To a Cameroonian, your national identity card is like the password to an e-mail account. They are valid for 10 years. If you don’t have one, you are in for a lot of trouble – especially when travelling by bus. Your passport will not save you at a highway security checkpoint.
My ID expired in March 2016 while I was on holiday in Limbe, a coastal resort city in the Anglophone South West Region. Limbe is a one hour and twenty minute drive from Douala, the nation’s economic capital, where I live and work. Cameroonians can only apply for ID cards at police stations. So I went to have mine renewed at a station in the Limbe neighbourhood of Middle Farms.
IDs are usually printed after three months, though some may take up to six months, and you collect them from the police station where you applied. In the meantime, the applicant is handed a Temporary Identity Document, which is valid for three months. We can use these temporary ID cards until the permanent IDs are printed, but they have limitations. For instance, you cannot do international bank transactions or even hefty national transactions with them.
Four months after I had submitted my application, in July 2016, it was announced on state television that the government was going to launch a new type of high-tech, more secure ID. The news did not bother me because I knew my ID was probably already ready.
I was fortunate to have been issued a temporary ID with a one-year validity, so I waited eight months before I went back to Limbe, sure that even if there had been a six-month delay in producing my permanent ID, it would be there. I even braced myself for the insults the police officers would unleash on me for abandonment. Little did I know that my story would take an unfortunate twist.
In November 2016, I travelled back to Limbe to collect my permanent ID. A police officer who worked at the Middle Farms station glanced at my temporary ID and told me that none of the permanent IDs for 2016 applicants had been issued. We would have to reapply for the new one. The money I had used to renew my ID card had gone to waste.
Worse, some friends who had recently applied for the new ID declared that applying for it had become more difficult than applying for a passport. They told me that even the procedure to compile the documents that would be used to eventually apply for the IDs had become lengthy too. The new ID card process could now last two or more days, sometimes even a week. In 2016, I had applied to renew my ID within approximately two hours. How the application time had jumped from two hours to two days, and even a week, in 2017 baffled me.
My temporary identity document would expire on 7 March 2017. So I phoned my police officer friend so that he could acquaint me with the new procedure as I wanted to apply in Logbaba, the Douala neighbourhood where I lived.
He told me to first apply for a certificate of nationality and then to certify my birth certificate at the Logbaba Council. I wondered what the essence of a certificate of nationality was. Did my birth certificate not show that I was born in Cameroon to Cameroonian parents? Was that not enough? It took me a day to obtain both documents at a cost of 5500 FCFA (USD10).
He also said that I should not forget to submit photocopies of my employment papers so that my profession would appear on the new ID. Finally, he advised me to appear very early in the morning at the police station in Logbaba, with the originals of my documents.
I arrived at the police station in Logbaba on 7 March at 5:15am and was more or less the 20th person in the queue. We stood outside the gate of the huge police bungalow until the officers arrived at about 7:30am and ushered us in. Two of them collected our documents at 8am. There were about 36 files. They said they collected files only once and if anyone came after they had done so, they would have to return the next day at 4am.
We were going to have to pay 2800 FCFA (USD5) for processing. One officer later returned and read out the names of seven people with incomplete items in their files. He handed back their documents and told them to return the next day at 4am with the complete items.
After that, we waited outside the police building. Those who had arrived early sat on the dozen or so chairs on the veranda, while the rest of us baked under the sun. We waited, and waited some more – for four hours! In that time, there were no procedures whatsoever.
We soon noticed that a number of people who had arrived after us were going in through the back doors and soon left with their temporary ID cards. One guy complained that the latecomers must have bribed the police officers, so their temporary IDs would be rushed. We could only fume, grumble and continue waiting. Finally, around midday, the first five of us received temporary Identity documents. When the rest of us walked to the service window to complain, we were whisked away like houseflies.
“Justice is not perfect,” said the officers. Then they added their classic statement: “If you joke we will hand your files back and you will have to return here tomorrow at 4am.” We rushed back to our seats or upright positions under the sun, grumbling like the footballers of the Cameroon national team who had not received their match bonuses. The officers seemed to be enjoying their game of anguish with us.
At 2:30pm, they hastened the production of the temporary IDs a little. But I had still not heard my name. Finally, at 3.30pm, I dashed to the window again. I was tired, hungry, thirsty and angry.
“Everybody is gone and I’m the last. How come I’ve still not heard my name?” I asked.
A pregnant police officer ushered me in and unapologetically announced that she had forgotten my file on the CPU. I suppressed the angry bellows I had harnessed since 5am to avoid the torture of being told to return the next day at 4am.
I said nothing as she measured my height and took my picture, fingerprints and basic information, all of which lasted approximately 15 minutes. There had only been 28 or so files and if you multiply 15 minutes by 28, you get 420 minutes – that is 7 hours of work. Split among four officers, that was not even two hours of work per officer. Yet they had kept us waiting all day.
“From which ethnic group are you?” the officer asked.
“Bangwa,” I answered, and she searched for it in the computer.
“What local language do you people speak?”
“Nweh,” I replied, as monosyllabic as I could be. Again, she scrolled through the languages.
“I am not seeing your ethnic group nor your language in the database,” she said. I sighed with frustration.
“Just click ‘other’ at the end of the list of ethnic groups and type ‘Bangwa’. Type ‘Nweh’ at the end of the list of languages,” I suggested.
“I can’t do that because that ‘other’ option is not available.”
I sighed again. “Then I don’t know what to do.”
“You have to select an ethnic group before the print command can be launched,” she informed me. “We have complained to Yaoundé that many ethnic groups and languages from the Anglophone South West and North West Regions are not in these new machines but the error has still not been rectified.”
I almost shouted out in anger, “So even your ‘Francophone machines’ are marginalising us, eh?” The fact is that all 262 ethnic groups and local languages are archived in the Ministry of Arts and Culture, so I think it is ridiculous that the police station in Logbaba does not have many of the ethnic groups and languages from the Anglophone regions in their machines. Had other Bangwas or Anglophones like me faced similarly awkward situations in different police stations in Francophone Douala?
“Isn’t there another local language in the South West Region which you speak? Are you not Bayangi?” she asked.
“No, I already told you that I am Bangwa. However, I have some ancestral roots in Dschang in the Francophone West Region, so I understand a pinch of their language.”
“Should I type ‘Bamileke’ as your ethnic group, since they are the people who hail from Dschang?”
I was uncomfortable but I had no choice. I was completely exhausted. I did not even care what local language she eventually chose. Luckily, your ethnic group does not appear on your temporary nor permanent ID. At last, she launched the print command and handed me my temporary ID. It was 4pm.
My major worry now is if my permanent ID will be issued in Yaoundé, where all Cameroonian ID cards are processed and printed. There will be nobody there to explain why I chose Bamileke as my ethnic group, even though my parents are both Bangwa. Also, will I have to wait eternally? Only time will tell…