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The govt body fighting against extortion in Cameroon’s civil registration sector

The govt body fighting against extortion in Cameroon’s civil registration sector

Adeline N., a mother of four, resident in the town of Bamenda in the North West Region of Cameroon, secured a birth certificate for her last child in early November after what she described as a “tedious and expensive process.”

Tedious and expensive not only because of the raging spiral of violence rocking the North West and South West Regions of the country, which has disrupted the normal flow of administrative services, but also because of the cost involved in obtaining the foundational identity document that is supposed to be issued free of charge.

The National Civil Status Registration Office (BUNEC) is the government agency overseeing civil registration matters in Cameroon. It is placed under the technical tutelage of the Ministry of Decentralisation and Local Development. Civil status documents are issued at local and city councils, other authorized centers, some of which are lodged in traditional chiefdoms, as well as at diplomatic missions or consular posts abroad.

“I spent about XAF 20,000 (US$33) before I had my son’s birth certificate issued. I was told at the Council (registration center) by an official that I would not be issued the document if I didn’t pay the money. I was just asked to pay and never told why,” Adeline tells Biometric Update.

For marriage registration, the amount of illegal payment is even higher — much higher as testimonies from newlyweds show. Incidents are more rampant in towns and cities as huge sums of money are demanded from those seeking to register their civil unions.

“I am just from the civil status registration office where I went to register my marriage. I was told to pay the sum of XAF 65,000 ($109) under different heads. I just paid the money but I was not issued any receipt. When I asked for one insistently, the woman who was serving me took offence,” said Joel Z. who was just stepping out of the Efoulan Council office in the third district of Yaounde.

Another man, Elvis O. tells Biometric Update that he spent XAF 75,000 ($126) to register his marriage in December 2022 at the Biyem-Assi Council in the Yaounde VI district. Such is the case in almost all of the 360 local councils and 14 city councils spread around the national territory. Efforts to obtain comments from the mayors of the two cited councils on these payments proved futile.

Paying for a free service

In Cameroon, a civil registration document like a birth certificate is a crucial foundational identity paper. Without it, Adeline’s son will not be able to get admission into an elementary school. Without a birth certificate, it is impossible to establish a national identity card or a passport in the country. It is required for many other civil life circumstances such as marriage registration.

Cameroon’s 1981 Civil Status Registration Ordinance, which was amended and supplemented by Law N° 2011/011 of May 6, 2011, says civil status registration shall be free of charge.

This is probably because the country recognizes the importance of issuing civil status registration documents such as birth, death and marriage certificates. They are also part of its efforts to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16.9, which urges countries around the world to provide legal identity for all including birth registrations by 2030.

Extortion is one of the vices that have eaten deep into the fabric of the country’s civil registration system, however. This and other forms of corrupt practices, which are common in all the ten regions of the country, especially those hit by armed conflict, are penalizing ordinary citizens who require this vital foundational document to ease the lives of their children.

In the face of this problem, the Office of the Public Independent Conciliator (PIC) in the North West Region – one of the regions hit by armed conflict – has taken upon itself to spearhead a campaign aimed at emphasizing the cost-free nature of these important credentials and the dangers that come with extorting money from poor and helpless citizens.

“This campaign is prompted by the growing and persistent complaints reported to the Office of the PIC in the North West Region. It is also confirmed by a survey which we carried out in 2022 which revealed that council administrators collect as much as XAF 15,000 (US$16) for the issuance of birth certificates and as much as XAF 100,000 (US$168) to celebrate marriages,” says Simon Tamfu Fai, public independent conciliator of the North West.

The Office of the PIC is an institution provided for in the country’s 2019 law to institute the general code of regional and local authorities – a blueprint used to fast-track Cameroon’s decentralization and local development process.

The body, whose functions are further defined in a presidential decree of December 24, 2020, acts as an arbiter between local government administrative entities such as local and regional councils and public service users.

Among other things, the PIC has the responsibility to examine and amicably settle disputes between users and regional and council administrations, defend and protect rights and freedoms in the relationship between citizens and local administrative officials in the regions, design and implement measures to prevent and combat any direct or indirect discrimination against users of regional or council services, and to ensure that persons serving in the regional or council administrations fulfil their ethical obligations.

“Our objective is to inform and educate the masses that the establishment of civil status registration documents is free, except for certified copies that may require stamps. This way, we think the Office of the Public Independent Conciliator will be contributing to the fight against corruption and boost the quest for civil status registration services in the region,” Tamfu Fai tells Biometric Update in an interview.

He adds that the campaign, which has been running for a number of months now, will continue, and the agency’s expectations are high.

“The PIC expects that the campaign messages would reach at least half of the 2.5 million people of the North West Region. It also seeks to facilitate the free establishment of at least 10,000 new birth certificates and 5,000 new marriage celebrations,” he says.

“We understand that many people have unfortunately lost some of these vital credentials, notably through the burning of houses which has been a common feature in the prevailing conflict affecting the North West and South West Regions,” he adds, suggesting the problem is more serious at the moment given the high demand for birth and marriage certificates.

In an armed conflict that has spanned seven years and counting in the Anglophone North West and South West Regions of Cameroon, hundreds of victims of the fighting have been dispossessed of their vital documents such as birth and marriage certificates, and even national ID cards.

“With the armed conflict, people are running from one place to the other. There are people who have lost their documents because their houses were razed, others because they can’t go back to where they fled from, and some because their documents were seized from them and destroyed by armed separatist groups. For these categories of people to re-establish civil status documents for themselves and their children is a big headache. They have to spend a lot of money,” says Lucas Nji, President and chief executive officer of Recover and Rehabilitate for Better Tomorrow, a non-governmental organization working to promote human rights in the South West Region of the country.

