As Malawi gears for tripartite elections next year, the Electoral Commission (EC) plans another major project—to use a fresh voters’ roll produced through a biometric system, The Nation has established.
A biometric system uses fingerprints and facial features to uniquely identify each voter.
But a key electoral donor, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is worried that there may not be enough time to use it for the 2014 polls.
The Nation investigations have revealed that some commissioners and staff at the electoral body have already visited Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia and Sierra Leone using funds provided by prospective bidders of the biometric voter registration system, a development procurement authorities did not approve and some stakeholders are questioning.
Some stakeholders have said although Malawi needs to be moving with changing times in terms of technology, implementation of such huge projects with elections just next year would pose a challenge and could prove disastrous to the electoral process.
Other stakeholders have questioned the acceptance of money/facilitation from prospective suppliers of the service by the commission, saying this is suspicious considering that the procurement is expected to be done through a public tendering process.
But sources at the EC confirmed that the exploratory trips were funded by some prospective suppliers after the electoral body solicited advice from the Office of the Director of Public Procurement (ODPP).
Said one source: “It is true that the visits were funded by those that supplied the systems in those countries. For example, the company that supplied the biometric system in Mozambique funded the trip so that the commissioners and staff could appreciate how it works.”
But chief elections officer Willie Kalonga said in a questionnaire interview that procurement of the new system has not started.
He said the commission is still studying registration systems that have proved to be successful in other election management bodies in the region and beyond.
Kalonga said the Public Procurement Act regulates procurement, not appreciation, and that prospective bidders will only be known once bids have been invited after the commission has drawn specifications on the required system.
Said Kalonga: “The commission does not need to seek permission [from ODPP] to appreciate solutions in other election management bodies. It, however, did seek advice from ODPP on whether possible suppliers could contribute towards the funding of officials to appreciate systems where the solution is implemented and a no objection was received.
“The commission has visited a number of election management bodies in the region to study the biometric system. Such countries include Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia and Sierra Leone. In all these countries, the commission was impressed with the efficiency of the system.”
He also said at least seven companies have approached the commission with their services and that more vendors are still inviting the EC to visit countries where their solutions have been implemented successfully.
“Should EC proceed with this proposed solution, the shortlisted firms will also be required to demonstrate their solutions. That will then be the procurement process regulated by the Public Procurement Act. The question of added advantages at this level, appreciation level, does, therefore, not arise since the EC is dealing with many vendors,” said Kalonga.
ODPP assistant director (for regulatory and review) Timothy Kalembo said the commission wrote the ODPP on November 12 2012 seeking approval that instead of 30 days, the advertisement of the procurement of consultants to review the voter registration system be done for 14 days.
Said Kalembo: “We received this letter on 13th November 2012. On 16th November 2012, this office granted a ‘No Objection’ for EC to advertise the procurement contract for 14 days, that is, soliciting consultants who have expertise to submit their proposals to EC to do the review of the registration system.”
He declined to comment on whether what the commission has done to accept help from prospective bidders is within the law. He also declined to commit himself on the issue of EC seeking a ‘No Objection’ on the trips, saying he needed to consult further and that the side of EC has to be heard.
But a source at the ODPP said it is unlikely that the public procurement watchdog could give a ‘No Objection’ to allow the commissioners and staff to travel using a prospective bidder’s funds.
On what necessitated the fresh registration system, he said they want to ensure that every person casts the vote in their ward since the polls would include Local Government Elections.
Said Kalonga: “The registration system is not new. We are only asking voters to register in their wards. Malawians have always registered in times of elections. Sixteen months is adequate to carry out a credible process.”
He said since fingerprints are unique to every individual and that the commission would need these unique features and other details to store in their computers from which the voters’ roll would be produced, all eligible voters would be required to physically present themselves at registration centres.
Kalonga said the current paper-based method of registering voters does not have adequate in-built mechanisms for detecting multiple registrations which has allowed some unscrupulous individuals to register more than once.
He said: “Cleaning up of the voters’ roll, to ensure that the roll is current and relevant, is very expensive and takes a lot of time. Registering voters also takes place in a long period.
“The biometric solution was designed to counter all these shortfalls. Biometric technology makes the detection and removal of multiple registrations from the system possible. The voters’ roll becomes more accurate and reliable for election purposes. Processing of transfers for voters who have relocated is also easy and can be done within a very short time.”
Kalonga said the K14.2 billion (about $42 million) elections budget which the commission has presented to government includes the cost of procuring the new registration system. He said it was assumed the system would be adopted after discussions with all partners.
The EC boss said once the system is adopted, the commission will arrange a series of meetings with stakeholders such as political parties, civil society organisations and the media in accordance with the EC’s approach to engage key players in elections before implementing any major shift in operations.
The chief elections officer also said the commission would only replace the equipment used in capturing voters in the field because the other attendant hardware is already available.
‘It will be detrimental’
Steven Kamponda, communications assistant for UNDP—the body that manages the basket funding towards elections, while saying that his organisation recognises that voter registration would be a critical process in preparing for credible tripartite elections in 2014, said introducing the new system now could be detrimental.
Kamponda said since the EC was in the process, of redistricting the ward boundaries, UNDP would have to assess the impact of the exercise on the existing voters’ roll and the degree to which existing records would need to be updated.
He said during the European Union-sponsored round table in December, the commission advised development partners that it was exploring the possibility of a biometric voter registration system, but there is no confirmation that the procurement process has started
Said Kamponda: “Development partners and UNDP did express concerns at the round table about the time frame before the upcoming elections, the potential costs and sustainability of a biometric system, and the risks of introducing a new system at this stage.
“As experience in other countries has shown, and as UNDP has advised the EC, the process of introducing biometric voter registration systems is usually best undertaken over a few years, and not shortly before an election.”
On his part, Malawi Electoral Support Network (Mesn) publicity secretary Steven Duwa said it would have been better if the commission explained to Malawians why there was need for a fresh registration system when the EC embarked on voters’ roll cleaning immediately after 2009 general elections.
He said: “From the look of things, this is likely to be a big exercise which requires proper planning in terms of materials, staff recruitment, training, equipment and mass sensitisation and monitoring of the exercise itself. Discarding an existing voter register willy-nilly could spark debate and suspicion. So, the EC should first explain the need for this fresh exercise.”
Duwa said although it is good for the commissioners and staff, including other key stakeholders such as the media and CSOs to appreciate how the biometric system of registration works, soliciting of funding from prospective suppliers is suspicious.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) publicity secretary Nicholas Dausi said the commission should not be in a hurry to introduce new systems considering that the country has no luxury of time at its disposal for stakeholders and voters to comprehend and understand the new biometric system.
He argued it would not make sense for people who already have voter registration certificates to go and register again. He said DPP would encourage the commission to clean up the already existing voters’ roll and only register new eligible voters.
“There is something fishy and it is a recipe to rigging. It is recipe to figurative manipulation. To expect people who are already registered to register again is so absurd and the motive behind it is very questionable and suspicious and does not answer to our financial prudence,” he said.
People’s Party (PP) deputy publicity secretary Ken Msonda said the party has confidence in the EC commissioners and management under the leadership of Judge Maxon Mbendera
“The People’s Party believes EC and electoral stakeholders are working tirelessly to have credible elections in 2014, considering that it will be the first time to hold tripartite elections,” he said.
UDF publicity secretary Ken Ndanga said the commission should explain to stakeholders because the new registration system would be critical to the electoral process which calls for transparency and openness in the procurement.