Gabon hopes to deliver on its lingering national ID card promise this year
This December could usher in good tidings for citizens of the central African nation of Gabon who have gone for many years without seeing any new issuance of the national ID card. This is if things roll on as planned by the administration of President Ali Bongo Ondimba.
Many citizens in the highly forested and sparsely populated nation of 2.5 million people believe it would be easier for them to go about their daily activities if they had valid ID cards, which are necessary for completing a wide range of transactions with both government and private sector entities.
Unfortunately, many citizens do not possess IDs. Since 2013, the government in Libreville has not issued national ID cards for different reasons. As such, citizens who applied for ID cards between 2011 and 2013 have continued to use the old cards, many of which have lost their validity, while those who had just the application receipt before the halt in production, have continued to keep them.
For ordinary Gabonese, the long period of non-issuance of IDs is worrisome and dire as many of them have been complaining of acute difficulties in carrying out their daily activities.
Expectations are thus high that this could soon be a thing of the past if a plan adopted by the country’s Council of Ministers on 1 February to begin issuance of a new generation of ID cards by December comes to fruition.
“Pending the production of the new digital national identity card (CNIE) scheduled for the second quarter of this year, the validity of all national ID cards is hereby extended,” reads a translated portion of an official communiqué issued after the meeting.
“The cards can be used as legal ID to carry out any useful transaction on a daily basis, including banking services and administrative procedures,” the statement adds.
Days after the Council of Ministers’ decision, on 7 February, President Ali Bongo signed a decree officializing that extension, in a move that has been welcomed with some relief by citizens, although many failed promises have been made in the past.
Failed promises on resumption of ID card issuance
A Gabonese journalist and editor-in-chief of a popular online news media, who declined to be named, explained the ordeal faced by Gabonese on a daily basis. He says that the situation is disturbing and many citizens are frustrated and asks what their fate will be after December.
He says Gabonese people cannot wait to live in the era when their ID card woes have become history, as they have waited in vain over the years despite several promises made by government officials for a new ID.
Gabon actually initiated plans for a biometric national registry to issue secure national ID cards to citizens in 2012. The project then was awarded to French firm Gemalto, which is now known as Thales Digital Identity Security.
The lofty ID plans notwithstanding, the system’s implementation was delayed for many years because of different problems.
At some point, the government contracted Belgian firm Semlex to issue the ID cards, but that phase of the process also did not work in the intended direction as the contract was reportedly terminated. According to a January report by Radio France International (RFI), Thales is taking over the contract and plans are advancing in terms of setting up the equipment and training of operational personnel.
A Thales representative told Biometric Update that further information about the project will be shared soon by the company.
The report mentions an unnamed source as disclosing that the legislative framework for the new ID card project has already been looked into, while the key software for the platform have already been supplied.
In October 2022, news about the possibility of relaunching the production of the cards by December of that year was specifically greeted by thousands of Gabonese, who have been suffering over the years without a valid ID card.
The assurance was given by the Interior Minister at the time Lambert Noël Matha who was grilled by the Constitutional Court over the matter.
The official said at the time that work was far advanced at different stages of the relaunch process, with a specimen of the new card validated by the competent authorities according to a report by news portal Le Nouveau Gabon.
This planned cards have not yet materialized.
In the meantime, while citizens are complaining about delays in the issuance of the card, others also have issues with the fact that the application receipt is not biometric.
The receipt has no facial photo or fingerprint on it, which makes it difficult to authenticate the identity of the holder. This had led to many institutions or businesses rejecting the ‘photoless’ cards for transactions of a certain size, sources tell Biometric Update.
The ID card and elections
In August, Gabonese are expected to go to the polls to vote for a new President and members of the National Assembly.
According to the country’s National Electoral Commission (CENAP), the registration of voters for the election is yet to commence, and it is expected to be another headache for eligible voters who do not have a valid ID.
In Gabon, like neighboring Cameroon which also has long-running problems with its national ID card system, the ID card is one of the credentials needed for voter registration and also for ID verification at polling stations on polling day.
Whether or not these people will be able to vote is another question as an ID is a requirement for voting.
Opposition parties and civil society organizations have spoken out vociferously about the issue and have called on the government to take every necessary step to ensure that the cards are produced as promised.
They argue that the national ID is a fundamental document which every citizen is supposed to have.
In a public declaration in 2020, Claude Francois Nkoulaveng, a spokesperson for the Coalition for a New Republic, an opposition political party, questioned how many Gabonese as at that time could boast of a national ID card.
“In Gabon, ID cards have become a scarce commodity. Many of them have only the application receipt which is increasingly being rejected by many institutions,” said Nkoulaveng.
“Why are the competent services of the Ministry of Interior not putting in the same efforts to relaunch the issuance of national ID cards like they are doing for residence cards and passports? Why are national ID cards not produced en masse during the electoral period?” he questioned.
Another opposition political party which has been vocal about the ID card situation as elections approach is the ‘l’Union Nationale.’
In a press conference in March, the leader of the party and president of a coalition for change dubbed ‘Alternance 2023’, Paulette Missambo, said they will not be surprised if new ID cards are not issued before the next elections, as part of a ploy to skew things to the favor of the ruling regime.
“They (the government) would like to have elections without electors,” the official said, before urging citizens who do not have ID cards to use their birth certificates and come out massively to register for the election. Birth certificates are accepted for voter registration but the figures of birth certificate issuance are also said to be low.
In the last general elections in Gabon in 2016, citizens who had no ID cards, or those whose cards had expired, used their birth certificates to register and vote.
For the upcoming election, voter registration has not started but the Prime Minister Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze said recently that biometric voter registration system is being set up to enroll new voters and then clean up the voter’s register.
While the cry for an ID card is loud among the vast majority of Gabonese, it is no less so with people of minority or marginalized communities such as the Baka people (sometimes referred to as ‘pygmies’) in the southern part of the country.
For them, obtaining an ID card has been more of an eternal problem, tied to the challenges triggered largely by the very nature of their communities and culture, as highlighted in a 2018 report by French broadcaster TV5Monde Afrique.
The report underlines the ordeal of the set of people who live according to long tradition, mostly in areas which are difficult to access.
In Dounmassi, a village deep inside the Equatorial forests of Gabon, inhabited by pygmies, old men confessed that many of them live and die in the locality without ever having to be issued a national ID card.
This, they say, seriously affects their day-to-day life as they can hardly access conventional healthcare services and are also unable to vote during elections, among other difficulties.
Though the situation appears difficult and unclear as to when the nation will resume the issuance of IDs for its citizenry, there is however still some hope in the horizon for better days ahead.
There are reports that plans are ongoing by the Gabonese government to draw up a plan for the commencement of biometric data capture for the ID program.
It is not clear if the requirements for the application process will change but those from 2012 include a birth certificate (certified true copy) and three colored passport size photographs. The cards then were issued to citizens 16 years and older.
Prime Minister Bilie-By-Nze, describing the new ID card recently, claimed it will be one of the most viable and secure ID credentials issued by any nation on the continent.