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Cameroon seeks escape from its biometric national ID card woes

BiometricUpdate | Cameroon is in its fifth year of an armed conflict that has made the security situation in the country's English-speaking regions extremely precarious. If you travel in certain areas without an ID card or only have the application receipt, you will have to deal with security authorities every time you pass through a checkpoint.

Cameroon's biometric ID card production and issuance system is currently beset by problems. While the legal waiting period for a card to be given after an application is three months, thousands of residents are frequently compelled to wait far longer. The cards are sometimes never delivered at all. According to World Bank estimates, just around a quarter of the population of 26 million people has a valid national ID card.

The General Delegation for National Security (DGSN), which issues the ID card, has provided several explanations for the delays, but citizens are growing increasingly concerned because the ID card is the primary form of formal identity.

Thales' Cameroon biometric ID card gives individuals access to a wide range of services. Without it, it is impossible to register for a public exam, travel from one town to another without difficulty, conduct financial and banking transactions such as receiving international money transfers, purchase and registering a SIM card, applying for a passport, opening a bank account, register a business, or obtain a driver's license, to name a few examples.

What exactly is the issue with issuance?

Biometric Update attempted to talk with DGSN officials regarding the issue with issuance for the sake of this report, but their efforts were useless. When this reporter contacted Police Commissioner Joyce Cécile Ndjem Mandeng, the director of the DGSN's communication office, for an interview, she requested that an official request be submitted directly to the police chief, Martin Mbarga Nguele, which was done. However, at the time of this report (approximately four weeks later), the DGSN had not answered, even to state they were not prepared for the interview, which is a regular procedure among Cameroonian government organizations. This is on top of a string of failed phone calls.

Despite the lack of response, DGSN officials have previously blamed delays in issuance on a variety of factors, including "mistakes" committed by applicants while requesting for the cards. They're referring to discrepancies found in the application form's information.

However, some of the applicants who spoke with this reporter disagreed, believing that the explanations are more likely to be found elsewhere.

The DGSN has previously said that the daily production capacity of the cards will be increased from 10,000 to 15,000 (as of January 2021). However, this process, which many believe might considerably assist in clearing the massive backlog of unproduced cards, does not appear to have taken place yet.

Meanwhile, due to delays in giving cards to individuals who are eligible in metropolitan areas, many Cameroonians, particularly those in rural areas, are faced with the arduous job of obtaining services without having an ID at all.

Many people living in difficult-to-reach areas find it nearly impossible to apply for the cards.

Michael Motom is a resident of Akwaya, one of the country's most sprawling districts. He recently reached 18 years old, the legal age in Cameroon for obtaining an ID card, and he wants to apply for one. He is unable to do so in Akwaya town since the area, which is home to over 200,000 people, lacks an ID card production center.

Mamfe, which is at least 120 kilometers away from Akwaya town, is the nearest town having an ID card production center. Bamenda, in the North West Region, is the next closest location where ID cards are created, at a distance of over 200 kilometers.

The vast majority of Akwaya residents do not have ID cards since they must go a significant distance to obtain one, which incurs fees. Students aged 18 and up who are taking public exams in the area may experience issues if they do not obtain the card, which is required for registration. They are compelled to apply for the ID at Mamfe or Bamenda.

Honorable Martin Aka, a legislator in Parliament who represents Akwaya, says he is leading an effort not just for the district to be divided into smaller districts due to its huge size, but also for the establishment of an ID production center. During the November 2021 session of Parliament, Hon. Aka mentioned this during question time.

Akwaya is just one of several localities across the country that lack digital ID card production sites, making life tough for people in terms of free mobility and access to essential services.

According to the official local daily newspaper The Guardian Post, on February 10, 2022, a man in the North West Region's town of Nwa was allegedly shot dead by a soldier for failing to provide his national ID card when questioned.

It's unclear whether the person didn't have one or not, but there's no ID card production office in the entire Nwa area, which is also one of the hotbeds of separatist violence in the English-speaking portions of the country.

The military ministry made no statement in response to the report.

Such occurrences, according to ID campaigners, underscore the misery that thousands of Cameroonians without ID face, particularly in rural areas.

Activists claim that the ID system is badly conceived.

The current scenario in Cameroon with regard to ID card production and issuance concerns not only victims but also ID rights advocates who believe the problem extends to the ID system's inception and design.

"Normally, national ID systems are supposed to be just, but the Cameroonian system instead promotes injustice and exclusion. Cameroon's biometric ID system has been harming the most disadvantaged individuals it was supposed to help since its conception, design, rollout, and oversight. According to Colbert Gwain, a digital ID campaigner who has worked on digital ID and inclusion projects in Cameroon and other areas of the continent, "it leaves a lot to be desired because it was evidently poorly planned, badly developed, and poorly implemented."

"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 says of the fact that residents of some communities across the country cannot access the ID card due to distance in accessing ID production centers or other reasons.

Gwain also considers delays in card issues to be bad and says the government should consider other options for improving the ID card distribution system. Following the lead of the recently implemented biometric passport system, he believes, will not be a bad idea.

"If Cameroon's biometric ID issuance is as quick as the current biometric passport system, which delivers passports in 48 hours," he says, "then the technology might operate as a gatekeeper for marginalized people's ability to access and realize their rights..."

Is there any hope?

While issues with ID card issuance persist, the scenario may not last much longer if efforts are underway to implement a new biometric ID system that is both quick to supply and up to current in terms of quality yields quick results.

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

A source acquainted with the situation, who did not want to be identified, stated that the DGSN has issued a tender for a new biometric ID card system and that the deadline for interested companies to submit bids is March 15, 2022.

Many Cameroonians believe that by implementing an ID card system similar to the biometric passport system, which has been in existence for less than a year, the country's ID issuing problems, which have been a major source of frustration for many years, will be resolved.

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