Liberia: Senate Anxious over Biometric VR Delay

Chairperson of the National Elections Commission Davidetta Browne Lansanah.

... Call on the National Elections Commission Chair to avoid the unnecessary delay that undermines Liberia’s fragile democracy. 

The National Elections Commissions run the risk of undermining “Liberia's fragile democracy,” according to a warning from the Senate Committee on Autonomous Commissions and Agencies.

The warning comes as the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC) once more declined to approve a request from the NEC to grant EKEMP, INITS, and Palm Insurance the contract for the delivery of biometric equipment and software for 2023 elections voter registration. 

This stalemate, which is happening at a time when the country approaches the scheduled start of  the voter registration exercise  for the 2023 presidential and legislative elections, has piqued the Senate's interest, saying it "may undermine our democracy and jeopardize our peace."

“The Liberian Senate is concerned about the possibility of doing a biometric voter registration with barely ten months to the holding of the general and presidential elections in Liberia,” the Senate Committee on Autonomous Commissions and Agencies said in a technical review.

“Based on NEC’s own report qualifying two responsive bidders, namely; the joint venture of EKEMP International Limited, INITS Limited and Palm Insurance Incorporated and the joint venture of Professional Services Incorporated and HID Global, coupled with the time frame for the holding of the general and Presidential elections, it is advisable to consider the next responsive bidder in line as per NEC pre-financing requirement in the report to avoid the unnecessary delay which will undermine our fragile democracy,” the Senate Committee said in its report.

The joint venture, which is led by the Chinese company EKEMP (Biometric Manufacturer), INITS (Technical Support-Nigeria), and Palm Insurance (Financial Partner), according to the NEC, was awarded the contract as “the most responsive bidder.”

But the PPCC on two different occasions declined to issue a nod of approval to the NEC.  Most recently, the PPCC claimed that EKEMP inability to print the PVC card on the spot as needed demonstrated ambiguity about the use of its technology -- constituting  high risk for the country’s “first biometric voter registration exercise.”

According to the PPCC, the electoral body should immediately return to examining the remaining bids in order to pick a candidate who is capable of doing the required work, saying the NEC should not deemed EKEMP as the most responsive company for this contract package.

The NEC re-selection of EKEMP joint venture comes as the Chairperson of the electoral body,  Davidetta Browne Lansanah, has been accused of unilaterally reselecting EKEMP as the preferred vendor to supply biometric equipment for the 2023 voter registration exercise, which is schedule to commerce on December 15. 

Lansanah has been accused by some of the NEC Commissioners, who spoke to the Daily Observer on condition of anonymity last week, that she was proceeding with the decision without their consent. The New Elections Law by which the Commission operates is disrespected in many ways, almost all of the time, by the NEC Chairperson, who is only designated as a spokesperson, they said.

“We are shocked. This is becoming seriously embarrassing. Some of us don’t know why only this EKEMP, even when the company flopped the other day in their re-demonstration process. The public must know that the decision is Lansanah’s [personal] decision.”

The joint venture comprising EKEMP, INITS, and Palm Insurance, was among five other companies, including HID Global and PSI, Laxton and its local partner as well as Network Solutions and Waymark & Mwetana, all of who participated in the first demonstration process. EKEMP won the bid, according to the NEC, and a “no objection” request was submitted on August 30, which was the first. 

However, the request was rejected on September 9 by the PPCC on grounds that still photos submitted by the NEC were not enough evidence to award the joint venture the million dollars contract. The PPCC, while objecting to the request, excoriated the NEC for claiming that EKEMP and its joint venture partners met all of its bid requirements when the fact speaks contrary. 

Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on Autonomous Commissions and Agencies has also called the NEC to cancel the controversial procurement process and ensure the entire membership of the Board of NEC gets involved in deciding on the company to win the contract.

“Since almost all the commissioners at the National Elections Commission seem not to be aware or involved in the process leading to the selection of EKEMP International to supply Biometric materials for the 2023 elections, and the decision appears to be unilateral by the Chairperson, Davidetta Browne Lansanah, the process should be canceled and NEC asked to initiate a new process with the involvement of all relevant people, including commissioners,” the Committee said.

While this first recommendation might be vital, it is also known that returning to status quo ante, mainly to restart the entire procurement process, might take not less than two months.

However, the Committee said that NEC should consider the next company in line that has met all of the criteria, saying “it is advisable to consider the next responsive bidder in line as per NEC pre-financing requirement to avoid the unnecessary delay.”

The Committee noted that the Senate is deeply concerned with the unfolding between NEC and PPCC, especially when election is  less than twelve months aways.

“I am so disappointed that this lady had gone ahead and sealed a pre-agreement with EKEMP, even though the process does not suggest in any way that the company is even qualified to do the job,” Senator Jonathan Boy-Charles Sogbie told the Daily Observer yesterday. “ What sort of desperation is that? We are resuming the session and we will make sure the right thing is done.”

“For this Madam to have gone back and selected the same company clearly suggests that the point I made on the Senate Floor the other time, telling her that she has gone into a pre-agreement with this company for personal benefit was correct. This is unfortunate.”

“This process might not go on only because she is the head of NEC and at the same time head of the procurement committee. This is sad. It should not be so. This has to change for the sake of transparency and accountability,” Sogbie noted.

He said that he is of the opinion that the Senate will act decisively to ensure that Lansanah’s “selfish interest” does not take control of the process.

Meanwhile, the Committee in its technical report noted that the  executive director of the National Identification Registry (NIR), J. Tiah Nagbe, has disclosed  that with a limited time ahead of the elections date, his office now has no intention to partner with NEC on the production of the Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) ID cards.

“Even though the NIR has the expertise and manpower and all the equipment to do the BVR, it is not possible to work with NEC at this time,” Nagbe is mentioned in the report.

For Oscar Bloh, the chairman of the Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC), “he was concerned about the integrity of the process, adequate voter awareness about the BVR, and the importance of conducting free, fair and transparent elections in Liberia.”

The Committee’s recommendations come as a result of a Senate probe into the stalemate between the PPCC and the NEC.