Mariam Diomande stood patiently clutching her application papers for a nationality document as she lined up with dozens of other young women in the sun-baked courtyard of the local town hall.
Diomande, a 19-year-old water vendor, is illiterate and has never left Abidjan since her mother handed her over to an aunt at the age of three. To get around the city, she takes one of the overcrowded Sotra state-owned buses that ferry thousands of poor commuters between neighbourhoods.
Like tens of thousands of Ivorians, Diomande has no birth certificate and thus no identity papers. Taking a shared taxi or travelling outside the city is not an option. "I’d end up paying a lot of money and that's difficult," she said, referring to the omnipresent roadblocks in this conflict-divided nation, where rebels and security forces alike demand money from drivers and passengers. "But when you take the bus, nobody ever asks for your papers."
An estimated three million people have no identity papers in Cote d’Ivoire, yet never have there been so many security checkpoints in the West African nation, said Justice Minister Amadou Kone on launching a pilot scheme in seven towns earlier this month to provide disenfranchised Ivorians with a proof of nationality.
The trial, meant to test the capacity of the Ivorian justice system and prepare the ground for a nationwide identification programme slated to start next month, ended last weekend after a two-day extension was given to hear those whose application was rejected.
After a slow start, particularly in the main city Abidjan, people began to turn out in droves to claim, as it were, their legal existence.
Identificiation is a key rebel demand
Identification, including the distribution of identity papers to tens of thousands of demobilized fighters, is a key demand of rebels who control the mainly Muslim northern half of the country.
And the identification programme is scheduled to run alongside a much-delayed disarmament programme whose first step, preparing the return to barracks of combatants in the more than three-year war, began last week.
Both sides pulled back around 100 troops each from the frontline in central Cote d'Ivoire as part of the so-called pre-regroupment phase in which combatants are to be gathered at 75 designated sites in the rebel north and 35 locations in the government south
“The process is off to a good start,” Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny said this week of the twin-tracked identification and disarmament scheme.
But more than disarmament, identification is paramount to restoring peace as the country's millions of northerners and immigrants complain of being marginalized and discriminated against by security forces.
Magistrates in the northern rebel-held town of Botro told IRIN they had been "swamped" with nearly 2,500 applicants. In the end, 615 Ivorians received a nationality document, while five foreign nationals got a temporary identity certificate, said Judge Bernard Kouadio.
And in Tiapoum, a tiny town in the government-run southeast, most applicants were not Ivorians, but immigrants from poor West African countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Benin. As the hearings ended, 344 foreigners had obtained a certificate, and 56 Ivorians were provided with identity papers.
The issue of who is Ivorian and who is not became a hot political question in the mid-1990s when the main opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, a banker and former prime minister, was excluded from running in presidential elections on the grounds that he was not a full-blooded Ivorian.
ID is needed ahead of vote
It was no wonder, then, that militants of Ouattara's main opposition Rally of the Republicans (RDR) gathered together supporters in the poor Abidjan neighbourhood of Port Bouet to get identity papers enabling them to vote in presidential elections scheduled for next October.
"We have the right to vote and we are going to claim it," said RDR activist Aminata Fofana. She said approximately 200 Ivorians and 30 foreigners had been granted proof of identity at the hearings in Abidjan.
Although a government observer in Abidjan told IRIN she found the procedure - a medical check and an interrogation -- "too easy", hundreds of hopefuls were sent away because they were unable to convince the judges.
A young tailor was rejected because he was considered "too polite and too responsible" by Judge Sylvain Gbongue, who did not believe the man had no papers. A child without a birth certificate cannot officially enrol in school in Cote d’Ivoire.
And a woman who had brought her neighbours as witnesses was told to return as soon as she had found family members willing to attest to her background.
But many people walked away relieved and elated, like 48-year-old Aïsha Koné, who runs a public toilet in the lighthouse district of Port-Bouet.
"For three days and nights, I couldn't eat or sleep," she said. "I was afraid the judges would reject my demand."
Koné said she was used to paying bribes ranging from 500 to 1,000 CFA to get past checkpoints - "If they stop me, I pay" - but that she finally felt like "a real citizen" now that she was registered in the books.
Asked why so many northerners had no birth certificate, Koné replied: "Our problem is, we don't take dates seriously. Our parents forget to do the paperwork. They just don't think it's necessary."
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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