Unblocking access to citizenship in the global South: Should the process be decentralised?

Decentralisation of citizenship in Côte d’Ivoire requires first building trust

Alfred Babo (Fairfield University, Connecticut)

In her opening piece for this forum, Bronwen Manby argues that decentralisation may increase the number of naturalisations by alleviating bureaucratic procedures and operating at the local level. The solution of localising naturalisation is not new, as fully described by Irene Bloemraad in the United States case. However, in the Ivorian case, beyond bureaucratic obstacles and financial deterrents, three significant factors might impair this approach: first, the dominance of practices of what Emile Durkheim called “social integration,” over documented citizenship; second, reluctance to accept the rule of double ius soli; third, the permanent tensions over nationality that lately led to war in the country. 

Practice of social integration

Western states’ history shows that citizenship relied on and is ruled by what McKenzie (2017) named the ”documents regime”. In the African context, most documents regimes have been nationalised by the post-colonial states. After independence, in Côte d’Ivoire, legal citizenship evolved over the years to embody what seems to be a mixture of ius soli and ius sanguinis.  Law 61- 415 of 1961, which first established the Ivorian nationality code, devised transitional provisions based on residency before 1960 and provided ongoing attribution that provided some rights based on birth in the territory, as well as by descent. Through Articles 17 to 23, 27, and Article 105, the transitional provisions clearly aimed to include West Africans and their descendants resident in Côte d’Ivoire into the new Ivorian nation, requiring only a “declaration” of their will to be naturalised. For those born in Côte d’Ivoire after independence, Article 6 provided for citizenship to be acquired at birth on the Ivorian territory “unless both parents were foreigners” (and on condition that the birth had been registered). The third procedure was based on birth in Côte d’Ivoire and residence until the age of majority. The final way to access citizenship was ordinary residence-based naturalisation. 

After independence in 1960, in spite of these legal provisions, immigrants rather became integrated as members of a local community through long-term settlement than by undertaking the paperwork required to demonstrate citizenship. Many West Africans got stuck in “social naturalisation” as few of them actually applied for citizenship status. Diaha (2020) argues that lack of communication on the law and ignorance of the legal condition by immigrants is one reason for the low application numbers. Yet, I argue that foreigners’ wish to become Ivorians might also be overstated. Naturalisation is not only a legal procedure, but also the outcome of slow acculturation. In 1961, one of the representatives reminded the National Assembly‘s institutional committee members that naturalisation is not only an administrative act but also an aspiration involving individual commitments.  Moreover, from 1960 to 1990 the lack of legal naturalisation for many West Africans did not exclude them from rights traditionally attached to citizenship. For instance, from 1960 to 1994, contrary to Article 5 of the Constitution, the Ivorian government granted them rights to vote (but not to run for office) in general elections (presidential, parliamentary, and local). The electoral codes of 1980 and 1985 were more specific and restricted those political rights to African immigrants only. The first president, Houphouët-Boigny also granted them land rights by proclaiming that “the land belongs to whoever uses it.” Against this backdrop, there was no necessity to apply for citizenship, even if the procedures were easy.    

Restricted access to citizenship increases percentage of foreigners

In any case, in 2014, the proportion (24 percent) of foreigners in the population of Côte d’Ivoire remained artificially high (RGPH 2014). This number would decrease considerably if non-nationals residing in Côte d’Ivoire for 10 years or more, or whose parents have lived there for more than 10 years, were to obtain citizenship. It would also reduce dramatically if the rule of double ius soli – that a person born in the territory of one parent also born there is attributed nationality automatically at birth – had been applied (as it is in all the other former French territories in West Africa). Since the second generation born in the country made up 59% of those people identified as “foreigners” in 2014, the number of people born without Ivorian citizenship is far higher compared to other West African nations. Numerous “immigrants” of foreign descent would have become Ivorian with such a legal provision.

Yet, already in 1961 the lawmakers were reluctant to use this option mainly because the country was the most attractive to immigrants in the region, a reluctance that increased after the so-called “economic miracle” of rapid post-independence growth. Ten years later, the lawmakers restricted access to citizenship by adopting law no. 72-852 of 21 December 1972, which amended the 1961 code to end the “declaration” provision for those born in Côte d’Ivoire and resident until majority.   

Nationality, the bone of contention

At the advent of multiparty electoral democracy in the 1990s, the question of who made up the population of foreigners gained political significance, and the recognition or acquisition of nationality became problematic. Over the last thirty years, Ivorian society has been grasped by the divisive ideology of ivoirité, emphasising membership of an ‘indigenous’ (autochhone) ethnic groupand casting doubt on the nationality of the current president Alassane Ouattara. During the year of any presidential elections, distrust about this political leader’s citizenship gripped the debate. The recurrent crisis of national identity eventually included the descendants of all West Africans, as well as those from the northern regions of Côte d’Ivoire, including those born on the territory who did not take advantage of the nationality code between 1961 and 1972 to claim Ivorian citizenship. Violent clashes have broken out regularly, such as those that took place in 2006 in two towns, which resulted in three deaths during public hearings to claim a national identity card. Ultimately, the political competition and denial of rights and citizenship to northerners led to the 2002 rebellion and low-level civil war for almost a decade.

Controversies also emerge over mass naturalisation efforts to resolve these issues.

How to reach modern legal recognition?

