By Cameroonian journalist Solomon Tembang, first published in The Guardian Post newspaper, and republished on Cameroon News Agency, Journal Du Cameroun, as part of the Digital Identity Reporting Grants series.
As early as 6 AM on a cold Monday morning, Grace Che and many others, who are seeking to produce or collect their digital national identity cards, are queued up at the Efoulan police post in Yaounde.
The queue is very long and Grace Che, like the others on the long line, is not sure she will be served with her digital national identity card on this day.
To a Cameroonian, a national identity card is like the password to an e-mail account. They are valid for 10 years. Without one, the person is in for a lot of trouble – especially when travelling around the country.
In Cameroon, law No. 90-42 of 19 December 1990 says “whoever does not possess a national identity card shall be punished with imprisonment for from three months to one year or with a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 francs CFA or with both such imprisonment and fine”.
But obtaining digital national identity cards in Cameroon has become burdensome and is now a near nightmare.
It is common to spend days waiting for public officials to sign and issue the identity cards. Files often go missing, forcing many to start the tedious bureaucratic process all over.
That is one of the fears of Grace Che as she waits on the long queue.
“I have been coming here several times to collect my digital identity card, but each time I come, I am told it is not yet ready. I am always asked to extend the receipt I was issued after going through the cumbrous process of applying for the card,” Che said.
“I have done that several times and they keep telling me to do the same. There are many transactions, mostly financial, which I cannot carry out with the receipt except I obtain the digital ID card,” she added.
Grace Che is just one of thousands of Cameroonians who find themselves in this dilemma.
However, authorities charged with the issuing of digital national identity cards say the delay, and sometimes graft in the process, is not of their making.
Fighting against identity theft
Before 2016, it was a common phenomenon in Cameroon to see an individual with more than two identification papers. Although identity theft seemed to have eaten deep into the Cameroonian society, the government did not relent its efforts in combating the incidence through several security measures such as the computerisation of essential documents like the national identity card and passport.
New digital ID cards
In August 2016, the Cameroon government took a bold step to completely overhaul its system of identification and card manufacture.
This, authorities said, was an illustration of government’s will to strengthen security on its territory, in particular by combating identity theft and document fraud.
The government launched a new identification system, which, they said, was digitised. Some of the documents to be modernised were the national identity card, produced alongside other documents such as passports, resident permits and refugee cards.
The electronic and biometric identity documents, in credit card format, according to Cameroon authorities, are designed to combat fraud. The cards have multiple, both visible and invisible, security features incorporated into them.
For the first time, they incorporate the laser-engraved colour portrait of the holder in high definition, not on the surface, but inside the very body of the card itself.
The cards are fitted with a microprocessor which combines the physical security of the document with a means of electronic security. This opens up new possibilities in electronic identification for multiple new forms of use.
According to Cameroon authorities, the digitised identity cards will help national security operatives to produce crime statistics and trace records of suspects. This action, they say, is possible thanks to the presence of an electronic chip on the card.
The government contracted a French company, Gemalto, to design and produce the ID cards.
Sources claim that with Gemalto, the General Delegation for National Security opted for an innovative technological solution which puts Cameroon at the forefront of African nations in the field of secure identity documents.
This innovative approach, Gemalto claimed in a write-up, is a world first.
“It offers the citizens of Cameroon the benefits of having an identity card which cannot be questioned,” Gemalto added.
But four years down the road, observers say the system is bugged by bottlenecks, delays and “corrupt practices.”
Digital IDs are usually printed after three months, though some may take up to six months, and are collected from the police station where they were applied for. Initially, applicants, after submitting several documents, are handed a Temporary Identity Document, which is valid for three months. The temporary document can be used until the permanent ID is printed. But it has limitations. For instance, a holder cannot use it to do international bank transactions or even hefty national transactions.
Meanwhile, the procedure to compile the documents that would be used to eventually apply for the IDs is lengthy and cumbersome. Many Cameroonians queue up at identification centres for days. Some go to the centres as early as 5 a.m. only to leave at 8 p.m. after having been told to come the next day – in some cases.
