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Ivory Coast Makes Progress on Citizen Identification

Another difficult year is coming to a close in Ivory Coast. The world's leading cocoa producer remains tense and divided between a government-run south and rebel-held north. Slowly, though, the main question of the more than five year conflict - who is an Ivorian - is being addressed. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our region bureau in Dakar.

Security roadblocks have been re-emerging in recent days in the commercial capital Abidjan, amid fears of year-end instability.

In the rebel headquarters of Bouake, a supporter of an estranged rebel leader was recently killed, adding to the unease across the country. The estranged leader, Ibrahim Coulibaly, was accused by other rebel leaders of plotting a coup.

Despite a much heralded peace deal signed in Burkina Faso last March, Ivory Coast remains split in two and such tensions persist. Disarmament and unity ceremonies come and go, without any re-integration of the armed forces.

Rebels took up arms in late 2002, saying they were fighting for several million undocumented northerners. They say they should become Ivorians with the right to vote.

Supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo say the number of several million is exaggerated. Administrators are trying to find out.

Roving teams are setting up tents in cities and villages across Ivory Coast, in a first step of a drawn out identification process, like here near the administrative capital Yamoussoukro.

One administrator asks a young woman when her mother was born and where.

Undocumented residents must prove they have at least one parent of Ivorian nationality to qualify for citizenship.

If applicants do not know who their parents were, but know they were born on Ivorian soil, they can also qualify.

U.N. observer Helene-Sylvie Zomahoun-Ekouedjin has been impressed with the proceedings.

"I notice that all the actors are really involved in the process, either the population, either the authorities, either the traditional personalities, all of them, they are involved in the process," she said. "We can notice that people are really mobilized to come and take this famous paper and finally exist in the country."

A local government official, Edouard Kouame Konan, says he is noticing many residents have no papers whatsoever. He says it is important for the upcoming election to know who will be able to vote. But he says it is also important for economic planning to know how many Ivorians there are.

One undocumented youth, Gnama Coulibaly, is being told it is too busy for him to start the process. He says he was told women and children must go first. He says other officials asked him for bribes, but that he did not have enough money.

Coulibaly says he was born in Ivory Coast, but is not sure what nationality his parents were. Many youth in Ivory Coast are the sons and daughters of working migrants from neighboring countries, and never had papers from anywhere.

The U.N. observer acknowledges there have been too many applicants, for too few administrators.

"Some villages, some places, we have seen many people that despite their courage, their hard work, still we can not take everybody. They can not audition everybody," she said. "Still we need the teams to come back maybe after the process to finish in these localities."

The process has not even started in most major cities, including the largest, Abidjan.

Elections in Ivory Coast which were due in late 2005 have been delayed several times amid the stalled peace efforts.