New Ivory Coast citizens cast off specter of statelessness

Thu Sep 11, 2014 1:34pm EDT
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By Misha and Hussain

TENKODOUGOU Ivory Coast (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Three years after the civil war, patriotic sentiment is running high on Independence Day in Ivory Coast. But in seven, small hamlets hidden in the lush green cocoa fields of the central belt, the villagers are keener than most to prove their loyalty to the nation.

Their ancestral roots lie in Burkina Faso, and people in this community had until recently faced discrimination for almost 80 years. Locals beat them and accused them of being foreigners, police restricted their movement and courts denied them justice.

For decades, they cried: “But we’re Ivorian!”

“We may have kept our village and family names from Burkina Faso, our traditional dances, our language, but we were born in Ivory Coast, we live here and we are passionately Ivorian,” said Oumarou Welgo, 50, hand on heart, ready to burst into the national anthem to prove his point.

Welgo's ancestors were forced from Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, by French colonialists in the 1930s to work on coffee and cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast. Despite a short window to claim Ivorian nationality, few appreciated the benefits of citizenship and failed to register themselves or their children.

Without papers, descendants cannot prove their right to Ivorian citizenship, which in Ivory Coast is passed on through blood links to at least one Ivorian parent. Nor were they recognized in Burkina Faso. They lived like ghosts, unnoticed on the fringes of society.

Ivory Coast has some 700,000 stateless people within its borders, one of the biggest stateless populations in the world. But after two civil wars in the space of a decade, the country has taken steps to integrate marginalized communities to tackle historical injustices and avoid further conflict running up to the elections in 2015.

An October 2013 law which would potentially recognize the stateless as citizens was an important milestone.   Continued...

An Ivory Coast flag hangs from the dashboard of a commercial truck on the road to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso September 24, 2012. JOE PENNEY/Joe Penney