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What's in a name? A fight for identity

[Cote d'Ivoire] A rebel check point on the "the corridor south" the main road between rebel held Bouake and the main government controlled city, Abidjan. [Date picture taken: 10/31/2005]
Un point de contrôle dressé sur une routee qui mène vers la région sud tenue par les forces gouvernementale (Sarah Simpson/IRIN)

"We needed a war because we needed our identity cards," explained rebel fighter Adama Traore, one of thousands of rebels who control the northern half of Cote d'Ivoire. "Without an identity card you are nothing in this country."

The 23-year-old used to work with a local aid agency improving healthcare but he picked up a Kalashnikov when the war started three years ago to take up another more important service, he says -- the fight for equal rights for all Ivorians.

"We are badly treated. Plenty of northerners have been killed, beaten or given a hard time for nothing," he told IRIN near the rebel stronghold of Bouake, as he took a break from manning a checkpoint on the main road that runs south into government-controlled territory.

Identity is at the heart of the ongoing conflict in Cote d'Ivoire, the world's top cocoa producing nation and the economic power house of West Africa.

The problem is decades old and as well rooted as the cocoa trees that sprouted the nation's wealth. But it gained increasing political momentum in the 1990s. After the country's first and only successful coup in 1999, authorities stopped issuing identification cards altogether.

People called Traore, Konate and Ouattara say their names, which hail from the north, are like a badge that attracts trouble.

In the main southern city, Abidjan, policemen routinely harass so-called northerners at checkpoints, automatically accusing them of being in cahoots with the rebels. In the cocoa-rich west of the country, ethnic clashes periodically erupt, leaving scores dead.

Under the shade of a leafy tree, an older generation of Bouake residents do not agree with the methods the New Forces rebels are employing to change the situation, but they recognise their frustrations.

"I understand because I have a very northern sounding name. It's not Ouattara, but it might as well be. Call me Mr Not-Ouattara," said one grey-haired father with a laugh.

His eldest son is one of three million people that the UN estimates are living in Cote d'Ivoire without a national identity card, which allows them to vote or work without a permit.

"Forty-two years, I have been here," said Mr Not-Ouattara. "I am a Burkinabe, I was born there but I married here, I had all my 11 children here with my one Ivorian wife. I love Cote d'Ivoire!"

Times have changed

Mr Not-Ouattara, and millions like him, left their impoverished dusty villages in Burkina Faso for the forests of central Cote d'Ivoire as young men and women looking for work and a better life.

"In the times of Houphouet-Boigny, if you were Malian or Burkinabe like me, you could come to Cote d'Ivoire and ask for work and he would give it," he said. "But it's not like that now. You ask, but unless you are Ivorian, you don't get."

Today in Cote d'Ivoire, special dispensation has to be given for a non-national to have a government job, such as a teacher or a civil servant.

But this wasn't always the case.

Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Cote d'Ivoire's first president after the country won independence from France in 1960, continued the French tradition of encouraging workers from neighbouring countries, to come and toil in the Ivorian fields.

Houphouet-Boigny -- who died in 1993 but whose image still smiles down from the walls of hotels, restaurants and bars across the country -- set to work turning vast acres of the country's lush forest into plantations for cash crops, like cocoa, coffee and rubber.

Houphouet-Boigny was on his death bed when his prime minister, Alassane Ouattara, introduced the carte de sejour, a permit needed by all non-nationals living and working in the country, which generated much-needed income for the government amid a world slump in cocoa prices.

However, when Ouattara -- the son of an Ivorian mother and Burkinabe father, according to his opponents --- set his eye on the presidency, it ruffled the feathers of Houphouet-Boigny's successor, Henri Konan-Bedie.

[Cote d'lvoire] Former Prime minister Alassane Ouattara: Will he be able to run for presidential elections in 2004?

Opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, has been cleared to run in this year's presidential elections...
Abidjan Post
[Cote d'lvoire] Former Prime minister Alassane Ouattara: Will he be able to run for presidential elections in 2004?...
http://www.abidjanpost.com
Monday, September 16, 2002
Gbagbo agrees to let rival stand in election, rebels give cautious welcome
[Cote d'lvoire] Former Prime minister Alassane Ouattara: Will he be able to run for presidential elections in 2004?...
Ouattara -- banned from running in the 1995 and 2000 polls

Konan-Bedie seized on his rival's mixed parentage and amended the constitution so that only candidates born of both an Ivorian mother and father could run for president.

The amendment effectively embedded a definition of what it means to be Ivorian into the constitution. And this, the rebels say, has been used to marginalise 7 million northerners, or over 40 percent of the population, ever since.

Resolving the identity problem

Many analysts see Ouattara's subsequent exclusion from the 2000 elections, which were won by Laurent Gbagbo, as one of the events that paved the way for the rebels to launch their insurgency in September 2002.

And in the string of peace deals to resolve the crisis --- from Linas-Marcoussis in January 2003 to Pretoria II in June 2005 -- questions of identity and nationality have featured prominently.

Antonio Monteiro, the UN high representative for elections in Cote d'Ivoire, says the legal issues surrounding identity have now been resolved, thanks to a series of constitutional amendments carried out by Gbagbo using presidential decrees after Pretoria II.

"Anyone of an Ivorian mother or father or resident here for five years, or married to an Ivorian national can themselves apply for
Ivorian nationality," Monteiro told IRIN.

"But it's the implementation of those amendments that is not so easy. Now we have to agree the procedure of identification, not just the laws of who is considered Ivorian," he said.

And changing attitudes will be more of an uphill struggle than changing the laws, according to one senior western diplomat, who believes Cote d'Ivoire is destined for more violence and fighting before the identity issue is resolved.

"It's been years in the making and it's not going to be resolved any time soon," the Abidjan-based diplomat said.

[Cote d'Ivoire] Company commander Koulibaly (left) as he waits for his morning tea by the road side of "the corridor south" - the main road that links the rebel north and the government controlled south. [Date picture taken: 10/31/2005]

Sarah Simpson/IRIN
[Cote d'Ivoire] Company commander Koulibaly (left) as he waits for his morning tea by the road side of "the corridor south" - the main road that links the rebel north and the government controlled south. [Date picture taken: 10/31/2005]...
http://www.irinnews.org/
Monday, October 31, 2005
[Cote d'Ivoire] Company commander Koulibaly (left) as he waits for his morning tea by the road side of "the corridor south" - the main road that links the rebel north and the government controlled south. [Date picture taken: 10/31/2005]...
Rebels outside Bouake

Back at New Forces headquarters, spokesman Sidiki Konate explained that the rebels' battle was not just for a piece of paper, but to change a culture of injustice.

"One day a policeman said to me that because my name is Sidiki Konate I cannot be Ivorian. He said my identity card must be stolen or forged. He took it from me and he destroyed it," he said miming the policeman ripping the card to shreds.

"The whole system in this country is working to keep some people down," said Konate. "We took weapons, not for oil, diamonds or power, but to say that there are people in Cote d'Ivoire that are living as second class citizens in their own country."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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