Monday February 8 2016

Fresh queries over Shs68 billion voting devices

Returning Officer

Electoral Comission’s Wakiso District Returning Officer, Hajjat Sarah Bukirwa, displays the Biometric Voters Verification machine during the training. Photo by Joseph Kiggundu 

By FREDERIC MUSISI & TABU BUTAGIRA

Kampala.

Imagine you are a concert or football match ticket holder. At the gate, your ticket is scanned on a machine reader to confirm its authenticity for you to access the venue.

The Biometric Voter Verification System (BVVS) machines that the Electoral Commission (EC) contracted a foreign firm to supply at $19m (Shs66b) will do just that: scan a person’s finger print to determine their eligibility to cast the ballot.

But just like a spectator cannot control or influence a stage performance or foul play on the football pitch, a biometric machine itself cannot prevent rigging, ballot stuffing or result manipulation during transmission in the decisive political game on February 18.

The electoral body acknowledges that its polling officials will have hard copies of the National Voters’ Registers at hand as a final reference to determine who votes or doesn’t, whether or not the battery-powered gadgets malfunction or fail to work normally.
There is another elephant in the room, though. A lack of adequate civic and voter education has left potential voters guessing whether they require a voter’s card, a national Identity Card, voter location slip or a combination of all documents to be able to vote.

Bone of contention
In places such as Luweero District, some registered voters with national IDs reportedly do not have voter location slips while other individuals without IDs or voter’s cards have voter location slips.

Dr Badru Kiggundu, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, last December said a national ID is not a prerequisite for somebody to vote, weeks after his commission declined to nominate former presidential candidate and Gulu District chairman Norbert Mao, who did not register for national ID, to run as Member of Parliament for Gulu Municipality.

These anomalies had Opposition leaders and some diplomats question the credibility of the electoral process, and with it, the EC’s logic to spend Shs66b on the BVVS devices in spite of early warnings by the Solicitor General (SG) about the supplier, Smartmatic, being blacklisted by countries which hired its services in the past.

The electoral body, in response to our inquiries, said it did due diligence as was demanded by the SG but when asked to provide details, EC spokesperson Jotham Taremwa said “everything is under control.”

On November 6, last year, Mr John Bosco Suuza, on behalf of the SG, warned EC against proceeding to sign a contract with Smartmatic without completing due diligence.

“… we note that whereas the due diligence team set out to, among other things, establish ‘allegations of failure to deliver in Venezuela, America and Philippines’, it has not been shown that the team actually conferred with authorities in any of the three countries to establish the performance [and other] records of the provider,” he wrote.

The SG was responding to EC secretary Sam Rwakoojo’s June 19, and October 19 2015 letters, seeking a no-objection for the Smartmatic contract.

Donors pulled out of the biometric technology procurement after disagreement with the EC over sourcing of the suppliers.
Our investigations show Mexico, Philippines and the United States contracted the company to provide similar technology, but it had a less-than-satisfactory output.

We could not reach a Smartmatic official in Uganda to clarify on the concerns. The firm’s managing director, Mr Frans Gunnink, last month at the launch of the technology, said they have never failed to deliver in any country where they were contracted.

Smartmatic snapped up the Ugandan deal at $19m (Shs66b), beating firms from Israel, Belgium, United Arab Emirates and South Africa.
One of the companies, Diamond Gate General Trading Ltd, petitioned the EC for administrative review but it was told on June 8, 2015 that the evaluation had followed the law.

A whistleblower a month later petitioned the Ministry of Justice alleging, among other things, that the other bidders had been eliminated unfairly; that EC never carried out the required due diligence on Smartmatic; and, that some government insiders fronted the successful company.

The police ICT director Amos Ngabirano, named alongside Dr Josephine Wapakhabulo Thomas, an IT expert and daughter of former Parliament Speaker James Wapakhabulo, denied any influence peddling to favour Smartmatic.

“Much as I am in position to help EC with day-to-day ICT-related activities, I don’t work there; so, why should I be involved in any of their work?” he said last Friday. We were unable to reach Dr Josephine, a Loughborough University-educated ICT engineer.

The whistleblower had also reported that “Smartmatic offered to supply gadgets with eight hours battery life which is not enough for the whole day‘s process of voting,” alleging the gadgets were likely of inferior quality since the quotations were below the market price.

Contigency plan
Voting at next week’s elections will begin at 7am and end by 4pm, according to a revised EC schedule. Besides likely malfunction of the biometric reading machines, it is not clear what contingency power back-up plan EC has for remote polling stations without electricity supply to guarantee the gadgets power on throughout the whole exercise.

Spokesman Taremwa on Friday said they have “put in place mechanisms” to forestall any likely problem.
“We shall also have a hard copy of the register on standby. Whatever it is said about this technology, the country should know [that] we are prepared for the best or worst [scenarios],” he said.

What it is
The BVVS theoretically aims to prevent electoral fraud and improve the integrity of the exercise.
The system uses fingerprints to match them with voter details to help an election official confirm that the voter is on the roll of that polling station.

For this to work as expected, the contracted firm, in this case Smartmatic, should have been involved in voter registration, updating of the voters’ register, and storage of the records to guarantee the integrity.

A government official familiar with the process said with these safeguards overlooked, the EC relying on the voters’ register to ultimately determine who votes or doesn’t and Smartmatic excluded from result transmission and tallying, Ugandan taxpayers are unlikely to get value for the Shs66 billion spent to buy the biometric reader machine plus Shs 2b for airlifting them.

“Elections don’t start on polling day,” the official said, asking not to be named to discuss the sensitive matter freely. “So, why really did we spend this money on Smartmatic for?”

EC’s Rwakoojo told Daily Monitor a week ago that there is widespread mistrust among Ugandans of things done by Ugandans, explaining why the country will continue to spend heavily on foreign firms.

The Solicitor General, the technical arm of the Attorney General, the chief government legal advisor, in its conditional clearance told EC officials that the contract with Smartmatic would stand terminated if “the provider does not possess the experience, skills and capacity to perform the contract as represented”.
SG Francis Atoke last week said he did not readily have details of the final legal position on the matter.

The cost
Fresh questions have emerged after the Electoral Commission asked for $600,000 (Shs2b) to airlift the gadgets, citing delays in clearing the deal, which meant the machines would arrive late if shipped by sea.

It also presented to Finance an additional Shs46b supplementary budget request, part of the commission’s unused money returned to the Treasury in the previous financial year.

Ministry of Finance spokesperson Jim Mugunga acknowledged receipt of the request, and said the commission was obliged to follow proper procurement procedures. “We don’t advise them on how to use money we allocate them; so, they (EC) are the best people to talk to about their expenditures,” he said in response to our inquiries on value-for-money in public finance spending.
The electoral body said it is “convinced and very satisfied” with whatever it has so far done.

The numbers
28,010
Polling stations countrywide

32,334
BVVS machines imported