Statelessness in Cote d’Ivoire

Statelessness in Côte d’Ivoire has been, at least for me, the most complicated to understand out of all the countries I’m studying. The conflict over what it means to be Ivoirian sparked two civil wars and divided the country in half for over eight years.

The first President of an independent Côte d’Ivoire, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, governed for over three decades before his death in 1993. He led the country to unprecedented economic prosperity and political stability, especially compared to other independent nations in Francophone West Africa. However, after his death the country began to face serious threats when the second President, Henri Konan Bédié, was ousted in a military coup in 1999. Laurent Gbagbo became the next president.

IMG_4753Univerisite Felix Houphouet-Boigny, named for the first president

Dealing with democratic elections for the first time since independence raised complicated questions of voting rights and citizenship. 26% of the population was of foreign origin, particularly Burkinabés attracted by Côte d’Ivoire’s relative wealth and proximity. Houphouet-Boigny had built up the country with promises of land to anyone who developed it, turning Côte d’Ivoire into the largest cacao producer in the world; but under Ivoirian law, only a citizen could own agricultural land. As with many post-colonial African states, Côte d’Ivoire adopted much of France’s constitutional language, including their jus sanguine (citizenship by blood) nationality laws. Children must have at least one Ivoirian parent to claim citizenship.

This has created two huge populations of stateless people. One is children found within the country’s borders, whether orphaned or abandoned, who can’t prove their parentage; the other is historical migrants, descendants of people who migrated to Côte d’Ivoire before independence. Official estimates place the number of stateless people at 700,000, although several people I interviewed admitted that these numbers were as good as made up – nobody has any idea how many stateless people live here.


The Burkinabe woman running this fruit stand is stateless.

Côte d’Ivoire is an unfortunate example of how the right to nationality can cause war and grief. The ultimate catalyst for civil war was a referendum before the 2000 elections, requiring both parents of a presidential candidate to be born in Côte d’Ivoire. This excluded the northern candidate Alassane Ouattara, who represented the predominantly Muslim north, especially poor immigrants from Mali and Burkina Faso. Northern troops rebelled and civil war erupted in 2002, with the goal of ousting President Gbago. Although the war officially ended in 2003, the country was in practice split for eight years into the predominantly Muslim rebel-held north and the government-controlled Christian south.

The long-delayed presidential election of 2010 reignited military conflict and led to the country’s second civil war. Alassane Ouattara won of the election, but Gbagbo refused to leave office. Eventually Ouattara’s forces gained control over most of the country, leaving Gbagbo entrenched in Abidjan. The French military finally arrested Gbagbo at his home in April 2011, and Ouattara became the official president.


The country suffered during civil war; most foreigners fled, and formerly grand buildings like this one fell into disrepair. Now the “Paris of West Africa” is rebuilding.

Under Ouattara, Côte d’Ivoire is once again thriving economically and remains relatively peaceful. Although the poorly worded nationality laws remain, having a president who personally experienced discrimination for his parentage has spurred legislative action. Côte d’Ivoire was a leader in crafting the Abidjan Declaration on Statelessness for 9 West African countries in 2015, and has drafted an action plan for addressing statelessness.

I’ve spoken with a number of non-profits, among them Femme Jurists, SAARA, and the UNHCR, about the pathway to citizenship for stateless people that this action plan created, a form of nationality by declaration. They were skeptical. The Femme Jurists estimate that only 3% of people achieving citizenship through the process are actually stateless, due to the overabundance of necessary documentation required. (The UNHCR’s official number is 50%). I also spoke with some Burkinabés about their nationality status. None of them had a nationality card, and all identified themselves as Burkinabé, even though most were in Côte d’Ivoire for the third or fourth generation. One man told me the only way to fix the problem was to fix the law. Another woman told me that the government could pass as many nationality by declaration processes as they want, but she’ll never have the money to pay the fees.


UNHCR offices in Abidjan

Although problems remain, Côte d’Ivoire overall paints a more hopeful picture than the DR did. As the only part of the world with a united regional plan, West Africa is a leader in addressing statelessness. Côte d’Ivoire has legislative energy behind it, especially with Ouattara in the presidency. Unlike most places, ethnic discrimination does not play a large role in statelessness; although tensions remain between north and south, outright discrimination is rare. Despite the inadequacy of current measures, I leave this country hopeful.


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