The dispute concerns 1.9 million people who were registered as potential voters but have not yet proved their eligibility, and underscores the role of nationality in a crisis simmering since the 2002-3 war split the nation in two.
President Laurent Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party, which has long-campaigned along nationalist lines, wants all 1.9 million people to defend their case in court before they can join the 4.3 million whose registration has been accepted.
“If they do it for 1.9 million, they will need another three months (to draw up a provisional list),” said Rinaldo Depagne, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank.
Any provisional list must be posted for one month for voters to check before the final lists is drawn up and cards printed.
“This is an awful lot of people to be processed,” an Abidjan-based diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, said, adding that he was concerned by the scope of the delay.
The Nov. 29 deadline will be the fifth to have passed since Gbagbo’s first term officially expired in 2005. Critics accuse all sides of profiting from the tortuous peace process, which ended the fighting but left the nation divided.
A successful poll should pave the way for reforms needed to revamp an ailing cocoa sector and lure investors back to a nation that was once a West African success story.
However, a UN panel of experts has warned that both the northern rebels and the government forces were “rearming or re-equipping” despite an arms embargo and there was a risk of violence if sides felt their economic interests were in danger.
Danger of nationality issue
While the overall situation remains calm for now, there are signs of emerging tensions, with some opposition figures accusing Gbagbo of abusing state media for campaigning and readying the military to crack down on any attempts to protest.
The danger of escalation increases as the debate intensifies over nationality and identity prickly issues the rebels used to justify taking over the north, which they still control despite numerous peace deals and failed attempts at disarmament.
Martin Bohui Sokouri, the FPI’s secretary for elections, said it was up to all 1.9 million to prove they were Ivorians as the lists were full of fraudulent names.
The opposition Rally for the Republicans (RDR), whose leader Alassane Ouattara was long barred from standing for president on grounds of nationality but is now a leading rival to Gbagbo, warned of the dangers of “categorising” Ivorians.
“It is shocking that we are falling back on the same themes when we are meant to be overcoming the crisis, said Mamdou Sanogo, the RDR’s head of elections.
Diplomats say that UN peacekeepers want Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore, who is a facilitator and wants the Ivorians to resolve the issue, to step in. Fears of instability are further fuelled by the crisis in neighbouring Guinea.
The ICG’s Rinaldo warned that the row risks playing into the hands of those who play the nationalist card, as well as rebels who may now cite exclusion as an excuse not to disarm and lose the lucrative illegal money-making schemes they run.
“It is very good news for the hardliners on both sides. That is why it needs to be solved as soon as possible,” he said.
Pic: President Laurent Gbago of the Ivory Coast