Delays, extortions, and voter exclusion: Cameroon’s national biometric ID card conundrum
Ashu M. just clocked 20 years this November, the legal age for voting in the central African nation of Cameroon. The enthusiastic young man is looking forward to enlisting his name on the biometric voter roll in preparation for the next general elections coming up in 2025. However, this will only be possible if Ashu is able to obtain his biometric national ID card, which he applied for back when he was 18.
In Cameroon, obtaining the national identity card has become more difficult for many than the biblical camel passing through the eye of a needle. And by law, citizens cannot exercise their voting, and other civil rights, if they do not possess a valid national ID card.
Like Ashu, there are thousands of young Cameroonians willing to take part in the country’s electoral process but facing one major challenge: that of lack of a national ID card, which is an indispensable ID credential. Voter registration requires presentation of the national ID card.
Not only that. The national ID card is also required during voting as it is the document used to verify the identity of the voter. This is because Elections Cameroon (ELECAM) – the agency responsible for organizing and managing elections in the country – does not yet employ a biometric system for voter accreditation as is the case in neighboring Nigeria, and elsewhere around the continent.
“I applied for a national ID card in November 2020 when I turned 18, — the age required for the establishment of a national ID card in Cameroon. You can’t believe that since then, my ID card has not been delivered. I have gone uncountable times to the police station where I applied for it, but I am told the card has not been produced. I have gone through all sorts of difficulties,” Ashu tells Biometric Update.
In July 2021, Cameroon launched a new generation passport which was delivered by German firm Augentic. This has dramatically revolutionized the passport production experience in the country, with the travel document now issued only within a time span of 48 hours maximum, as opposed to at least one month in the past.
Conversely, there has been an avalanche of complaints over the innumerable problems rocking the ID card production system, and the frustrations seem to be on an upward spiral with many Cameroonian now urging the government to bring the passport experience to the ID card sector.
Lack of ID cards and voter exclusion
Cameroon has seen low voter registration figures over the years, and less than 60 percent of nearly seven million registered voters showing up in the country’s last presidential election in 2018. Although there is no evidence to demonstrate that the low figures are attributable to lack of ID cards by potential voters, there is no gainsaying that the problem is part of it.
“I chased my national ID card in vain during the last presidential election in October 2018. I had a choice to make at the ballot box but I was unable to do so because I had no ID card to prove who I am. The inertia with the ID card system is part of the reason we need to vote for change,” says Anna T., a fruits seller down a street market in Yaounde.
ELECAM believes that the slow issuance of ID cards may not be the entire problem, but is part of it, and therefore solutions have to be sought as soon as possible.
In October, the body’s chairman Enow Abrams Egbe had a meeting with the delegate general for national security – the issuing authority of the national ID card. According to Enow Egbe, the kernel of the talks was to discuss ways through which the huge backlog of ID cards can be cleared ahead of the general elections.
“The main focus of our discussion was on the obtention of the national identity card. Many Cameroonians are complaining that they are unable to obtain their cards. We got clear and precise information from the delegate general who assured us that all will be done for citizens to get the national ID card,” said the ELECAM chairman.
Later, speaking in an interview with Biometric Update on the issue, Enow Egbe claimed that the problem is also more with citizens who abandon their cards at production centers: “The ID card is a major document required for voter registration. As such, I urge all Cameroonians of voting age to try as much as possible to go and collect their ID cards and register their names on the voters list. The problem of ID cards, from my discussion with the police boss, arises from the laxity of citizens to go and collect their cards, because we realize from the various reports, that there are piles of abandoned ID cards in many police stations, and some have even expired still in their keeping.”
“This has a negative impact on the voter registration process, because it reduces the number of potential voters. We also have the problem of some people in remote areas who are reluctant to go get a birth certificate, a prerequisite of obtaining an ID card needed for registration on the electoral list,” Egbe adds.
Ordeals of delays, extortion
While Cameroonians like Ashu harbor fears that they may not be able to vote for change in the next general elections because they do not have a national ID card, other citizens like Isaac Genna Forchie and Jonathan A. have other sad tales to narrate.
Genna Forchie, a journalist working for state-run newspaper Cameroon Insider in Yaounde, tells Biometric Update he has gone for more than two years without an ID card, after duly applying for the document. This, he explains, has made life quite hellish for him as there are certain public services he cannot have access to without the original copy his ID card.
“I established my ID card way back on June 5, 2020. They issued a receipt and asked me to come for the document six months later. I have been there at least 10 times since then, and each time I get there, I am told to be patient. This has caused me a lot of inconveniences,” he explains.
“There was a period I traveled to the town of Kribi (a town in the south of Cameroon) and the receipt expired while I was there. I got terribly embarrassed on my way back. At another instance, I got frustrated when I wanted to do a financial transaction in the bank. Now, my passport expires this 2023. An ID card is a requirement for the establishment of a passport. I am yet to figure out how to renew my passport.”
Jonathan A., for his part, will not soon forget how about five years ago, he spent around XAF 500,000 (about US$810) to procure an ID card on an emergency note after he failed to obtain the credential following the normal procedure.