An illegal practice that has become the norm

Emphasizing the aspect of corruption, the North West PIC says: “My office is engaged in receiving and treating complaints of victims of extortion from some council staff in relation to the establishment of civil status registration documents.”

Tamfu Fai blames this phenomenon on a number of factors: “The principal cause, per our evaluation, is the ignorance of the population about the civil status legislation. Many council administrations have now taken advantage of this fact to continue to extort. Some of them have made this illegal practice the norm.”

While he regrets that civil status registration officers exploit ignorant and gullible citizens to receive money from them for a service they shouldn’t normally pay for, he sounds the alarm that such practices are punishable by Cameroon’s penal code.

“The collection of money for the establishment of civil status registration documents is illegal and a violation of the 1981 Civil Status Registration Ordinance, as amended and supplemented by law N° 2011/011 of 6 May 2011, which makes civil status registration free.”

He adds: “Collecting any amount of money for the issuance of these documents is extortion and a violation punishable by law. Conditioning the establishment of civil status documents for any Cameroonian on the payment of money is tantamount to denying them their right to nationality as citizens of Cameroon as well as other civil and political rights.”

Nji agrees to this: “We receive people daily in our office with complaints on this issue of extortion and other related difficulties in obtaining birth certificates. Let me say that it is a total violation of the people’s rights to have access to these documents. It is the responsibility of government to ensure that its citizens do not face difficulties while seeking to obtain civil documentation.”

“A birth certificate is an all-important document because it precedes your ID card. For children who turn 18, they are expected to obtain ID cards, but many of them cannot do so. Those who may love to get married cannot register their marriage because a birth certificate is required to do that,” he adds.

Lack of birth certificate booklets fuels extortion

Birth certificates are issued as pullouts from booklets supplied by BUNEC to all principal and secondary civil registration centers in the country. During a townhall a few months ago, the Mayor of Buea and Barrister-at-Law David Mafani Namange told the public that his council (a principal civil registration center) had not had birth certificate booklets for a long time.

In a chat with Biometric Update, the regional chief of BUNEC for the South West, Walter Ndzerem, confirmed the situation. “We have had a shortage of booklets for birth certificates not only in the South West Region, but in the national territory as a whole. Up to about 4,000 birth declarations are still stocked in registries pending registration because of this shortage, which has been due to delays in supply.”

“However, the situation is being handled as supply has been restored by BUNEC and distribution to the regions is gradually being carried out. It is our hope that this unpleasant situation will soon be a thing of the past,” says Ndzerem.

According to Nji, this booklet shortage situation is a possible recipe for corruption, and proves to be a major problem especially at this time of the year when children are supposed to register for certificate examinations.

“We are talking about the absence of booklets at a time when school children are required to present their birth certificates to register for official exams. Without booklets for about one year now, you can imagine the extortion that may have taken place.”

Difficult access to court declarations

According to Section 30 of the May 2011 law to amend and supplement certain provisions of Cameroon’s 1981 civil status registration ordinance, the birth of a child is supposed to be declared to a civil status registrar within a maximum deadline of 90 days from the date of the child’s birth in order for a birth certificate to be issued.

But beyond this deadline, a birth can only be registered following a declaratory judgement from a competent court.

Due to several factors such as ignorance, poverty, socio-cultural barriers and the ongoing armed conflict in the English-speaking North West and South West of the country, thousands of births in Cameroon do not get registered within the 90-day window.

In the South West, Ndzerem admits that despite the gradual increase in the rate of birth registration, the number of birth registration with declaratory judgements remains very high.

“We have noticed a high registration rate of birth certificates with declaratory judgements, resulting from lost documents. There’s so much to be done to ensure that parents complete the registration of their children before the 90 days deadline,” says Ndzerem.

In a situation where parents require declaratory judgements to register their children’s births, they see it as a hurdle as they have to cough out huge sums of money to procure this supporting document.

To Nji, the lack of a harmonized fee for procuring declaratory judgements also opens the way for extortion.

“The fact that no one knows the exact amount to be paid for court declaratory judgements for the production of birth certificates makes things very difficult for the poor masses,” he notes.

He observes that there is a culture in the country where parents do not register the birth of their children immediately, or within the 90-day deadline. “When you go for a declaratory judgement in court, there is no fixed amount you have to pay. The legislator did not define any, and so whatever amount is demanded is at the discretion of the court.”

“Someone will tell you they established a birth certificate for their child at the sum of XAF 20,000 (US$33), another will tell you that they did it for XAF 15,000 (US$25). There are others who would spend XAF 10,000 (US$16). This is worrisome. There ought to be a harmonized amount so that acts of extortion can easily be identified and called out,” Nji suggests.

Added to these challenges is the generally low level of birth registration in Cameroon, which is just slightly over 50 percent according to official figures from BUNEC. In the face of these problems, Cameroon is now seeking a path forward for the modernization of its CRVS system. In order to achieve this goal, the government says it is working on a new civil registration legislation which will be on the table of the legislator soon, and the country has already been conducting a pilot for digital civil registration in some councils. In August, a campaign was also launched by the government for the distribution of 500,000 birth certificates to children, adolescents and event adults who do not have their foundational ID, as part of the move to expand coverage.

It suffices to mention that like the civil registration sector, Cameroon’s national ID system is also rocked by complaints of extortion and other issuance problems, which authorities are looking forward to addressing through the planned introduction of a new ID card dispensation in the months ahead.

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