January 18, 2021

Côte d’Ivoire: For coffee and cocoa

Nicola Liebert

Statelessness in Côte d’Ivoire is the result of immigration by large numbers of workers during and since the colonial era. The country’s citizenship law is restrictive and arbitrarily enforced, but the government has said it will resolve the problem of statelessness by 2024.

The largest group of stateless people in Côte d’Ivoire consists of migrant workers who came to the country either voluntarily or by force, along with their descendants. During the colonial period, the Ivorian economy was dominated by plantations, and from the 1930s onwards, chiefly coffee and cocoa farms. The workforce needed to run the plantations was recruited both locally and elsewhere in the French colonial empire in West Africa, especially in what was to become Burkina Faso.

In 1960, when the country gained independence, the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, estimated that around 13 percent of the Ivorian population were immigrants born outside Côte d’Ivoire. These people became stateless overnight. Migrations from neighbouring countries continued until the end of the 1990s. Today, the migrants’ children and grandchildren who were born in Côte d’Ivoire make up the biggest group of stateless people.

In the 2014 census, 24 percent of the population stated that they did not hold Ivorian citizenship, even though 59 percent of them were born in the country. The census survey did not ask whether they held the citizenship of another country.

While Côte d’Ivoire supplies 40 percent of the
world’s cocoa beans, the country makes
only 5 to 7 percent of global profits from them

According to the citizenship law of 1961, children must have at least one parent with Ivorian nationality to be automatically eligible for citizenship. For foreigners who were resident in the country at the time of independence from France, the law provided for a one-year-long programme to facilitate naturalization. Prior to 1972, children of parents with immigrant roots could obtain Ivorian nationality “by declaration” if their parents were born in Côte d’Ivoire. But just 36 applicants obtained Ivorian citizenship by submitting such a declaration, and not a single foreigner took advantage of this opportunity.

Nevertheless, immigrants and their descendants long enjoyed almost the same rights as Ivorian citizens. This was due to the liberal policies of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who ruled from independence until his death in He believed that foreign workers would benefit the Ivorian economy, especially in producing labour-intensive agricultural products for export. But a decline in the prices of raw commodities and rising economic problems and xenophobia aggravated the situation of stateless people. In 1998, a law made Ivorian citizenship a prerequisite for acquiring land. And without identity documents, it is not possible to take entrance exams for secondary schools.

The registration system in Côte d’Ivoire is poorly developed. Many Ivorians do not register the births of their children, partly because information regarding the registration procedure is scarce, and partly because corrupt officials often charge illegal fees. To obtain Ivorian identity documents, one must present a birth certificate and proof of the nationality of one’s parents. Many people have never possessed such documents, and many others lost them while fleeing the civil war in the early 2000s. Children whose parents died in the war are especially threatened by statelessness. Discrimination also plays a role: a naturalized woman cannot automatically pass on her nationality to her children unless their father has died.

All this means that the number of stateless people in Côte d’Ivoire remains high. It is difficult to determine the exact number, partly due to gaps in the registration system and partly due to the lack of identification of stateless individuals. One does not know, for example, how many people have taken on the citizenship of their ancestors’ country of origin. A further problem is the trafficking of children from neighbouring countries to work in the cocoa plantations – a trade that is almost impossible to detect for official statistics. Such children lack documents, and are at acute risk of becoming stateless.

It is therefore impossible to put an accurate figure to the number of stateless individuals in Côte d’Ivoire. The government speaks of 700,000 people, including 300,000 children whose parents are not known. The United Nations Refugee Agency says that almost one million people are affected. The problem of statelessness can be resolved by facilitating naturalization and reforming the citizenship law. Doing so would enable children born in the country, whose parents were also born there, to gain Ivorian nationality automatically. But it is equally important to improve the identification of stateless individuals and to strengthen the registration system.

Reliable data is vital for policymaking,
but official statistics in Côte d’Ivoire differ
widely from estimates by outsiders

In the meantime, there are positive developments to report. In 2013, Côte d’Ivoire ratified the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Later, the government in Abidjan announced a national action plan to resolve the problem of statelessness by 2024. In September 2020, Côte d’Ivoire adopted Africa’s first Statelessness Determination Procedure. Formal recognition of statelessness status will pave the way for people – who until then had no recognized legal existence – to receive identity documents, enroll in school, access health services, seek lawful employment, open a bank account, and buy land.

This contribution is licensed under the following copyright licence: CC-BY 4.0

The article was published in the Atlas of the Stateless in English, French, and German.