Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A question of Ivorian identity

Violence has marred a referendum on national identity in Ivory Coast, with low voter turnout compounding religious and other divisions in the country, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The President of Ivory Coast, Alassane (Al-Hassan) Dramane Ouattara, has been wrestled by his nationalistic opponents into running a messy compromise of a country with tremendous economic potential. Many Ivory Coast nationals are suspicious of their Muslim compatriots, considering them to be not truly Ivorian.

At the heart of this concept is the fact that many Ivorian Muslims have dual citizenship and loyalties to one or other neighbouring states such as Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali. In driving the terms of a bargain for national reconciliation in the country, Muslims in Ivory Coast have reasserted their status as a power to be reckoned with in Ivorian politics.

The first task is to admit that Ivory Coast is in a deep and abiding political crisis, and that a fundamental review of its founding principles will be required. Ethnically, it is one of the most diverse countries on the African continent. Whether it is even possible at this stage to distinguish between the mosaic of different forces on the soil of this agriculturally rich nation is also moot.

There are ample grounds for caution about Ivory Coast’s political future, and Sunday’s referendum is a catechism of sorts. Ivory Coast gained its independence from France in 1960 under the leadership of former president Felix Houphouët-Boigny and soon emerged as the economic powerhouse of Francophone West Africa.

The port city of Abidjan with a population of five million people is considered the second-largest economic capital of West Africa after Lagos in Nigeria.

 On Sunday, 100 polling stations and 6.3 million voters voted in a referendum that focussed on a clause in the constitution stressing national identity. The clause dictates that both parents of a presidential candidate in the country must have been born in the Ivory Coast.

Voters have had just two and a half weeks to review a new 184-Article draft Constitution. The question uppermost in people’s minds has been whether the current president is actually Ivorian. He is a descendant of the rulers of the Kong Wattara (Ouattara) Empire in what is now the northern part of Ivory Coast and southern Burkina Faso and Mali. This was one of the first Muslim states in West Africa.

The new constitution is being tested through a referendum, but many voters have already made up their minds and are polarised on the question, even though Muslims constitute a majority of the population of 25 million.

Article 35 of the current Constitution, which deals with conditions for eligibility in presidential elections, is set to be replaced by a new Article 55. This will allow presidential candidates with either both or one Ivorian parents to stand, a clause which puts the nationality of the president in question and his right to the presidency at risk.

He and his Muslim compatriots insist that they are as Ivorian as anyone else. Nevertheless, the country’s opposition parties consistently refer to Ouattara’s elections in 2010 and 2015 as illegitimate because he does not meet the new citizenship and residency requirements for president.

The referendum is an experiment that seeks to end the arguments about Ivorian nationality once and for all. Not only is the president’s nationality in question, but also the fact that he is married to a non-Ivorian.

His wife is an Algerian Jewess born in the city of Constantine in eastern Algeria. She reputedly converted to Roman Catholicism, even though her husband is Muslim. In the Muslim religion, a Muslim man is permitted to marry a Christian or Jewish woman.

The Ivorian first lady has been very active and is popular in her adopted country. In 1998, she created the Children of Africa Foundation, whose goal is the welfare of children on the African continent.

As of 2000, the constitution bars citizens who are not born to an Ivorian mother and father to run for president, let alone one who is married to a foreign wife. This brings into question how Ouattara came to be considered an appropriate choice for president in the first place, since at least one of his parents is Burkinabé by birth.

The provision would have made it possible for the courts to exclude him from running for president. Many say it would be better to take a more pragmatic view of the question of Ivorian nationality and citizenship rights.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and other African nations are closely watching the Ivorian political scene. Few African countries are as ethnically diverse as Ivory Coast, yet the question of who is entitled to be president there is of critical concern.

Since independence Ivory Coast has been a republic with strong executive powers invested in its president. The western part of the country is predominantly Akan, an ethnic group that spills over to Ghana and shuns the paternalistic practices of the Muslims of northern Ivory Coast.

The Akan Baoulé people, for instance, like the Ashanti of Ghana, developed a highly centralised political and administrative system. There should be no sense in which only Muslims deserve to be elected president of the country, the Akan argue. However, the most vociferous opponents of the Muslims in general and Ouattara in particular are the inhabitants of southwestern Ivory Coast.

Article 179 of the Constitution allows the president to appoint a vice-president. But the opposition parties see this move as a constitutional “coup” that will protect Ouattara’s allies, mainly Guillaume Soro, president of the National Assembly.

The clause was added to the constitution as a result of a deal struck to end the country’s civil war, which begun in 2002 with a rebellion in the northern regions. As part of the peace settlement, the government of then president Laurent Gbagbo and the opposition parties and rebels signed a power-sharing agreement overseen by France.

What role does religion play in Ivorian and African politics? Who is entitled to be president? The evidence from Ivory Coast suggests that Pan-Africanism has little relevance as far as presidential politics in the country is concerned, and however much we might wish it otherwise tribalism rules supreme.

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