By Abiosseh Davis, Program Officer, Counterpart International

In a meeting hall in Limbe, Cameroon, election officials surrounded by cameras addressed a crowd gathered to observe the new biometric voter registration system. With only a machine to capture finger prints, a camera, a white background and a computer, the team of seven captivated the audience. The demonstration was part of a training where civil society organizations and media outlets were educated on the merits and shortcomings of the new biometric registration process.

The training session also focused on developing strategies for mobilizing citizens to register. The Southwest region of Cameroon has one of the highest voter apathy rates in the country, exacerbated by the exclusion of civil society, the manipulation of media, and prevalent allegations of election fraud in previous election cycles. The presence at the training of a robust ELECAM team including staff from the Head office in Yaoundé and the Southwest regional office demonstrated the electoral body’s commitment to administering credible elections and engaging non-governmental election stakeholders.

The one-day session was organized by the Martin Luther King Foundation (LUKMEF) as part of a Civic and Voter Education Grant provided by Counterpart under the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Strengthening Civic Engagement (SCE) in Cameroon program.

Biometric voter registration is a process for registering voters using one or more digitally recognizable features including facial features, finger prints, iris recognition, and hand geometry. Increasingly used in a growing number of African countries, it aims to reduce the prevalence of multiple registration and subsequent election fraud.

ELECAM plans to deploy 1200 kits throughout Cameroon to register voters by matching six finger prints, photos and additional identification information. The new voter cards it issues will include photos, finger prints, names, place of birth, occupation, residence and parents’ names.

The workshop was a way not only to educate people on biometrics, but also to discuss the relationship between ELECAM and civil society and media organizations, who inquired about how ELECAM would continue to engage them as partners and stakeholders in the electoral process.  These organizations expressed several concerns about the rollout of the new system.

For starters, they worried that 1200 biometric kits will be insufficient to register the approximate 9.3 million citizens of voting age. The kits are slated for distribution based on population, but CSOs pointed out that Cameroon’s censuses are infrequent and often inaccurate.  “Using this process, only 1 million voters, maximum, can be officially registered,” one participant speculated.

They also expressed concerned about the waiting times. Though ELECAM’s demonstration lasted 15 minutes, the focal point for biometric registration, Dr. Thaddeus Menang, assured workshop participants that it would only take about a third of the time for an individual to register. Nevertheless, since Cameroonian law stipulates that registration cannot extend longer than 10 days, voters are likely to face significant delays.  A media outlet representative who had witnessed the process in neighboring countries remembered, “The queues wrapped around the registration stations at dawn.”

Additionally, voter cards take at least one day to print, requiring registrants to return to pick up their cards. This makes the entire process difficult for those with limited mobility, or limited means. There were also concerns regarding access and registration for people with disabilities that may be constrained by a process largely based on fingerprinting.

Though these problems will take time to address, the workshop was a successful step in providing first-hand experience and exposure to Cameroon’s biometric registration process to several of the groups engaged in raising awareness about how it will work.  Participants expressed commitment to the next step: informing citizens with practical information to facilitate high turn-out for voter registration.