Bintou Cisse has a dream: she wants to start a one-woman business importing waxed African cloth from nearby Togo into Cote d’Ivoire.
Although she has no education and no money of her own, the main obstacle to realising her ambitions has been her lack of legal identity.
That hurdle was overcome this month when mobile courts arrived in Bintou’s native town of Bouake in central Cote d'Ivoire and declared Bintou an Ivorian citizen. The court said she qualified for obtaining a nationality certificate.
So with the stroke of a pen Bintou finally, officially exists.
"I can travel now," said the heavyset, dark-skinned 16-year-old in her ethnic Dioula language. "Without papers, it was impossible. I couldn't afford to bribe the security forces to get past roadblocks."
The question of identity lies at the heart of the conflict that split Cote d’Ivoire into a rebel-held north and government-controlled south after insurgents failed to topple President Laurent Gbagbo in a September 2002 coup. With the country’s collective character fractured, individuals are struggling in parallel to establish their individual identities.
Resentment against immigrants
After the death of founding President Felix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993, politicians took advantage of growing resentment against West African immigrants as the country’s once booming, cocoa-based economy faltered. The politicians spoke of “Ivoirite,” or “Ivoirianness,” to garner support through nationalism and the military became politicised.
Thousands of immigrants fled the country during unrest that followed disputed October 2000 presidential elections.
The public hearings aim to resolve the identity issue. They began last month and are scheduled to wrap up by the end of August. The government sent 50 mobile courts to towns and villages across the divided country to determine who among Cote d'Ivoire’s 16 million people, including an estimated 3 million immigrants, has Ivorian nationality.
Only about a dozen courts continue to function because the Justice Ministry had neglected to provide enough fuel to transport the judges, and had printed too few application forms, observers said.
The distribution of identity papers, along with the disarmament of government militia and rebel troops, is key to holding elections planned for October. Millions of Ivorians have no papers and so they cannot vote.
"There is much more to it than just getting identity papers," said assistant prefect Yves Ahounan, who sat at the hearings in Bouake as an observer. "It's more political than that. It's also about the elections."
Supporters of the ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) fear that thousands of immigrants will fraudulently obtain Ivorian nationality and vote for Gbagbo's main rival, the northern presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara.
Disagreements hold up hearings
Both the identity hearings and disarmament have run into serious delays. The disarmament of militia was suspended nearly three weeks ago because too few weapons were handed in, and the rebels have yet to relinquish a single gun.
The identification programme stopped in most towns in the south after violent protests by government supporters, and was further delayed in the north when President Gbagbo suddenly said that judges conducting the hearings had no constitutional authority to issue nationality certificates.
Since Gbagbo's announcement, the courts no longer distribute nationality certificates, but issue a temporary document instead. Ivorians must then go to a local court and apply for a permanent proof of identity. No justice system exists in the rebel-held north.
Last Friday, opposition parties and the rebels issued a joint statement denouncing Gbagbo’s statement, which they say is contrary to the United Nations-backed peace plan designed to reunite the country.
However, Western diplomats say Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny was behind the decision to stop issuing nationality certificates as a compromise with Gbagbo's FPI, which lifted a boycott on the hearings last week.
Persistence despite obstacles
Despite the recent disagreements, people continue to turn out in droves, happily accepting whatever document the government provides for them.
"We're completely swamped. We see between 40 and 60 people per day. Every time we move to a different site, we leave people behind without papers," said Ahounan.
"Even if we extend the program by, say three months, we'd still need additional teams to reach the surrounding villages," he said. "People are a bit traumatised. They want to have as many official papers as possible."
Outside one courtroom in Bouake, Bazouma Doumbia, a gray-bearded man with a warm, toothless grin, accompanied his niece, an elderly woman who had never travelled out of town and did not know her age.
Doumbia, who was born in Bouake of Ivorian parents, took out a crumpled, yellow ID card that was rendered obsolete in the late 1990s by a new, green nationality document. "The day I obtained my nationality card, I killed a chicken to thank my ancestors," he said.
"That was in 1978. Since then, I've had to renew it twice. The first time, civil servants took a year to investigate my background. The second time, they refused to renew it, saying I was a foreigner. You see, this is how the system works, and there is nothing you can do about it," Doumbia said.
"An Ivorian without papers is like a dog without a master," he said. "You can beat him whenever you want."
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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