigny’s death in 1993, the interim President, Henri Konan Bédié, and the intellectual class exploited rising ethnic tensions to challenge the citizenship and voting rights of these minorities.  Among those minorities was his main opposition, Alassane Ouattara, a Dioula from the north. Bédié and his followers manufactured the xenophobic concept of “Ivoirité” or “Ivorian-ness,” which defined those from the south as pure Ivorian, and Dioula and other northerners as foreigners. Ouattara was disqualified when election laws were amended to limit eligibility only to candidates with both parents of “Ivorian origin.” The amendment was then applied to nationality laws, which denied citizenship to thousands of people because of their foreign or northern ancestry. The denial of citizenship and subsequent denial of documentation, land and voting rights threw the country into a battle between “Us” vs. “Them.” It would directly contribute to two coup d’états, the controversial election of President Laurent Gbagbo, and the eruption of a bloody civil war in 2002 that split the country between north and south.

Hundreds of people in the Burkinabe village of Tenkodogo, especially youth, like this young girl, have no documentation.

Hundreds of people in the Burkinabe village of Tenkodogo, especially youth, like this young girl, have no documentation.

“It is discrimination. They feel that because our ancestors originally came from Burkina Faso we are always foreigners in this country."

Prior to 2006, several million people in Ivory Coast were stateless. Mobile courts were created to issue substitute birth certificates. More than two million people were registered, but hundreds of thousands remained stateless because a birth certificate does not represent Ivorian citizenship and discrimination prevented many from properly applying. Since the election of Alassane Ouattara as President in 2010, several reforms have occurred. In 2013, laws were passed making it easier for stateless people or others born on Ivorian soil to apply for citizenship. Yet, today, where historical injustices remain unaddressed, where ethnic divisions continue to run deep, and where corruption and discrimination push people to live invisible lives on the edge of society, Ivory Coast is still home to seven hundred thousand stateless people.

“When we go to register the birth of our children,” Fatumata continues, “the registration office says we have to pay more money or go back to our home village in the north. It isn’t possible for us to travel back to the north because of the checkpoints, and they say our documents are not real. The money they ask is too much, so our children never get registered.” Fatumata puts her documents away and walks out of her house. Drawn in chalk on the side of a small house, is a simple map displaying the borders and names of countries in West Africa. Ghana to the east, Guinea and Liberia to the west. Mali and Haute Volta (Burkina Faso) to the north. Situated between all of them in an unnamed country are cities like Odienné, Man, Yakro (short for Yamoussoukro) and Abidjan. Within its borders, written in English is the word “Welcome”; a cruel irony for the many stateless people in Ivory Coast, like Fatumata.

Hundreds of people in the Burkinabè village of Tenkodogo, especially youth, have no documentation. Even those with birth certificates are not seen as citizens of Cote d'Ivoire because birth certificates in the country are not proof of nationality.

Hundreds of people in the Burkinabè village of Tenkodogo, especially youth, have no documentation. Even those with birth certificates are not seen as citizens of Cote d'Ivoire because birth certificates in the country are not proof of nationality.

"The only country we know is Cote d'ivoire. our children have birth certificates but birth certificates don't mean citizenship here. you come with your document and you are asked to hand it over to the police. they look at it and look at the name on it and say, 'who are you? how did you get this card?' the problem we face is not our documentation. it is the recognition of our documentation."