Ivory Coast’s parliament approved new laws to ease access to citizenship for millions of foreigners and improve state regulation of land ownership, two issues at the heart of a decade of political crisis and violence. Immigrants from Ivory Coast’s arid neighbors flocked to the West African nation following independence in 1960, lured by then President Felix Houphouet-Boigny’s promises of land for anyone willing to develop it for agriculture. The open-door policy helped build Ivory Coast into the world’s top cocoa grower and a regional economic powerhouse. But millions of immigrants and their children were unable to become Ivorian nationals. When soldiers launched a failed coup attempt in 2002, igniting a civil war that divided the country between a rebel-held north and loyalist south, they claimed to be fighting discrimination against northerners and foreigners.
Changes to the laws on nationality and land tenure were conditions of the first peace agreement signed between the government and the rebels in 2003. “The political crisis … put back on the agenda the question of the abnormally prolonged foreign status of certain populations,” President Alassane Ouattara wrote in an introduction to one of the proposed nationality laws. “Despite having entirely integrated the social fabric and considering themselves Ivorian, (they) remain legally non-nationals,” he wrote. Ouattara was himself initially barred from running for the presidency amid accusations he was of foreign origin. He won a 2010 election, but incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept his defeat leading to months of fighting that killed an estimated 3,000 people.
Lawmakers passed two laws concerning nationality on Friday. One will allow foreigners to acquire Ivorian citizenship upon marriage to an Ivorian national. The second will allow foreign-born residents living in Ivory Coast since before independence to become citizens along with their descendents. Foreign nationals born in Ivory Coast between 1961 and 1973 and their children will also qualify. Parliament also voted to extend by 10 years a grace period for the implementation of a 1998 law meant to codify land transactions. Land sales in Ivory Coast are currently carried out according to traditional customs, and the law is intended to give them legal weight. However it was never applied.
The resulting vagueness surrounding land sales, coupled with the requirement that landowners must be Ivorian citizens, is at the root of simmering conflicts in Ivory Coast’s western cocoa heartland. Landholders will now have 10 years to prove their legal claim to their properties. Those unable to do so will lose their land to the state.