The digital ID cards are said to be “robust enough to resist intensive usage and extreme climates; polycarbonate is the most reliable and secure material for IDs. It is now available with colour photo thanks to Gemalto Color Laser Shield card solution. The polycarbonate identity documents are more resistant to humidity, heat and ageing. This plastic with unique marking and durability properties makes it possible to achieve much higher rates of reliability and security than materials used in the past.”
Gemalto in the same write-up said: “They are fitted with a microprocessor which combines the physical security of the document with a means of electronic security. This opens up new possibilities in electronic identification for multiple new forms of use.
“In particular, they will allow holders to have secure access to electronic services such as e-government via Internet portals, thanks to strong electronic authentication by means of a digital certificate issued by the card-issuing authority,” they noted.
Despite all the flowery positives about the ID cards, many Cameroonians, who have been trying to acquire them, say there is nothing to write home about.
More and more people are finding it difficult to have the identification document; a situation which comes with consequences.
It is not uncommon to spend days waiting for “incompetent” or sometimes outright “lazy” public officials to sign and issue documents.
Digitised national identity cards in Cameroon are supposed to be printed and issued to the holder within three months. But many have had to wait for years, going to and forth the identification centres to no avail.
Tuesday, January 21, 2020, Louise Amougou, a lady in her sixties, is in a sombre mood at the General Delegation of National Security, DGSN. The lady complained that she has not been able to get her Identity Card after applying for it more than a year before.
“Write a complaint and drop it at the mail service,” a police officer at the reception advised her.
“I don’t even know what a complaint is,” Amougou told the police officer.
“Go to a secretariat and ask that they should help you write a complaint,” the police officer retorted.
After Louise Amougou, another young woman shows up at the reception and also asks for the procedure to be followed to have the digital ID she has been waiting for in vain for about eight months. She has been going about with a receipt for months with all the inconveniences.
“Submit a complaint to the mail service,” another police officer answered her.
Complaints registered at the DGSN are also common in police stations in the city of Yaounde.
Our investigations showed that at the different identification stations, significant numbers of persons are waiting for their IDs, a situation, which, observers say, “is irritating”.
“I am tired of coming here all the time to hear the same song,” Louise Amougou said.
“Your ID card is not yet available,” shouted a lady at the Nkolndongo police station on January 17.
Louise Amougou said it will soon be a year that she is waiting for her ID card.
“I was told that my receipt cannot be extended more than twice. What am I going to do to get money from my brother?” she asked rhetorically.
The same scenario holds for Lambert Ndongo, working in a private company based in Yaounde.
On Friday, January 17, he could not withdraw, 400,000 FCFA (about USD 727) that was sent by his parents residing in France for his health check-ups.
“‘You can’t withdraw money with a receipt which has expired,’” he quoted the lady at the money transfer agency as having firmly told him.
To get out of the situation, Ndongo was forced to demand that the money be returned to his sender, so that it could be resent this time around under a colleague’s name.
Passports not left out
In the meantime, the difficulties Cameroonians are facing is not unique to digital national ID cards. The same situation is true with obtaining passports.
Amindeh Blaise Atabong, Yaounde-based freelance journalist, in a write up recently, narrated the ordeal he went through to obtain a passport.
“The General Delegation for National Security – the government department in Cameroon in charge of issuing identification documents – had said that because French digital security company Gemalto was contracted to produce the passports in 2016, it would all be a lot easier. None of the fraud or counterfeiting associated with the previous contract holder, Thales Security, would be tolerated,” he wrote.
“So, I went to the application centre in Yaounde with high hopes. I had also thought that being a journalist, I would at least get some kind of preferential treatment. Those hopes didn’t last long. I would later learn that Thales Security had indirectly staged a come-back by acquiring Gemalto as a subsidiary, and the more things had changed, the more they had remained the same,” he added.
