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Cameroon seeks escape from its biometric national ID card woes

Cameroon seeks escape from its biometric national ID card woes

Isidore O., a 25-year-old Cameroonian living in the town of Bangem in the South West Region of the country applied for the national digital identity card in early 2018.

By December 2021, Isidore had become extremely frustrated because his ID card had not been issued. What he has been using on a temporary basis is the application receipt that was issued at the time he applied for the biometric ID document.

Brandishing the now old and dirty-looking receipt, Isidore tells Biometric Update: “I am really frustrated because each time I go to the centre where I applied for the card, I am told it has not been produced. I have gone there innumerable times without success. I have also had an extension stamp on this receipt for as long as I can’t even remember.”

The receipt has become so old that most of the text on it is now illegible.

“The risk of traveling without an ID card especially in the crisis-hit North West and South West Regions is enormous. Even with this application receipt, security forces will still disturb you and force you to pay money,” he narrates.

Cameroon is into the fifth year of a lingering armed conflict which has rendered the security situation in the English-speaking regions of the country quite precarious. Travelling without an ID card, or having just the application receipt in these regions, means you will have to contend with security forces each time you arrive at a checkpoint.

Isidore says he has had to apply for another card because he is not sure the previous one will ever be produced.

Clearly, Isidore’s case is not an isolated one. Many like him have been going through the ordeal of not being able to get hold of the ID card they apply for in a timely manner.

Cameroon currently faces a huge problem with its biometric ID card production and issuance system. While the statutory wait time for the card to be issued after it is applied for is three months, thousands of citizens are often forced to wait for far beyond that time. In some cases, the cards are never delivered at all. It is estimated that of the population of 26 million people (per the World Bank estimates), just about a quarter have a valid national ID card.

Authorities of the General Delegation for National Security (DGSN) – the body that issues the ID document — have given different reasons for these delays, but citizens are getting increasingly worried as the ID card is the principal official identification credential.

The Cameroon biometric ID card, produced by Thales, allows citizens access to a litany of services. Without it, one cannot register for a public exam, conveniently travel from one town to the other, carry out financial and banking transactions such as receiving international money transfers, buy and register a SIM card, apply for a passport, open a bank account, register a business, or get a driver’s license, just to cite these few use cases.

What is the problem with issuance?

For the purpose of this report, Biometric Update sought to speak with authorities of DGSN about what the problem with issuance is, but the efforts proved futile. When this reporter contacted the head of the communication division of DGSN, Police Commissioner Joyce Cécile Ndjem Mandeng for an interview, she asked that an official request be written directly to the police boss Martin Mbarga Nguele, which was done. But at the time of this report (about four weeks later), the DGSN had not responded, even to say they were not ready for the interview — a practice very common with most public institutions in Cameroon. This, on top of many unsuccessful phone calls.

The lack of response notwithstanding, authorities of the DGSN have in the past blamed delays in issuance on various factors including on ‘mistakes’ made by applicants at the time of applying for the cards. They refer here to mismatches noticed with information entered on the application form.

However, some of the applicants who spoke to this reporter differ and think the reasons rather lie elsewhere.

Paul B., a Yaounde resident, who has not had his ID card after nearly a year of applying for it, says all of the information on his application receipt is exactly the same information on his birth certificate and other documents that were required to establish the card. “I didn’t make any mistake during the application process; so I don’t know why my ID card has not been issued for nearly one year now,” says Paul.

The DGSN has also spoken before about increasing the daily production capacity of the cards from 10,000 (as of January 2021) to 15,000. But this step, which many think could significantly help clear the huge backlog of unproduced cards, seems not to have happened yet.

Meanwhile, as there are delays in issuing the cards for those who are able to apply for them in urban areas, many Cameroonians, especially those in rural areas, face the herculean task of accessing services without having the ID at all.

Applying for the cards for those residing in hard-to-access communities is practically impossible for many.

