By Haggai Matsiko
Big money deals loom over election
The general elections of Feb. 18 must not only be free and fair, they must be seen to be free and fair. That is the higher bar imposed on the Electoral Commission by numerous challenges leading into the elections; including procurement fights with donors, vote rigging allegations by politicians, and the introduction of new voter technology at the last minute.
As D-day approaches, all eyes are on the new Biometric Voter Verification Technology (BVVSU) that the EC is rolling out for the first time. Some 32,334 machines will be deployed at 28, 010 polling stations, manned by 140,050, personnel.
The biggest fear is that similar equipment faced challenges during the voter registration exercise.
Launched in 2015, the system is meant to verify voters at polling stations by matching a voter’s fingerprints to their photograph, name, date and place of birth, as contained in the register.
The system has run into trouble over allegations that, to adopt it, EC discarded the original register and ended up omitting names of registered voters. There are also fears that some voters may be blocked from voting if the machines fail to read their fingerprints.
The other concern is that the new system was introduced late and is prone to failure.
Critics claim that even in Kenya, where the machines were tested many times before the major election, they still faced major issues. In Ghana, the machines introduced in 2012 broke down.
Ballot quality queries
The EC has also had problems over the ballots. A row erupted over a Shs45 billion tender for printing and supplying the ballots.
The two foreign firms that were locked out; South African-based Ren-Form CC Printers and UK-based Kalamazoo Secure Solutions, have claimed that the companies the EC used; UK’s Tall Security Print Ltd, Al Ghurair Printing Ltd from UAE, Ms Paarl Media from South Africa, and Picfare Industries, a local company, do not have the experience of printing at least 15 million ballots of similar nature.
They have said the ballot samples the listed bidders provided to EC are inferior and were not subjected to a standardised benchmarked test by the Uganda National Bureau of Standards.
They even petitioned the monitoring body, the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority (PPDA) over alleged bias in conducting an earlier review that had been ordered by the procurement tribunal. They also claimed that EC had denied them a fair hearing during the handling of petitions.
The allegation by the companies could be a case of loser’s fury. But the EC could suffer a backlash if the ballots turn out to be sub-standard and not fit for purpose.
Because of the lack of transparency surrounding the procurement of the ballots, mistrust has fueled suspicions over the ballots. In one instance, the EC has had to deny allegations that the airplane from South Africa first landed somewhere offloaded some ballots before it landed at Entebbe Airport.
Election results fears
But perhaps the EC’s biggest test concerns its equipment to transmit elections results from the districts to the headquarters.
The EC sparked a row with donors under the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) when it cancelled an agreed contract and awarded the deal `secretly’. As a result the DGF withdrew Shs4.5 billion it had committed to the project.
DGF, which brings together donors (Austria, Denmark, The EU, Ireland, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK), found problems with the EC over procurement of the Electronic Results Transmission and Dissemination System (ERTDS).
The system is meant to transmit results after tallying from the Districts to the National Tally Centre at Mandela National Stadium-Namboole.
The electoral body has since explained why it cancelled a contract it had awarded together with two consultants from DGF and handed the same to a different supplier.
But the disagreement has added pressure on the EC to ensure that the equipment it procured outside the contract with DGF does not cause problems in the relaying of results.
Crispy Kaheru, the national coordinator of elections observer body, CCEDU, told The Independent that in the circumstances, there is no doubt, there is likely to be a problem when it comes to acceptability of the election results. He said that delivery of free and fair elections is partly hinged on the credibility of the election management body.
“You cannot be seen not to be transparent, shrouded in secrecy, surrounded by corruption and you still expect to the best arbiter,” Kaheru said, “When the media and the public raise these issues, it leaves indelible marks of questions as to the credibility of the body that is running an election that involves serious parties.”
It all started with an open international tender advertisement on June.4 last year in accordance with the Public Procurement and Disposal Act (PPDA). Then an EC-led team, with the support of two consultants from DGF evaluated bids.
The team approved the bid for Technology Associates Ltd in partnership with SYCTL (based in Spain) on Aug. 12 2015 and a Notice of Best Evaluated Bidder was issued on Sept.1 2015.
Due diligence was done by visiting their SYCTL in Spain and one of their clients in Norway.
Yet three months later, on Dec.2 2015, the EC informed DGF of a decision to cancel the award and engage in an emergency procurement process for an alternative ERTDS provider.
“We have been informed that this was due to adaptations the selected company made to their proposal to meet the shortening of the timeline for ERTDS implementation,” DGF wrote in a statement, “On Dec.9 2015, the DGF consulted the EC on the reason for cancelling the contract and, after careful consideration, concluded that the swift re-procurement did not provide an adequate framework of transparency and implementation feasibility.”
DGF’s statement followed allegations in the media that donors have conspired to “front” a certain company allowing local political actors to “hack” into the transmission system to tamper with the election results are untrue and completely unfounded.
In response, the EC noted that after they were chosen, on November 20, 2015, Technology Associates and SCYTL were invited for contract negotiations and signing. However, during the negotiations, the bidder presented a different solution from what was specified in the tender documents on which they has been evaluated against.
The Counter offer, the EC noted, had variations affecting software and hardware as well as attracting extra costs.
“Specifically, the proposal to use the call-centre to phone in to the National Tally Centre to read results,” the electoral body noted in a statement, “and also use a centralised Web-based system that required continuous internet connectivity for it to work, was not in the Request For Proposal and therefore, not agreeable to the Commission. The award had to be cancelled.”
