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.
Paul Koreki, adviser to the Ministry of Justice on statelessness issues, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that since the law was passed, 22,000 people had filed for Ivorian citizenship.
“We are the first country in the sub-region to recognize that we have statelessness issues, so we have ratified the U.N. conventions on statelessness to create sustainable solutions,” said Koreki, who is speaking at the world’s first forum on statelessness next week in The Hague.
On a cocoa plantation, Maryam Draogo, also of Burkinabe origin, is working hard under the beating sun to make a living in the time she has between housework and studying to be a bookkeeper. She recently got her Ivorian citizenship.
“With my identity card, I can go to school, live in harmony with other ethnicities and Ivorians who no longer reject us, but accept our citizenship,” Draogo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a visit to the central belt in early August.
Unlike many of her Ivorian-origin classmates, the 24-year-old salutes the national flag every Monday before starting class. When asked what having a nationality meant to her, she said the best way to describe its importance was to consider the alternative.
“Without a nationality you are no better than a wild animal, wandering from place to place. You’re nobody, you belong nowhere. Psychologically, it’s very important to have a nationality and an identity,” she said.
Some 10 million people are stateless around the world, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). Some are deliberately denied the right to a nationality by discriminatory state policies, while others simply can’t prove their tie due to migration or social exclusion.
Post-independence, nationality suddenly became an important issue for newly formed West African countries and ID cards were needed not only for national security, but also to access state services.
Ousmane Welewu, 39, was the first person in this community to receive an ID card in 2009. “With my ID card, I can get a driver’s license, open a bank account, I can even vote. And if people come to chase me off my land, I can go to the police or the courts and fight my case,” he said.
Despite Ivory Coast’s progress in tackling statelessness, eliminating it within a decade as the UNHCR aims to do may prove difficult. In the shadows of a bitter war that focused partly on identity and ‘Ivorianness’, minorities are hard to reach.
The 2013 law allocated just two six-month periods for those eligible for citizenship to file their applications. In the first period, just 22,000 applied leaving the state with a mammoth task if it is to register the remaining hundreds of thousands before the end of the second period in 2015.
“It’s partly because the message hasn’t reached communities in the remote parts of the country, and partly because people are still scared to come forward and declare their identity, which is still an extremely sensitive issue after the war,” said Koreki.
Emmanuelle Mitte, senior protection officer at UNHCR in Dakar, Senegal, said some 750,000 people in West Africa are stateless today, but she is optimistic Ivory Coast and other nations can reach the ten-year goal to eliminate statelessness.
“When we think of statelessness in West Africa, we think of Ivory Coast. The progress it has made in integrating marginalized communities is symbolic, and a message to the rest of the region. It’s about political will,” Mitte said.
For Welgo, who has now even managed to find a place on the local council, and thousands of others that have their papers, they are prouder than most to show off their ‘Ivorianness’.
Behind him, boys wearing the bright orange colors of the Ivorian football team, with Didier Drogba and the number 11 stencilled on the back, are playing keepie-uppies on the dusty school courtyard shaded by palm trees.
“If Ivory Coast played Burkina Faso in the World Cup, we’d support Ivory Coast,” he smiled.
(Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, covers underreported humanitarian, human rights, corruption and climate change issues. Visit www.trust.org)
Editing by Ros Russell