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Delay in key bid to hand out ID papers ahead of poll

[Cote d'Ivoire] Mariam Diomande applies for a nationality document in May 2006. [Date picture taken: 05/25/2006]
Mariam Diomande is applying for a nationality document (Pauline Bax/IRIN)

President Laurent Gbagbo’s party is threatening a politically sensitive registration scheme to determine who has the right to Ivorian citizenship - an issue that helped spark the almost four-year-old civil war that has divided the country.

Determining who is Ivorian is a key step in the implementation of a UN peace plan to end the war and reunify a country where some 750,000 people have been displaced and three million are receiving humanitarian assistance.

The nationwide scheme was to have begun on Thursday in the country’s main city, Abidjan. But Gbagbo’s ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) denounced the process as it was about to get under way, and on Friday, for the second day running, officials were not in place and applicants did not turn out.

Interim Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny called for the scheme to kick off on Saturday and summoned leaders of the country’s political factions to join talks to ensure the programme goes ahead.

Justice Minister Mamadou Kone, who is accused by the FPI of launching the scheme to rally votes for rebels who control the northern half of the country, said he was working to get magistrates and forms in place for a fresh start. Banny’s interim government includes members of the rebel New Forces.

“We want to say to the government that we are firmly opposed to these hearings,” FPI leader Pascal Affi N’Guessan said on Thursday. “We will oppose this masquerade by all means.”

Around one out of five of the 17 million people living in the West African nation - or 3.5 million - are estimated to be without ID papers because they were never registered at birth. Most came to Cote d’Ivoire as migrants from neighbouring countries, or their parents did, and anti-migrant sentiment has grown over the past decade.

Observers said many residents in consequence might be afraid to turn up at the public hearings for fear of being targeted by militants allied with the FPI. In the past, migrants have been attacked in Abidjan.

“Since this morning we have been waiting for a signal to start, but apparently no one is interested,” said a registration official in the neighbourhood of Yopougon on Thursday.

Under the new scheme, a person over the age of 13 must prove that at least one parent was born in the country to claim Ivorian citizenship. Neighbours will come to bear witness of the person’s identity. Hearings begin in other parts of the country on Monday and are to last for about two months.

“When I was born my father refused to recognise me, and my mother, who should’ve filled out the forms, had never been to school and didn’t realise how important it was,” said Mory Kouyate, a shoemaker in his 20s. “I hope I will get my document.”

The identification process is key to holding UN-backed peace-sealing elections that are scheduled for next October, but likely will have to be postponed. Identification will enable the establishment of electoral lists ahead of the presidential poll. New voters could help determine the outcome of the election.

“People have complained of double standards, especially in Abidjan, because people say that in the villages people know each other while in Abidjan people do not know each other,” Kone told Radio France Internationale.

“I say that it is the wrong way to look at it. There are heads of residential zones, heads of families, there are heads of many things and in one way or another people know each other and that makes it possible to have witnesses,” he said.

National identity is a sensitive issue in Cote d’Ivoire, where millions of West African migrants established their homes to work on cocoa and coffee plantations. But a fall in world prices for those commodities in the late 1990s, as well as other factors, slowed the country’s economy, leading to resentment against immigrants.

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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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