A row over Ivory Coast’s voter register has thrust the issue of Ivorian nationality to the fore, exposing festering disputes that still fuel tensions years after they first tipped the country into war.
President Laurent Gbagbo’s ruling party this week called on the head of the electoral commission to resign, accusing him of rubber-stamping a voter list for the presidential election that could include hundreds of thousands of non-Ivorians.
“They’ve put foreigners on the list,” 33-year-old Zakary Dijbeu of the pro-Gbagbo “Young Patriots” movement said at a rally this week to protest against the move.
“That’s not right it’s fraud. We’ll take to the streets. People think the Ivorian patriots are finished. That’s their mistake,” he warned.
Gbagbo’s accusations sparked a row that could further delay a presidential poll now due around late-February. The election is meant to reunite the world’s top cocoa grower after a 2002-3 civil war, but has been repeatedly postponed since 2005.
Six million Ivorians registered for the poll, but a million of those were contested, mostly on grounds of nationality.
Pundits say it is difficult to assess whether Gbagbo or his rivals have more support among the contested voters. But the row itself hits a political nerve in a country which for years attracted migrants to work its fertile land and trade in goods.
Migrants from Burkina Faso and Mali both landlocked and poorer and drier than Ivory Coast lived peacefully alongside their Ivorian hosts for decades, often gaining a reputation for hard work and skill on the land.
But in the late 1980s, when a fall in commodities prices triggered recession, tensions rose and politicians exploited them by discriminating between nationals and “foreigners” who in some cases were Ivorians with foreign-sounding names.
They restricted their rights to vote and access to land, laying the tinder for a war which finally broke out in 2002 with a rebellion fired by the discontent of northerners labelled as foreigners who felt they were treated as second-class citizens.
While the war has ended, the country remains divided along north-south lines and xenophobic sentiment is easily stirred.
“To be Ivorian is to have Ivorian blood, a father or mother who is Ivorian,” said Essi Marie Madeleine, 25, a student.
“The foreigners think they are more Ivorian than us. There are the Malians, the Burkinabe here, coming from neighbouring countries. We can’t accept them on the electoral list.”
Nationality was always going to be an issue in the election given the decision to stand of Alassane Ouattara, a northerner banned from a 2000 poll because of his foreign parentage.
Prime Minister Guillaume Soro took steps to annul the names of contested voters this week, using his powers as an overseer of the peace process. Ouattara, who along with ex-president Henri Konan Bedie is Gbagbo’s main rival, has said he is ready for the poll regardless of whether the names are on the list.
While it is not clear how the issue will be resolved, analysts said it will continue to be a threat to peace.
“The peace process has not addressed underlying identity-related tensions and problems, which will still be there the day after the election,” said Richard Moncrieff, director of International Crisis Group’s West Africa branch.
Moncrieff said Gbagbo was using nationalist fervour in his campaign as part of a calculation that he could secure electoral advantage while containing any street backlash.
But Moncrieff warned: “It’s dangerous.”