Ivory Coast, A Country of hospitality

You have to go to the edge of the Ebrié Lagoon to understand just how much Ivory Coast is a symbol of welcome and integration of migrants in West Africa. The population of this country, known for its cosmopolitan attitude, reminds you at every moment of the veracity of the first lines of L’Abidjanaise, the national anthem of Ivory Coast: “We salute you, O Land of hope, Country of hospitality”. An anthem modelled after La Marseillaise, the French anthem, but L’ Abidjanaise owes its composition to people from different origin. Long before the countries’ independence and the composition of L’Abidjanaise, the Ivory Coast, like its Gold Coast (now Ghana) neighbour, was already attracting a myriad of people from different West African countries.

For those who have little knowledge about this region in Africa, which formerly encompassed the Ashanti Kingdom and the Mandingo Empire, it is important to know that its blessed land holds immense forest resources, the most fertile soil of the continent, a climate most conducive for agriculture and a subsoil rich in precious stones (gold and diamond in particular). Those were the ingredients that attracted European migrants, who started the colonisation of the area in the nineteenth century. In the wake of the arrival of the Europeans, the various African communities, already accustomed to trade with the Ashanti Kingdom and the Mandingo Empire, also gained a foothold in what was considered an “Eldorado of growth“.

From hospitality to autonomy

Abidjan, the Ivorian capital, is another symbol that shows what this country owes to foreigners. Beautifully named ‘the pearl of the lagoons’, Abidjan – next to Lagos and Dakar– can boast of being the West African capital that hosts the most diverse nationalities. A cab ride to the Plateau, the business district, offers you the opportunity to chat with a Burkinabe, Benin, Malian or Guinean driver. When you take a trip to the market of Treichville, Adjamé or Abobo you are sure to hear Bambara (Dioula), Senegalese Wolof, Yoruba or Igbo from Nigeria, Hausa from Niger or Arabic from Lebanese, Moroccan and Mauritanian inhabitants. In the Koumassi district, you find yourself in the Ghana ghetto and also rub shoulders with Liberians or Sierra Leoneans who practice in maritime trade. In Port Bouet, the ghetto of the Togolese, you can speak Mina language with the carpenters. You can finish your tour of the capital preferably in Marcory-zone 4, Cocody or Yopougon the large town with its maquis and enjoy a lively evening as only Abidjan can offer you. At night you find yourself dancing with Cameroonians, Congolese, Gabonese, South Africans, Asians, Americans and of course Europeans to the sound of the Coupé Décalé, Zouglou, Reggae and other rhythms. Abidjan shares its joy of life with all those who pass by and enrich it with their presence.

The contribution of migrants to the economy and to the Ivorian society is an indisputable reality. Ivory Coast is the second country on the continent, after South Africa, to welcome the most migrants. The number was estimated by the United Nations in 2017 to nearly 2,200,000 people out of a total population of 23 million inhabitants, which sums up to10% of the population. These figures, however, are contradicted by the official Ivorian data from the 2014 General Census of Population and Housing, which estimate that 5,490,222 non-Ivorians live in Ivory Coast, meaning 24% of the population. These statistical discrepancies are due to the definition given to the concept of ‘Ivorian’ and ‘foreign’. According to the code of nationality in Ivory Coast  “Any individual born in Ivory Coast is an Ivorian citizen unless both parents are foreigners; Any individual born out of Ivory Coast from an Ivorian parent is an Ivorian citizen“. The nationality is therefore acquired primarily by the blood and not by the right of the soil. The nationality code allows also to acquire Ivorian citizenship through marriage or naturalisation, but only under a number of conditions. In the 90s the debate on Ivoirity made it difficult for the children of immigrants born in Ivory Coast to acquire citizenship, and their surname was hence displayed as a somewhat offensive distinguishing mark. Thus, it was considered to be impossible for ‘True Ivorians’ to be called by certain names. The children of migrants born in Ivory Coast and having grown up there are still foreigners, according to Ivorian law.

Aligned with the code of nationality, the National Institute of Statistics of Côte d’Ivoire considers first generation immigrants and descendants of non-naturalised Ivorian immigrants as foreigners. The huge proportion of foreigners in the Ivorian population can thus be attributed to the fertility of migrant families settled in Ivory Coast for several decades and not to the continued inflow of foreign workers. In addition, there has been a decrease in the proportion of foreigners in the Ivorian population since the 1980s. This proportion has decreased from 28% in the 1988 census to 26% in the 1998 census and to 24% in 2014. This decline can be explained by the faltering Ivorian development model based on the exportation of cocoa and coffee, the decline in agricultural productivity due to the aging of plantations and the collapse of the cash crops price. These factors led to the gradual decline of agriculture-work related migration into Ivory Coast.

