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Question of Nationality Mires Ivory Coast Conflict


Ivory Coast has a new prime minister, a new reconciliation government, and a new road map for peace intended to end the country's three-year-old civil war and pave the way for elections before the end of October. But, the thorny issue of nationality, at the heart of the conflict, has yet to be resolved - a particularly important issue as voters are still unsure if they will be able to vote in upcoming elections.

Near the bush taxi station in Bouake's main market, Mamadou Kone sells shoes, just a few hundred meters away from the hospital where he was born 28 years ago. But to the other vendors, he is known as the Guinean. When asked, Mamadou feels the need to clarify.

"My father is from Guinea," he says. "My father's father is from Guinea. My mother is from the south of Ivory Coast. I was born here in Bouake," he says. "I'm Ivorian."

It is the kind complicated explanation of lineage that has become commonplace in Ivory Coast.

The country has long been ethnically mixed. During the colonial period, French administrators brought in laborers from the north to work on projects like railroads and canals.

Ivory Coast's independence President Felix Houphouet-Boigny's open immigration policy helped the new nation become the economic engine of West Africa.

However, with the death of the founding president and an economic downturn, Ivorian politics became increasingly polarized along ethnic lines.

In late 2002, northerners within the army led a failed coup against President Laurent Gbagbo, a southerner. They claimed they were fighting for equal rights, saying the north's predominantly Muslim population was being marginalized.

More than three years of international mediation have failed to reunite the divided country. And the nationality status of northerners remains one of the key unresolved issues.

"The reason for the crisis is simple," says Mamadou. "The leaders of this country have created this xenophobia. They've divided the population. They create differences and pit everyone against each other."

Questions surrounding Ivorian nationality, something that did not even exist until independence in 1960, include who can vote, hold an identity card, own land, and run for president. Matters are complicated by the fact that many people born in Ivory Coast, especially in rural areas, do not possess birth certificates.

Mamadou has no national identity card and says, with his name which is also commonly found in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, it is impossible for him to get one.

Recently appointed Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, on his first trip to the rebel-held north, alluded to the problem. It is one, he says, that must be resolved before elections can go forward.

"What nationality will the child of an Ivorian father and Senegalese mother have," he asked. "And if that child marries a young girl he meets at university, who comes from Togo or Benin, what will be the nationality of their child?"

The most important thing, Mr. Banny says, is to allow the freedom of choice, without having people obsess over what nationality their spouse or children will have.

Last year, under pressure from international mediators, President Gbagbo allowed the candidacy of popular northern opposition leader Alassane Ouattara. He was excluded from the two previous presidential elections over doubts concerning his own citizenship.

However, a resolution of the broader nationality question has remained elusive. It is still unclear who will actually qualify to vote in elections scheduled to take place before the end of October.

For Mamadou, it is as much political as it is artificial. He alludes to the fact that almost none of the country's ethnic groups have their historical origins in the territory that makes up current-day Ivory Coast.

"The president is Bete. That ethnic group came from Liberia," he says. "The Baoules in the southeast came from Ghana. The Dioulas in the north came from Mali. No one is really pure Ivorian. We all just ended up here."