Due to the time constraint caused by the cancellation of the award, the EC said it used emergency procurement as provided for under the PPDA rules, to invite two companies, namely, Avante International Technology Inc., which was the provider of the ERTDS in 2011 General Elections and Smartmatic International Holding, which has an existing contract for supply of Biometric Voter Verification System.
The Request for Quotation sent out to the two bidders had the same specifications for ERTDS as specified originally with the Electoral Commission technical team and the DGF consultant, the electoral body added.
There are reports that DGF was unhappy that a European company lost a contract. Before the last election in 2011, between 2009 and 2010, diplomats at the U.S., UK and German embassies were locked in a fight over a Shs200 billion tender to supply a voter identification system to the EC.
Apart from trouble over the ERTDS, in 2015 the EC was on the spot for awarding a Shs12 billion contract to a little known company called Haks Investments Ltd to supply cars. The deal ignored big dealers like Tata Uganda Ltd, Motorcare, Victoria Motors, Toyota Uganda Ltd, and Cooper Motors who raised concerns that the small company did not meet the contract terms and conditions.
Kiggundu has been head of the EC for the last 14 years and should be looking to secure his legacy in what could be his last term. Before him, there was Besweri Akabwai who left with his credibility largely intact, and Aziz Kasujja whose reputation was stained.
Under Kiggundu, the EC has overseen two presidential elections—2006 and 2011—both of which have been contested, the former in court and the other publicly over alleged irregularities.
Stakes are even higher now because, according to pundits, the 2016 elections are set to be Uganda’s most hotly contested elections.
Among reasons being given is that opponents of the incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, have fielded the highest ever number of contenders at parliamentary level.
It is also the first time Museveni is facing two strong opposition candidates. Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) is challenging him for the fourth time now and former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi for the first time. The three-man race is a major break from the past where it has always been one strong opposition presidential candidate, and a group of minnows against Museveni.
The elections this time also pose new challenges for the electoral body because vote rigging has been the biggest issue throughout the campaigns. In all regions and in all political parties, candidates have been mobilizing their supporters to be on the watch for vote thieves. Candidates have promised to protect the electorates’ vote from theft and formed bands of supporters into vote protection brigades.
Besigye has told voters that FDC’s Power 10, a structure of 10 people per village is the solution against rigging and Mbabazi’s TDA-Go Forward say since he has been an insider in Museveni’s NRM, he knows how the ruling party rigs and how to block it. Mbabazi’s structure of 30 people per village is said to be part of the vote protection plan.
Besigye, Mbabazi and others accuse the NRM and Museveni of planning to use crime preventers to counter all these efforts. The EC, meanwhile, is caught in the middle of the accusations and counter-accusation.
But EC’s problems could be bigger than Kiggundu, according to Makerere University law lecturer, Kabumba Busingye, whose analysis of politics has come to be sought after a lot.
“For me, as long as the EC is not reformed, it will remain a case where even an angel still falls short,” he said.
Organisations like the EC tend get legitimacy at two levels, Kabumba said, foundational legitimacy and functional legitimacy where the former has to do with how an organization was founded and the latter, its actions.
There may be cases where an organisation lacks legitimacy because of how it was founded, Kabumba explained, but works properly and slowly earns legitimacy as a result of its actions.
“But sometimes the deficit of foundational legitimacy can be so great that there is nothing you can do to fix the situation,” Kabumba said.
At the end of the day, he said, it comes down to what extent the players see Kiggundu to be neutral or impartial.
Kabumba told The Independent that Kiggundu was spot on when he said it all boils down to the question of trust but wrong on why that trust isn’t there.
In Kabumba’s view, the lack of trust in the electoral process is more because of the system Kiggundu found in place.
At a technical level, Kabumba referred to the views of retired former Supreme Court Justice, George Kanyeihamba, who said when Uganda returned to a multi-party dispensation, many laws and institutions that were established under the no-party Movement System should have been modified but were not.
“For as long as the appointment of EC members is not detached from the party in power,” Kabumba told The Independent, “for as long as an element of participation of the public is not there, or an element of expertise, where the chairman is for instance a justice of the supreme court or at that level, problems of perceptions will always remain.”
“And most of the times”, he added, “Perception is as important as or even more important than reality.”
Kanyeihamba, whom Kabumba cited is one of three Supreme Court Judges who ruled in favour of the nullification of President Museveni’s 2006 re-election following a petition filed by opposition FDC President Kizza Besigye.
Shortly before he retired, Kanyeihamba in a paper he delivered during a conference on democracy and governance at the Mbarara University Faculty of Development Studies gave some of the reasons for his ruling.
“In my view,” Kanyeihamba said, “the Electoral Commission and the way its members are selected need a radical surgery.
Political party leaders have raised reform proposals in this area and their views ought to be accommodated so that the nation has an Electoral Commission which is truly independent and impartial and is trusted and respected by all sections of the community.”
In the run-up to the elections, in 2015, political parties and civil society organisations (CSOs) raised the same demands for reform at the EC but they were ignored by the government. The EC also raised demands for reforms, but they were also ignored. When opposition and CSOs mounted a campaign calling for electoral reforms, the police dispersed them with teargas, and the government overwhelmed them with its voting power using its parliamentary majority.
As the elections neared, the police was once again stocking –up on teargas and riot gear including brand new riot police vehicles. The police appeared determined to ensure that Kiggundu and his team are assured of personal security, even if Museveni’s opponents reject the results he announces.