It should also be noted that Ivory Coast has become a country of emigration, because of the multiple crises that have shaken it in recent decades. More and more Ivorian citizens have migrated to other countries, particularly in North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia) and in Europe. 9,000 Ivorians arrived at the Italian coast in 2017. The migratory wave from Ivory Coast is surprising because, despite all the crises it has experienced, the country still remains the leading economic power in Francophone Africa with high growth rates (10% in 2012, 9% in 2015 and 7% in 2017) and many job opportunities.

Bruno, a cab driver who brought me from Cocody to Port Bouet told me: “In Abidjan as long as you are not lazy, you can earn a living and live well “. A Beninese citizen, Bruno arrived in Ivory Coast twenty years ago, having in his pocket just a driver’s license. Since then, he has worked as a cab driver. The former Ivorian public employment service, the AGEPE, estimated in 2014 that 3,294,133 foreign workers reside in Ivory Coast, which represents 60% of the active population. The AGEPE found that out of these three million foreign workers, only 3,463 had a valid working visa. The remaining 99% work in the non-formal sector. Bruno belongs to this category. Even the post-election crisis of 2010 did not make him leave his Ivory Coast, a country he considers ‘home’, even more than his native country Benin. The Lebanese will say the same. They also refused to desert Ivory Coast at the height of the war for power between Ouattara and Gbagbo. They took the opportunity to buy at discounted prices companies from Europeans who fled. They have thus gone from traders or managers of supermarkets to the stage of business owners and hold a good part of the Ivorian industries. Europeans, especially the French, have come back after the electoral conflict to take over the economy of their beloved Ivory Coast.

Indeed, Ivory Coast is much more than Senegal, the preferred country for entrepreneurs, adventurers and other French migrants in Africa. Although it is less of a headline in the news, European migration to Africa is a reality and Ivory Coast offers proof of that. Tens of thousands of Frenchs live in conquered land in Ivory Coast, where their companies are snapping up over-the-counter markets. In some cases they create joint ventures and place Ivorians in command of bought markets, which in many cases can be seen as a façade to cover up the prevailing French influence. Ivory Coast is the best country to understand how French paternalism continues to operate in Africa. To ‘protect its interests’ and its citizens working there, hundreds of French soldiers are permanently positioned in a military camp located next to Abidjan airport. A somewhat colonial army always quick to react in case of crisis in Ivory Coast or in nearby French-speaking countries in West Africa. But the key word of this military presence is discretion to swallow the snake of the independence of French-speaking African countries.

However, we can not write about migrant workers in Ivory Coast without mentioning the ones the population talk about the most: Malians, Guineans and Burkinabe. Estimated at a number of 1,300,000 in Ivory Coast, Burkinabe are the first migrant community in the country. Geographic proximity, the vagaries of African history, colonial exploitation and the effects of climate change have gradually led to the installation of many Burkinabe on Ivorian hospitable lands. While Malian migrants have occupied the Ivorian markets and Guineans the kiosks, the Burkinabe have distinguished themselves in agriculture by developing fertile land. Their descendants have rooted in Ivory Coast, integrated within the administration and contributed to the development of the country. The Burkinabe origins of the current Ivorian President or the Magic System music group’s lead singer, Salif Traoré alias ‘A’Salfo’, are well known to everyone.

The demons of xenophobia

Ivorian hospitality has sometimes been undermined by the demons of xenophobia that had periodically emerged on the edge of the Ebrié Lagoon. The episodes of the evictions of foreigners in 1958, 1970 and the period of 1990 to 2000, marked by the crisis related to the concept of Ivoirity, are still present in people’s minds in this region. Topics mentioned with pain in this country but which reflect to what point it remains necessary to continue to work on living together in Côte d’Ivoire.

On a constant basis, xenophobic attacks against foreigners have always mainly targeted West African migrant brothers and sisters, while sparing the French or the Lebanese who nevertheless benefit from unfavourable prejudices related to mafia activities and the exploitation of their Ivorian employees. The anti-French mobilisations of the Gbagbo years or the recent clashes between Ivorian workers and their Chinese supervisors in the Odienné remain isolated cases. By virtue of being the leading destination country for migrants in West Africa, Ivory Coast also was the first country to initiate collective expulsions of African migrants. In October 1958, there were 17,000 migrant workers and their families mainly from Dahomey (now Benin) and Togo to leave Ivory Coast. They were accused of holding administration or teaching positions instead of Ivorian graduates and pursued successful business activities.

This hunt for African migrants that took place just after the referendum of the French community of General De Gaulle, was explained as a reaction of the Ivorian nationalists. Prevented from speaking during this election and failing to attack the French colonists, they focused on their African auxiliaries instead. This period marked the beginning of a long history of migrant hunts and collective expulsions in Africa, with the most illustrious events being the expulsion of one million migrants from Ghana in 1969 under the presidency of Dr Kofi Busia, and a few years later in 1983, the deportation of nearly two million migrants from Nigeria by Shehu Shagari. Far from stopping there, Ivory Coast also initiated the repatriation by charter flights of undesirable foreigners.

