Cameroon, like a number of other countries across Africa, is gradually delving into and embracing biometrics and digital identity.
This is part of broader plans by the central African nation to digitize its economy as outlined in the country’s digital economy strategic plan launched in 2017.
In 2021, the Cameroon government says it plans to operationalize a biometric youth ID card which has been in the works in the last couple of years. The project is being coordinated by the ministry of youth affairs and civic education, in collaboration with the Cameroon national youth council and the national youth observatory. The two bodies are helping the ministry to enroll youths for the ID project.
A youth council representative tells Biometric Update it could change relations between the country’s youth and its government, while a civil society observer says in an interview that several major concerns remain, however.
Authorities say the idea of the biometric ID card for young people was born out of the desire to modernize how Cameroonian youths get access to certain public services specifically dedicated to them. With it, holders will have access to about 600 different services on preferential basis, youth ministry officials say.
The biometric card is part of a youth plan
Youth unemployment is a cankerworm in Cameroon, and the regime of 88-year-old President Paul Biya has been carrying out a number of projects to not only open up spaces for possible youth employment, but also to ensure that they do so using secure and authentic means of identification with fingerprint biometrics in an increasingly digital environment.
The biometric youth ID card is a component of a three-year triennial youth development plan worth XAF 102 billion (about US$190 million) announced by Biya on February 10, 2015, in a televised address to the youths. The plan targets four key areas, namely; agricultural development, vocation and professional training, the digital economy (where the biometric youth ID card falls) as well as entrepreneurship.
The idea is to have the cards distributed to youths from all of the country’s ten administrative regions so as to render them eligible for an array of economic, social and financial opportunities and benefits.
Holders of the cards will specifically benefit from access to services including social security, healthcare, transportation, employment and vocational training and special skills acquisition, either at subsidized costs or totally free of charge, authorities of the national youth observatory have explained. The services, the authorities say, will be directly provided by government or by third party institutions with whom government will conclude negotiations.
A small number of the cards have already been printed in a pilot, but the government plans to make them operational beginning in 2021. Holders will be Cameroonian youths aged between 15 and 35 years, and the cards will have a validity period of five years, according to Armand Atangana, coordinator of the national youth observatory.
An important youth governance tool
Speaking in Parliament last month while defending the budgetary allocation of his ministry in the 2021 state budget, youth affairs minister, Mounouna Foutsou, said a chunk of the XAF 20 billion budget (about $37 million) will be dedicated to the youth card project.
“We shall be mobilizing the Cameroonian youth and ensuring their contributions to some of the big development projects of the country. Above all, we shall operationalize the biometric youth ID card which is an important tool that will enable the youth have access to many important government services, either free or at preferential costs…,” Foutsou said in Parliament on November 29, 2020.
On December 11, 2020, the ministry signed a partnership deal with the United Bank for Africa (UBA) to mass produce and distribute the biometric cards to youths across the country. Apart from production and distribution, UBA will also have the responsibility to scout for potential partners, ensure the maintenance of production equipment, as well as train the youth ministry staff on the use and management of the cards. It is not clear which biometric identification solutions provider UBA will be using for the project.
Concerns surrounding project
Although the project has been hailed as innovative, some advocates in the digital identity and biometrics community have picked some holes in it, arguing that the government must take into account a number of factors in order to make the project more inclusive and holistic.
Colbert Gwain, a specialist with the New Digital Civil Society in Africa — a digital rights movement — raised concerns about data privacy issues, highlighting the lack of a legal framework that should govern the process.
Cameroon currently does not have any specific law or legal framework on data privacy and protection, and so Gwain fears the data collected for the biometrics cards may be diverted for other unpleasant uses.
“Our country doesn’t have a comprehensive piece of legislation on digital rights, talk less of a privacy and data protection law. Jurisprudential evidence already exists to the fact that government services and security agents have randomly and arbitrarily accessed private citizens’ data over the last four years of the Anglophone crisis, under the pretext of searching for information about activists believed to be fanning the conflict from abroad,” Gwain said. Cameroon is currently witnessing a long-standing armed conflict, otherwise known as the Anglophone crisis, in its two English-speaking regions of the North West and South West.
ID project not inclusive enough?
According to Gwain, the project by its design will exclude thousands of Cameroonians youths, most of who are victims of the ongoing armed conflict in the English-speaking parts of the country. The crisis – on since 2016 – has forced many people to flee their original settlements with many of them losing their identity documents in the process.
Although the government has launched a project to reconstitute the lost identity documents of these group of people, the process is still far from maturation.
“The digital youth ID system would further complicate matters for the thousands of internally displaced and undocumented Anglophone youths who are fleeing from the raging and deadly conflict in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon,” he opines, adding that it could “exclude the millions of hard-to-reach and underserved segments of the Cameroonian youth which continue to lack access to essential and basic services.”
Gwain added that he fears the biometric youth ID project could well be used to track down dissident youths and those who are increasingly becoming hostile to the Yaounde regime.
“Data storage and confidentiality are commodities that come in short supply in Cameroon. So more questions have to be raised about the data and eventual uses of the data which the government of Cameroon has been mining and wants to continue to mine from the useful segment of its population,” the digital rights advocate told Biometric Update.
These fears, among many others, reflect similar concerns being raised in other countries of the continent where biometrics and digital identity projects are being implemented.
The ID cards, a ‘jewel’ for Cameroonian youth
The critiques notwithstanding, others agree that the biometric youth ID program is a milestone digital technology project being rolled out by government.
Victor Cham Bama, a youth council official said “the card is a jewel, it’s timely, purposeful and translates government’s commitment to assuage the plight of young Cameroonians,” arguing that “it will bring numerous opportunities to them and change the way they perceive government actions towards them.”
Cham Bama sustained that with the ever-changing digital landscape, the biometric ID cards will present young Cameroonians with life-changing opportunities capable of helping them achieve their dreams.
“Government thought it wise that with these cards, the Cameroonian youth will catch up with the changing times. It will give exposure to the rural youth with a variety of opportunities involved. It will also enable young people to access strategic opportunities within and beyond the country. In some way, it will equally enable government to measure the rate of youth involvement in development activities, so it can inform future policy,” he told Biometric Update.
Cameroon’s biometrics experience
The use of biometrics-based solutions for identification, authentication or digital identity is not quite widespread yet in Cameroon, but the country has already taken a number of steps in implementing biometrics for different projects, including national identity cards. Thales has since 2016 been overseeing the production of biometric identity documents in Cameroon such as national identity cards.
The system of enlisting new voters on the electoral rolls in Cameroon is done using biometrics which involves facial recognition and fingerprints, but some have since been calling on the government to incorporate biometrics throughout the entire voting process.
From March 2021, Cameroon is also looking to begin producing biometric passports, to replace its current version. A deal to this effect was struck on September 17, 2020, in Yaounde between the delegate general for national security and the chief executive of augentic, the firm contracted for the job.
Also, President Biya has also recommended that the government should consider introducing biometrics within the civil service in order to fight fraud and improve efficiency and productivity. The President suggested this in a circular letter on July 10, 2020, in which he highlighted some of the digital technology projects which the country should consider carrying out in the nearest future.