Côte d'Ivoire

In Ivory Coast, identity is a casualty of war

By James Knight and Katrina Manson

KORHOGO, Ivory Coast, July 8 (Reuters) - Three years of civil war have taken their toll on the people of Ivory Coast. Thousands have lost loved ones, homes or businesses and in the rebel-held north, many have even lost the proof they exist.

Three months before presidential polls meant to end the war in the West African nation, many residents in the mainly Muslim north have no identification papers and doubt they will be able to vote. Some say this will make the ballot meaningless.

"If elections are badly organised the war won't finish," said Lassina Kone, an assistant to the mayor in the rebels' second town, Korhogo. "People here need the chance to express themselves, without pressure, without menace."

The divisive question of identity -- who really qualifies as a "pure" Ivorian -- lies at the heart of the war which exploded in September 2002 when rebels tried to oust the president and seized the north of the world's top cocoa grower.

For years, northerners have complained of being treated like second class citizens by the southern authorities.

They have closer ethnic, religious and cultural ties to people from neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali than they have with Ivorians from the largely Christian and animist south.

Many of the rebels behind the war are northern ex-soldiers who said they were fighting to end years of discrimination.

When the war broke out, many northerners were in the process of applying for new identity cards. As fighting spread, civil servants fled to the south and identification documents were abandoned in offices that have since been destroyed.

Northerners fear the loss of their papers will isolate them even more.


Ivory Coast's war has gone in cycles -- brief bursts of fighting, lengthy talks, the signing of a peace accord, failure to implement the deal, stalemate and stagnation until tensions bubble up again with more violence and the cycle starts over again.

The October 30 election, agreed during peace talks in April, is meant to finally break that rhythm.

But since April, virtually no progress has been made on drawing up voter lists or creating an electoral commission. And fighters on both sides have yet to disarm.

Some observers doubt the poll will happen -- citing the difficulty of organising a transparent vote in a divided country where warring factions are kept apart by around 10,000 U.N. and French peacekeepers who police a countrywide buffer zone.

For years, elections have been flashpoints. In 2000, hundreds were killed in street fighting after northern opposition politician Alassane Ouattara was excluded from the poll because of doubts about his nationality.

"This war is about the right to vote," says one officer serving with the 4,000-strong French contingent in the north.

"People hear the word rebel and they don't think there can be an intellectual point or a political cause. But everyone here knows what they're fighting for."

Another problem for those pinning their hopes on fair polls is the fact that many people do not have the documents taken for granted elsewhere, such as birth certificates. In sub-Saharan Africa, 55 percent of births go unregistered each year.

In the village of Kombolokoura, southwest of Korhogo, not one of the 700 inhabitants has a birth certificate.

"Multiply that by the number of villages in this region alone, and you begin to have an idea of the scale of the problem," said Kone. "Do you know how long it takes to get a list of people on the electoral roll?"

"We don't have the resources to collect everyone's name, or the ability to prove who they are through paperwork," he said.


Residents in the north hope the independent electoral commission will issue polling cards as an interim measure for the October vote. But the commission has not even been named yet because of political squabbling.

Even if the election takes place and most people are allowed to vote, it's not clear all sides would respect the results -- and history serves as a grim reminder of the consequences.

Ouattara has already said Gbagbo is trying to cheat him of victory by rigging the polls and warned of violence.

He said Gbagbo had given the task of organising the polls to the National Statistic Institute (INS) -- a state-run body -- and that could lead to fraud. The presidency has denied the charges, saying the INS has always drawn up voter lists.

Fearing another burst of post-poll violence, some hope the U.N. mission will take charge of the vote. But officials in the peacekeeping mission warn this is not realistic.

"People see the big white 4-by-4 (jeep) and think the U.N. has come to deliver peace," says Abdoul Sow, a public information consultant with the U.N. mission. "But peace doesn't come in a 4-by-4. Every Ivorian is a guardian of peace."

He believes that part of the mission's work is to teach voters to face the most uncomfortable of democratic realities -- the chance that their candidate might not win.

"People must be prepared for a winner, and a loser."


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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