BBC World Service
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Article 15: Right to nationality

  • Although Ivory Coast contains over 60 ethnic groups and several religions, it was long known as a country of ethnic and religious harmony, as well as one of the economic powerhouses of Africa.
  • In the 1990s, however, Ivorian political leaders adopted a series of measures which denied the possibility of citizenship to immigrants and their children and have resulted in the arbitrary arrest, deportation, and even murder, of some foreign nationals.
  • These tensions eventually led to civil war in late 2002, when military rebellion threw the country into crisis.
  • The consequences of the hatred between different ethnic groups have continued to devastate the country’s economy.

Foreign Nationals

The number of foreign nationals who live in Ivory Coast is largely unknown. Estimates vary from 25% to 50% of the country's population of 16 million.

Concentrated primarily in the north, most of the immigrants originate from the bordering countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea, as well as nearby Senegal. Seventy percent of the immigrants are Muslim, while native Ivorians are generally Christian.

Despite their large numbers, immigrants and their descendants are increasingly viewed as inferior non-citizens. They are deprived of a fundamental human right: the right to a nationality.

Historical Context

It wasn't always the case. Between 1960 and 1993, the official policy of the Ivorian state, ruled by President Boigny, was to welcome and encourage immigration. This was because the country had many cocoa and coffee plantations and greatly needed labourers. During this relatively peaceful period, foreign residents were even allowed to vote.

The situation began to change when Boigny's hand-picked successor, Henri Konan Bédié, gradually encouraged Ivorians to adopt xenophobic attitudes towards the country's immigrants and their descendants, despite the fact that many of the latter were actually born in the Ivory Coast.


Bédié championed the idea of pure Ivorian parentage which he termed 'Ivoirité,' or 'Ivorian-ness.' While people with two parents born in the Ivory Coast are deemed superior 'pure Ivorians,' immigrants or children of immigrants are viewed as inferior 'circumstantial Ivorians.'

The government has challenged the right of immigrants to own land, and in 1998, a law authorised the expulsion of thousands of farming peasants who originated from Burkina Faso.

Bédié's policy of ivoirité was continued under the rule of General Gueï, who took power in a violent coup d'état in 1999.

In order to prevent the popular politician from the North, Alassane Ouattara, from running in the 2000 presidential election, Gueï; drafted a new constitution, approved by a referendum in July 2000, which requires all presidential candidates to have fully Ivorian parents and have never held another nationality.

Although Ouattara says that he is a pure Ivorian, his political opponents claim that his father was born in Burkina Faso, and thus a high court ruling has banned him from ever running for president.

Targeted for Violence

Citizenship in the Ivory Coast is now circumscribed to those who can prove they hail from an Ivorian village. Some immigrants and children of immigrants have been denied passports, have been stripped of their identity cards and have been subjected to arbitrary detention and beatings.

Following Laurent Gbagbo's victory in the 2000 presidential election, Human Rights Watch reported that government security forces targeted civilians solely on the basis of their religion, ethnicity or national origin.

Nearly all of the victims hailed from the Muslim north of the country, or were immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.

According to Human Rights Watch, in October 2000, security forces massacred fifty-seven young men and buried their bodies in a mass grave just outside of Abidjan.

In January of 2001, the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, controversially declared, "These days in the Ivory Coast, citizens of Burkina Faso are treated worse than black people in Europe."

Branded as Illegal Immigrants

The Ivorian government, however, has defended its policy by pointing to the fact that many of country's immigrants reside in the country illegally because they have failed to pay for a bona fide residence permit.

In September 2002, hundreds of soldiers took part in a violent uprising against the state. Although General Gueï was assassinated, the uprising failed. The soldiers denied they were trying to orchestrate a coup, and defended their actions by explaining that they were fighting against 'dictatorship' and their treatment as 'slaves.'

The government quickly alleged that a foreign power such as Burkina Faso or Liberia was behind the attempted coup, unleashing a new wave of violence against the country's immigrants and their children.

In a prominent broadcast a few weeks after the rebellion, the news director of Ivorian national television advocated the expulsion from Ivory Coast of at least half a million immigrants from Burkina Faso.

Many people who were non-Ivorian fled to Burkina Faso and Mali. As these people were formally labourers and workers who farmed the country’s coffee and cocoa exports, much of Ivory Coast’s key economy is now in ruins.

Elsewhere in the country “welcome centres” – wooden refugee camps - house large numbers of non-Ivorians.

Tough new rules were put in place in March 2004 limiting the amount of time foreigners could work in the country. However, in a concession to the region’s governing body, Ecowas, ministers said it would not apply to other nationals from the West African region.

But the issue of nationality is the cause of a Catch-22 situation that is keeping the country in a perpetual state of war.

The north remains held by New Forces rebels, the majority of whom are Muslim and have family ties to Burkina Faso or Mali, while the south is government territory. The north wants the law changed to allow Ouattara to stand for President and saw they will not lay down their arms until this happens – but the government says there can be no constitutional amendment while the country is divided, and insists the New Forces disarm before any changes are made.

Meanwhile, the second anniversary of the crisis in late September was marked by 160 children being made United Nations ambassadors of peace.

The UN’s Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, who is in charge of the “corridors of peace” – areas of no-man’s land between the rebel-held north and loyalist south – has gone on record as saying he hopes the children will provide a model for the rest of the country.

"These kids have been showing us the way forward, in the way they are united. Boys and girls, Muslims and Christians… this is what Ivory Coast must be again."