“‘Come back tomorrow’,” a police officer arrogantly told me in French, without even bothering to find out what had brought me there. The following day, I could not be admitted into the centre on the flimsy basis that my birth certificate and ID card had been certified in a different administrative jurisdiction. I kept on receiving one complaint to another, which increasingly left me frustrated because my travel was drawing near. The only option was using the back door – a systematic channel developed by the authorities to make money from desperate passport seekers,” he added.
“For some inexplicable reasons, Cameroonians are continuously told there is a shortage of prefabricated booklets for the production of passports. But if you’re willing to part with some money, the story is different,” Amindeh stated.
Digital rights, civil society activists cry foul
In the face of what has been described as pathetic, digital rights activists in Cameroon are condemning the situation.
Pedmia Shatu, digital rights activist, blogger and Executive Director of Global Initiative for Digital Inclusion and Communication, said: “National ID cards have become more important in the wake of the Anglophone crisis because the first thing a security officer asks for in the restive North West and South West regions is an ID card given that everyone is a suspect both to fighters and security forces”.
“It is so unfortunate that people will apply for an identification document and stay for years and will never have the original. They are obliged to move with the receipt. In some cases, the security still detains holders of these receipts,” Shatu regretted.
“As a journalist and digital rights activist, I have had people complain of the procedure to obtain ID cards which has become tiring. We have security officers who collect money to facilitate the process. Some succeed but others do not and still find themselves queued up at police stations,” she added.
The digital rights activist continued: “This is injustice because those who cannot bribe will keep feeling the pinch of police threats and harassment, and in some cases, detention. The official amount for an ID card is 2,800 FCFA (circa USD 5) as per regulations in force. The slowdown in the production of national identity cards through the official channels at police offices across the country has engendered a spate of informal acquisition alternatives that tap directly from the main production point at Tsinga in Yaounde. Those who have their ‘network’ (a term referring to intermediaries) get ‘encouragement fees’ and facilitate the production process.”
Shatu added that these bottlenecks in the production of Cameroon’s digital ID cards is violating the rights of Cameroonians.
“Firstly, it is their right to own an ID card after having gone through all the procedures required. This entails getting to a police station, getting the necessary documents such as a certified copy of the birth certificate, a copy of the marriage certificate for married women issued by the administrative or municipal authority, proof of profession if applicable, and a certificate of nationality signed by the President of the Court of First Instance. But when the process is stifled by bribery and corruption, many people lose business, educational, professional and many other opportunities. Their rights to freedom of movement and association are also violated because they are afraid of police intimidation,” she noted.
On his part, another digital rights and civil society activist, Colbert Gwain Fulai, CEO of A Common Future – a local organisation crusading for the respect of digital rights – said: “I first note that the Cameroon digital programme that has been rolled out for over ten years now is one that was poorly conceived and poorly designed. We see it poorly deployed on the field because it has brought about a lot of centralisation. More importantly, the model is ubiquitous and it’s very difficult for us to understand why the government sought a virtual identity system without having thought out the benefits to the users”.
“It is more a matter of national pride because, in terms of benefit to the users, we don’t really see it,” Colbert Gwain opined.
“It is a system that was not well thought out. It is a system that was imposed on the population. It is a system that was brought in without any feasibility studies and so it is very difficult to say why it takes so many months to have a digital ID card when in a sense, it should be in a matter of hours. In a system that works well, it takes hours for somebody to have a digital ID. To take one month, two months, three months and sometimes up to two years before an individual gets an ID card, is more frustrating and it begins to raise more questions than answers. Questions like why the ID? Why is the ID system being rolled out to the population? Why are they made mandatory?” Gwain regretted.
“Recently we gathered that chips have been added to the digital system to make it more digitised. But the question is whether it is serving any purpose, because it is taking longer to establish an ID card, meanwhile, the only reason why systems are digitised is to fast-track production of these ID cards. But in Cameroon, it is instead at a snail pace. So we can’t actually say that the system is digitised because the very understanding of digitisation is that systems work faster and produce results in real-time. But it takes averagely six months to one year, or even two years, to have an ID card,” the rights activist noted.
