ABIDJAN, 22 March 2013 (IRIN) - Which of Côte d'Ivoire's 20 million inhabitants qualify as nationals is a question that has driven political debate and conflict here for many years, and one that came to the fore earlier this month when thousands of people who had lived here all their lives were finally, and simultaneously in a public ceremony, given formal citizenship documents.
While around 140,000 similarly eligible residents have received documentary confirmation of their Ivoirian citizenship since 2011, the public ceremony held earlier this month in the administrative capital, Yamoussoukro, made waves because the documents were given to more than 8,000 people at the same time.
There are hundreds of thousands of people in Côte d'Ivoire who qualify for Ivoirian nationality but who, for various, reasons lack the documents to prove it. Because many are descended from people from other west African countries, they are often regarded as foreigners. In law, they are effectively stateless.
A long struggle
Among the most recent group to receive citizenship papers was 53-year-old Maurice Kamgabéga, whose family settled in Côte d'Ivoire's central-western Bouaflé area in 1933 from what was then known as Upper Volta (present day Burkina Faso).
"I breathed a sigh of relief... Finally the end of a long struggle," Kamgabéga said after being handed a certificate giving him Ivoirian citizenship.
"We were frustrated and angry because our Ivoirian brothers and sisters treated us like foreigners. It was humiliating to know that we never belonged to a country and were somehow nonexistent," he told IRIN.
"For my children and grandchildren to go to school at times I had to do under-the-table dealings with the schools. But it's when they were to take final examinations that things got more complicated because we did not have any documents," he added.
Kamgabéga's brother Zongo, who also took part in the ceremony, said: "We now have the same rights [as other Ivoirians]... We are all very proud of the decision by the government. The harassment on the roads that some of us have suffered will be over. We are grateful to the Ivoirian authorities."
Identity has been at the heart of Côte d'Ivoire's political crises for decades. After independence from France in 1960, founding president Félix Houphouët-Boigny continued the French tradition of encouraging workers from neighbouring countries to come and work in the Ivoirian cocoa fields. Until 1972, those born in the country had an automatic right to citizenship.
Nationality became a controversial political issue when current President Alassane Ouattara, who served as Houphouët-Boigny's prime minister, set his eyes on the presidency upon the founding president's death in 1993.
In 1995 Ouattara was deemed ineligible to run for president on the grounds that he failed to meet the parentage requirements then in place.
Ouattara was again barred by from taking part in the 2000 presidential and parliamentary polls, leading to street protests in which scores died. The protests were seen by some observers as sparking the 2002 rebellion that split the country in two, with the north under insurgent rule and the south under former president Laurent Gbagbo.
"The issue of nationality is one of the causes of Côte d'Ivoire's crisis that stretches back two decades. It should therefore be dealt with carefully," said René Hokou Légré, who heads the Ivoirian Human Rights League.
Reactions to the March ceremony reveal how sensitive - and misunderstood - the issue of nationality is.
Although the process of providing documents to those lacking proof of nationality was initially set in motion by a gazette notice in 1996, when Gbagbo was president, some saw hidden motives behind the current administration’s move to distribute the documents in large numbers.
"The government is bolstering its electoral strategy ahead of the 2015 or 2020 presidential polls. Otherwise there is no urgency to naturalize so many people... It is a worrying situation, and the authorities must explain themselves," said Françoise Bah, a teacher in the commercial capital, Abidjan.
Lawyer Nick De Bessou was among those who described the beneficiaries of the process as “foreigners”. He accused the government of “selling nationality at a throw-away price.”
Justice Minister Mamadou Gnénéma dismissed such criticism, insisting it was “unacceptable that people can belong to no country. The statelessness of these people had to be resolved to make them understand that they can now enjoy the same rights as other Ivoirians. It's been a long time since their names were gazetted."
Salifou Soro, who heads SOS Apatride, an NGO dealing with stateless persons, concurred:
"Over time this situation caused socio-political tensions. It was therefore important to regularize their status in order to turn the page on this sombre history of Côte d'Ivoire," he said.
*This report was amended on 28 March to correct the number of people who have received citizenship documents and to clarify the process of verifying citizenship.