Michael Motom lives in Akwaya, a district considered one of the most expansive in the country. He just turned 18 – which is the legal age for acquiring the ID card in Cameroon – and wants to apply for the card. He cannot do it in Akwaya town because there is no ID card production centre in the area that is home to nearly 200,000 people.

From Akwaya town, the nearest other town with an ID card production center is Mamfe, which is at least 120 kilometres away. The next nearest town where ID cards are produced is Bamenda in the North West Region, which is a distance of close to 200 kilometers.

A vast majority of the people living in Akwaya do not own ID cards because they have to travel a long distance, with associated costs, to procure the card. Students of 18 years and above taking public exams in the area also face difficulties if they do not get the card because it is a requirement for registration. They are forced to travel to Mamfe or Bamenda to apply for the ID.

Honourable Martin Aka, a lawmaker representing Akwaya in Parliament, says he is leading an advocacy not only for the district to be broken up into smaller districts because of its vast nature, he is also pushing for the creation of an ID production centre. Hon. Aka made mention of this during question time at the November 2021 session of Parliament.

Akwaya is just one of many communities in the country which do not have digital ID card production centers, hence rendering life practically difficult for residents in terms of free movement and having access to certain services.

On February 10, 2022, authoritative local daily newspaper The Guardian Post reported that a man in the locality of Nwa in the North West Region was allegedly shot dead by a soldier for not presenting his national ID card when asked to.

It was not clear if the resident actually did not own one, but there is no ID card production office in the whole of Nwa district, which is also one of the hotbeds of the separatist conflict in the English-speaking parts of the country.

After the report, the defense ministry issued no statement on the matter.

ID campaigners said such incidents once again highlight the ordeal which thousands of Cameroonians who do not have IDs face especially in far off rural communities.

ID system poorly designed, activist says

The current ID card production and issuance situation in Cameroon does not preoccupy only citizens who have been victims; it also worries ID rights advocates who think the problem even goes as far to the conception and design of the ID system.

“Normally, national ID systems are supposed to be justice-based systems, but the system in Cameroon rather perpetrates injustice and exclusion. From its conception, design and rollout, and oversight, Cameroon’s biometric ID system is instead inflicting harm on the most vulnerable people that it was intended to serve. From experience, it leaves much to be desired as it was apparently poorly conceived, badly designed and poorly implemented,” says Colbert Gwain, a digital ID activist who has worked on digital ID and inclusion projects in Cameroon and other parts of the continent.

Regarding the fact that residents of some communities across the country cannot access the ID card either because of distance in accessing ID production centers or for other reasons, Gwain states: “As it stands today, and given that neither civil society nor the communities most significantly affected by the national ID card system were consulted before rolling it out, this has severely compromised the system’s ability to serve these populations properly.”

Gwain also describes delays in issuance of the cards as unfortunate and believes the government should be thinking of other possibilities of making the ID card delivery system more expedient. To him, emulating the example of the newly installed biometric passport system will not be a bad thing to do.

“If Cameroon’s biometric ID issuance was to be as speedy as the new biometric passport system introduced last year where passports are delivered within 48 hours, then the system could act as a gatekeeper for marginalized communities’ ability to access and realize their rights…” he sustains.

Is there a way out?

While problems with issuance of the ID card persist, the situation may not be so for much longer if efforts already being made to introduce a new biometric ID system that will be expedient in delivery and up-to-date in terms of quality yield fast results.

As a follow-up to an announcement last year by the Secretary General at the Presidency Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh that plans were afoot to introduce biometric resident permits and a new generation national ID card, the DGSN is understood to have launched a call to tender for the ID card project, as Biometric Update reported last November.

A source familiar with the matter, and who asked to remain unnamed, confirmed that there is indeed a tender by DGSN for a new biometric ID card system and the deadline for submission of bids by interested companies is March 15, 2022.

By setting up a system for the ID card akin to the biometric passport one, which is less than a year in place, many Cameroonians believe the ID issuance problems in the central African nation which have been a big headache in the past many years, will be made a thing of the past.

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