“So you start asking yourself why the digital system? Is it really digitised? If it is digitised, how come an individual will have one, two or even three ID cards, and how come an individual has to wait for six months or more to have an ID card? There are question marks as to whether the system is really digitised,” he added.
Colbert Gwain was categorical that these travails in obtaining the national ID cards are a violation of the rights of Cameroonians.
“We know for a fact that digital rights are human rights. Going from opting for mandatory ID cards and making it mandatory that to obtain basic services, you have to have a national ID card, which is digital, is already a violation of human rights. This is especially when we know that there are marginalised groups, we know that there are IDPs, we know that establishing documents right up to having an ID card is an arduous and uphill task. This is a pure violation of human rights plus the fact that nothing justifies mandatory digital ID. No homework was done to prove that these digital ID cards can be of any use to the youth,” he said.
Uncollected ID cards
Nonetheless, despite the hurdles in the application process, people aren’t hot to get the digital IDs once they are produced. There are hundreds of thousands of such cards lying in police stations uncollected.
In August 2017, the General Delegation for National Security, DGSN, disclosed startling statistics which showed that 678,000 national identity cards have been abandoned in different police identification posts in the country. DGSN said in spite of efforts made for individuals to come for their ID cards after application, the situation seems not to change as more and more of these cards are seen piled in various police stations in the country.
But Colbert Gwain says the reason could be that people get frustrated when they follow up two or three times and they don’t get the original.
“It also points to flaws in the digital identification system. Normally, a true digital system should be able to notify the bearer once his or her card is ready for collection, or the item directly posted to the bearer since it is assumed that the police force has his or her residential address,” Gwain said
“It seems to me the government was more interested to be seen to have digitised its identification system than actually digitising it,” Gwain added.
Against a backdrop of these complaints from Cameroonians, authorities say the problem is not of their making.
According to an identification agent who did not want to be named because he was not authorised to speak for the police, “a single mistake made during the identification process can stop the ID card from being eventually produced.”
“There are some individuals who, on the identification form, say that they come from the Centre region simply because they were born in Yaounde, whereas in reality, they are from the West or East regions. Some people don’t write their names correctly. Others say, for example, that they are students whereas they work in a company. Others say they are married without providing the justification documents,” he explained.
He added that the act of applying for ID cards in different identification posts is not a guarantee that the card will be out.
“Everything is being produced up at the ID card production centre. We can identify you at our level. But you risk being blocked at the card production centre because of the errors you may have made on the identification form,” the identification agent clarified.
These explanations were corroborated by a source at the General Delegation for National Security, who also asked not to be named.
“Cameroonians have a big problem with identification,” the source stated.
According to her, those who cheated before the digitisation of the identification were successful, but not this time around.
“It is true that during the old system, it was easy, with the complicity of the identifying agents of the time, to change one’s age by establishing his or her ID card. However, those who cheated after the advent of computerisation in 1996 are caught up,” the source added.
Toll free number
Nonetheless, the source admits that the new identification card system can have problems, but which are solvable. She said this has to do with people who made mistakes during their identification (name is written incorrectly, the error of the region of origin or the absence of justification documents such as a marriage certificate, divorce certificate, business or professional card etc).
“In these cases, just call the toll free number, 1550, to raise the concern which can be resolved after a complaint has been written and attached to the justifying documents. The complainant will have to submit the document at the DGSN mail service,” the source said.
“Those who have applied for ID cards must go back to the police stations where they deposited their identification documents to get their cards. Those who do not have their ID cards after three months should call 1550 to find out what the problem is. Finally, the case of those having a double identity cannot be handled by the police. But in the meantime, they have to seek legal process and use their original age,” the source advised.
The only problem is that the toll-free number, 1550, seems to be very inaccessible.
This reporter called the number several times but it didn’t go through.
“It’s a very busy line, but you can get it. You just have to insist,” our source justified.