After the transitional provisions of the first code of nationality of 1961, other special measures have been taken by the authorities to grant nationality to immigrants. Decree 95-809 of September 1995 naturalised eight thousand Burkinabe (descendants of those originating in Burkina Faso) settled in four villages since the colonial time. In 2003, following the rebellion, the Marcoussis Accord prescribed that those who could have been eligible to acquire nationality based on birth and residence until majority, before the 1972 law removed that right, must be given the right to apply again. Law 2004-663, modified and supplemented in 2005 by decisions 2005-04 / PR and 2005-10 / PR, and the implementing decree 2006- 76 of 31 May 2006, were adopted in line with these pledges – though scarcely accessed in practice.

In 2013, the new government of Alassane Ouattara acceded to two international conventions against statelessness, and adopted a law providing temporary procedures to enable the grant of Ivorian nationality to individuals living in the country without citizenship. These decisions triggered intense debates. With this new law, 2013-653 of 13 September 2013, stateless individuals originating from neighbouring countries would be able to acquire Ivorian nationality. While the UNHCR estimated the total number of stateless persons to be more than one million, opposition leaders argued that the government intended to turn approximately six million foreigners into Ivorians. Four years later, in 2017, only 123,810 applications had been submitted and 14,000 certificates of nationality delivered, while 32,450 applications had been rejected for various reasons, including suspicions over the trustworthiness of paperwork obtained by the applicants’ local administrations. The questions raised about this collective naturalisation concerned the timing and the right to vote regarding the 2015 presidential election. The problem remains of what solution could facilitate legal access to citizenship in the current modern society where it becomes increasingly difficult to live without documents; but also in a country where nationality is the subject of controversy, even violence. Most recently, in line with this law and its pledge at UNHCR’s High-Level Segment on Statelessness, on 2 September 2020 the government formally established procedures that aim to regularise the status of stateless people in Côte d’Ivoire.

Despite this legal framework, the challenge remains how to facilitate the legal acquisition of citizenship. I agree with Manby that a political decision for a double ius soli would reduce the rate of “foreigners”. However, in Côte d’Ivoire some citizenship reforms have either failed or turned out to be harmful for national cohesion. For example, in 1966 Houphouet-Boigny failed to implement a proposal to allow dual nationality because it lacked support, especially the agreement of the National Assembly. His personal political decision to grant land rights to immigrants resulted, in the long run, in deadly community conflicts. Therefore, I argue that in a country where citizenship is so hotly debated, any political decisions for ius soli will need solid institutional agreements (including the Government, Social and Economic Council, National Assembly, and Senate) and even public debate and adhesion at the national and local level.

Another way could be to remedy the flaws in the documents regime, which provides by law for the passport, the national identity card (CNI), and especially a certificate of nationality as proof of citizenship. Distributing birth certificates to individuals who lack them is a starting point. In June 2019, more than 600,000 school children received their birth certificates with the support of UNICEF. Getting this document did not only make those children legally visible; it is also a documentary requirement necessary for obtaining the CNI (required to access public services or get a job) and a certificate of nationality, which is the documentary evidence of citizenship.

What could prevent the implementation of decentralised naturalisation?   

Since nationality morphed into a powerful tool for the political vote, allegations of nationality fraud aiming at including non-nationals illegally in the electoral rolls are recurrent. Fraud on the CNI exploded in the 1990s after the adoption of the requirement to hold a residence card (carte de séjour) by law 90-437 of 29 May 1990, mainly because of its prohibitive cost. Besides, although foreigners’ right to vote was suspended, many Burkinabe, who have genuinely believed themselves to be Ivorian and previously had been treated as such by regularly participating in the elections, were granted CNIs to constitute what was called “betail electoral” (electoral cattle) to vote during the first democratic presidential election of 1990. In the last couple of years, allegations of fraud increased at the local level, for example in 2015 in Soubré, 2018 in Yopougon, and 2019 in Daoukro.

Another factor is the lack of reliability of the état-civil (registration of births, marriages and deaths), especially in the north. This public service remains poorly equipped and has insufficient human resources, both in quantity and quality. Besides, in 2002 the northern rebels destroyed and burned down some état-civil offices in the regions they occupied in the centre, north, and west. As a result, for nearly ten years the birth registration service closed down, or operated in these areas independently of central government control. Regularly, debates surge about the reliability of the services delivered by this administration and the documents it issues.      

Finally, in contrast to Acosta’s argument about South American cases, corruption is a determinant factor that would hinder decentralised naturalisation in the Ivorian context. Local justice administration has already been accused of corruption in its functioning. According to Afrobarometer data, police and judicial system are two public institutions perceived as the most corrupted and, thus, less trusted by Ivorians. My assumption is that the combination of nationality fraud and corruption is a recurrent plague in the Ivorian administration that does not play in favour of the decentralisation proposal.  

Ways forward

With respect to the low statistics and slow process of naturalisation in Côte d’Ivoire, Manby’s suggestion for decentralising the procedure could be relevant. However, since the procedure is centralised, one game-changer could be allocating actual power to local authorities and representatives through the decentralisation of governance. This move must go along with enhancing the local administration’s reliability, especially that of courts and police. Another critical element could be the improvement of services that produce statistics locally. For example, decentralisation could build upon the World Bank’s new project, Harmonizing and Improving Statistics in West Africa (HISWA), which aims to strengthen the statistical systems and enhance the use of core statistics, including regular censuses. Finally, naturalisation policies must be separated from political issues. Otherwise, decentralisation of naturalisation in the still divided Côte d’Ivoire without the reforms that can build political trust and reliable local administration might not be a realistic prospect and could actually enhance political tensions.