Due to social discontent and upheavals led by unemployed Ivorian graduates, protesting the presence of foreigners in the administration, from October 1969 until 1970, Felix Houphouet-Boigny used charter aircrafts and road convoys to expel unwanted migrants. Senegalese, Malians, Guineans, Burkinabe and Nigerians, who were disabled or working within the informal sector were sent home. The Ivorian government was careful not to touch the French migrant workers, who had -at the time – the largest foreign manpower in the Ivorian administration. The latter, respectfully called expatriates, technical assistants or French aid-workers, represented 1,850 civil servants out of the 2,500 foreign workers in the Ivorian administration. The practice of repatriation of undesired foreigners by charter flight will subsequently be reinstated by the European states and first and foremost France, which for the first time expelled 101 Malian migrants by this means in 1986.

The last xenophobic crisis against foreigners and the longest one that Ivory Coast had known, was from 1990 to 2011 and revolved around the issue of Ivorian citizenship. This crisis, which was primarily related to the fomenting hatred towards foreigners for the purpose of conquering political power, saw numerous rebounds marked by coups d’états, an armed rebellion and finally an electoral conflict that ended with Alassane Ouattara’s becoming president. Xenophobic crises had their origins in the lack of a solid migration policy in Ivory Coast during the reign of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Although they were contributing to the exploitation of coffee, cocoa, pineapple, rubber, peanut and were conducting commercial activities in urban areas, foreigners did not enjoy legal protection for their activities and they were denied the opportunity to own the land they used. Access to Ivorian nationality had been equally problematic for foreigners. The children of Burkinabe immigrants, the second generation or even the third generation had no choice but to assert the nationality of their parents’ country of origin.

The absence of a legal framework of protection was then expertly used by Houphouët-Boigny to guarantee the protection of foreigners in Ivory Coast. Without giving citizenship to foreigners, Houphouet-Boigny verbally offers them the right of land ownership. “The land belongs to the one who cultivates it” is a well-known statement of his. He tacitly allowed migrant workers to register and vote. This helped him to be re-elected as President of the Republic in 1990 with his opponent being Laurent Gbagbo at that time. The latter described the foreigners as “electoral cattle“. By exploiting the presence of foreigners in a utilitarian way, Houphouet-Boigny planted the seed for the following Ivorian crisis, which destroyed the clever balance between the different ethnical components of the country he had built. The first to pay the costs was his own party, the PDCI – RDA, which -following President Henry Konan Bédié’s rise to power -had many defectors to the RDR party, also called the ‘Northerners’ or ‘foreigners’ party.

Paradoxically it was Alassane Ouattara, then Prime Minister, who took the first legal measures to control immigration to Ivory Coast through the requirement of residence permits for foreigners in October 1991. This measure was abolished in 2007 by President Laurent Gbagbo in an attempt to gain sympathy with foreign migrant’s communities in Ivory Coast and especially their country of origin. At that time, Gbagbo had few allies among other West African government leaders, who reproached him for his xenophobic speech under the guise of nationalism and the concept of ‘ivoirity’. The policy of ivoirity consisted of the rejections of ‘foreigners from within’ or ‘Northerners’ and ‘foreigners from outside’ of the political and administrative sphere. This concept was established under the presidency of Henri Konan Bédié, reinforced under General Robert Gueï and prevailed under Laurent Gbagbo and his Young Patriots.

This policy created much suffering by denying Ivorian citizenship to a large segment of the Ivorian population, by downgrading the contribution of migrants to the development of Ivory Coast and highly affecting ‘mixed’ couples. In fact, children born into mixed marriages between Ivorians and foreigners found themselves equally indexed by the policy of ivoirity. Finally, the concept of ivoirity led to a religious conflict by categorising Muslims as foreigners, and Christians and Animists as the true indigenous of the country. This practice did not correspond to Ivorian geographical realities. Expressions such as “true Ivorian”,“authentic”, “Ivorian-born”, “Ivorian first-class”,“100%”, “Ivorians of centuries-old fibers” and “half-Ivorians”,“false Ivorians”, “Ivorians of circumstance”, “Ivorians of the second zone” etc. evolved and created a deeper division within the country. Although the rising to power of a President of foreign descent in 2011 somewhat calmed the conflicts that emerged from this wave of xenophobia, it is still important that substantive work is undertaken to prevent anti-migrants cyclical crises that have tainted the Ivorian hospitality until now.

(Written by Samir ABI, Permanent Secretary of the West African Observatory on Migrations)

Add Comment