“My first ID expired after using it for ten years, so I had to procure a new one. I compiled all the necessary documents and followed the procedure that was required of me. I was issued an application receipt. When the original card was supposed to be out, I was told that there was a problem of double identity. I was surprised because all the information that was on my expired ID card is the same information I provided. It was the same information on my birth certificate. That is where my trouble started,” Jonathan A. narrated to Biometric Update.
He confessed that in order to circumvent the problem, he had to contact a staff of the police station who promised to facilitate the delivery of the ID card for a fee. “I went for roughly two years without an ID card. Within this period, the validity of the applicant receipt was extended many times. At some point, I needed a passport because I was supposed to travel. I was forced to get in contact with a police commissioner who asked me to give him XAF 250,000 (US$405) so that he can help me out. I gave him the money, but unfortunately, the process didn’t go well. So I lost the money, and didn’t have the ID.”
He says he was forced to spend another XAF250, 000 (US$405) with another agent, who eventually succeeded in getting the ID card for him within a period of one month, after another thorny procedure.
Unlike Jonathan A., who was able to cough out such a huge sum of money just to get an ID card, there are millions of Cameroonians who cannot afford such funds for the same purpose.
Many Cameroonians live on less than US$1 a day, and things appear worse off now as the country has been facing inflationary pressures which government has largely blamed on the war in Ukraine and the lingering global economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I find it difficult to have money for my daily bread. I have a wife and five children, and I don’t work for any government office or big enterprise. I was told I can pay XAF 25,000 (US$40) and get my ID card within days, but where can I find that kind of money with the hardship we are currently facing in this country?” says Abesolo M., a motor mechanic. He adds that “I have not been able to get my ID card for the past one year.”
Cases of extortion for ID cards have been so rife that some Cameroonians say they have called the toll-free number (1517) of the Cameroon national anti-corruption agency (CONAC) the state anti-graft body, to report their frustrations.
A matter of jail and death?
With reports of delays and extortions notwithstanding, not being in possession of the national ID card, especially when you come face-to-face with law enforcement officers in certain circumstances, can either land you in jail or at worse into your grave.
Section 1(2) of law No. 19-42 of 19 December 1990 instituting a national ID card in Cameroon states that “possession of a national identity card shall be compulsory throughout the country for all citizens aged 18 or more.”
Section 5, sub section five, of the same legislation states: “Whoever does not possess a national identity card shall be punished with imprisonment for from three months to one year or with fine of from XFA 50,000 (US$80) to XAF 100,000 (US$160) or with both such imprisonment and fine.”
Indeed, stories exist of many Cameroonians who are currently languishing in jail after being convicted of criminal charges including “failure to hold a national ID card.”
Such is the case with popular Anglophone activist ‘Mancho Bibixy’ who was jailed alongside six other activists in May 2018 for acts of terrorism and hostility against the state of Cameroon. Bibixy was arrested in January 2017 in the Anglophone North West city of Bamenda after staging a peaceful protest against bad governance by the regime in Yaounde. He was not in possession of his ID card at the time he was arrested on 19 January 2017, which is considered a crime.
The Mancho Bibixy example is in no way an isolated one. On 10 October this year, a man whose name was reported by the Cameroonian media as Foundikou Daouda was arrested and thrown into a police cell after storming a police station in Foumbot, a town in the West region of the country, to protest why his ID card had not been issued many months after he applied for it.
Considering his protest as disturbance of public order, Daouda was reportedly beaten by officers and put behind bars where he spent many weeks. He was released only in November after pressure from family members and rights activists, according to local media reports.
Activists kick, want urgent action
The arrest of Daouda for simply asking questions about delays in issuing his ID card sparked anger in the country, with many activists and rights lawyers chiming in to speak about an issue which is now considered by some critics as a national embarrassment.
In the wake of the incident, a Cameroonian human rights lawyer Christian Ntimbane Bomo, in an open letter to President Paul Biya, as published by a local news portal Cameroun Actuel, wondered why issuing a “simple” national ID card should be such a big problem for a country in the 21st century.
The lawyer alleges that going by his sources, the delay in rolling out the new national ID card scheme announced by the government a long time ago, is the result of a “battle” at the level of the presidency over who should be awarded the “juicy” contract. He urges the President of the Republic of Cameroon, Paul Biya, to take all necessary measures in order to save Cameroonians from the current quagmire, so that they can be able to prove their identities.
Also reacting to the Foumbot incident, Anne Féconde Noah, political activist and one of the proponents of an online campaign dubbed #JeveuxmaCNI (loosely translated as ‘I want my ID card’), expressed regrets, saying the authorities must take the requisite measures in order to avoid a repeat of such a scenario in the future.
“Not having an ID card in one’s own country is absolutely not an option. Citizens do not have to beg to have this document which is very essential in their daily lives,” said the activist on his Facebook page. Noah is also member of a popular opposition party in Cameroon known as the Cameroon Party for National Reconciliation (PCRN), which is known for sharply criticizing the actions of the Paul Biya administration.
In all of this, one thing is sure. Cameroonian authorities are very much aware of the agony citizens face in obtaining their ID cards, and the ordeal those who do not have the credential go through on a daily basis. What remains unsure, however, is when exactly they intend to undertake concrete action so as to bring the lingering problem to an end.