Liberia: Who’s Telling the Truth?

United States Ambassador to Liberia, Michael McCarthy

.... US Embassy denies the existence of a ‘diplomatic note’ based on which Acting Foreign Minister Sawyer wrote a letter to NEC, expressing concerns about the biometric voter registration process.

The US Embassy near Monrovia has released a statement denying having addressed any diplomatic note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting the National Elections Commission’s (NEC) compliance in providing specimen of the biometric voter registration card it intends to issue for the upcoming 2023 general and Presidential elections. 

The embassy’s denial is in response to media reports including one published by the Daily Observer on September 12 bearing the headline, “US Concerned About NEC’s Biometric VR System”. 

“The U.S. Embassy in Monrovia has seen the reporting on the NEC’s Biometric VR System and would like to correct the record. At no point in time did the Embassy send the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Liberia an official Diplomatic Note, or any other communication, with the request to acquire a sample or specimen of the 2023 national voter registration card,” the U.S. Embassy’s press statement said.

The Daily Observer, however, had received a “Yes” confirmation from Thelma Duncan-Sawyer, Deputy Minister for Administration at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that the Ministry received said diplomatic note from the U.S. Embassy near Monrovia and that her letter to NEC was in fulfillment of the request made in the said diplomatic note.

Sawyer’s letter to NEC, dated August 1, was penned in her capacity as Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Liberia, due to the absence from the country of Dee Maxwell Saah Kemayah, the Minister proper of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“I present my compliments and wish to inform you that the Ministry has received a diplomatic note from the Embassy of the United States of America, requesting a specimen of the national voter registration card,” said the letter, signed by Sawyer, Deputy Minister of Administration at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The Ministry looks forward to your kind response to the said request in order to revert to the Embassy in a timely manner.”

Sawyer told the Daily Observer that she wrote the letter to NEC.  “Yes, it was written by me. The American Embassy wrote a letter requesting it.”

The diplomatic note, according to sources at the National Elections Commission (NEC), was issued in response to the electoral body’s decision to award EKEMP, a Chinese company, the contract for the supply and delivery of biometric equipment, software, and materials for the 2023 voter registration exercise.

EKEMP is based in Shenzhen, China. It claims on its website that it focuses on digital biometric security identification, and now counts the NEC as a technical partner, a move that suggests that there already exists biometric business between the two entities. But, in the early morning hours of Sunday, September 11, EKEMP removed the NEC’s logo from its website as well as others they named on that platform as partners and customers.

Prior to their action, however, the Daily Observer had obtained a screenshot of the company’s purported ‘partners’ on its website.

“We understand that no decision has yet been made on awarding a contract for the biometric system, but that the process is ongoing and, according to the press, the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC) is examining potential contracts,” the U.S Embassy’s press statement said. “We urge the PPCC to fulfill its mandate of ensuring integrity and transparency in the procurement process so that the Liberian public gets full value for money in the use of public funds.” 

Who, then, is telling the truth? The US Embassy has previously made it quite clear to previous media inquiries that the Embassy “does not publicly comment on government-to-government communications.” Therefore, whether or not such a ‘diplomatic note’ exists, the Embassy has already taken the posture of deniability. 

Meanwhile, Sawyer is yet to reply to the Daily Observer’s request for her response to the US Embassy’s categorical denial of the existence of any diplomatic note pertaining to the NEC’s specimen of VR card. 

“The United States and Liberia share democratic values, including the commitment to free, fair, and transparent elections. Our Mission works closely with partners in the government and in civil society, focusing on next year’s important national elections and we emphasize the necessity of non-violence and transparency in democratic societies” the Embassy noted in its release.

Interestingly also, the Embassy registered that it takes interest in conveying to its local and international partners of its importance placed on data security, mainly concerning sensitive “Liberian voter data.” 

“We remind our international and local partners of the importance of data security, especially regarding sensitive Liberian voter data,” it said. 

The question of who wins the bid to provide biometric voter registration materials is not left with NEC alone, although the electoral body weighs significantly on the outcome.  The Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC), the Daily Observer has gathered, will be addressing the public soon on its evaluation of EKEMP, which the NEC claims is “the most responsive bidder”, in its quest for a “No-Objection” approval for the company to be awarded the contract for the production and delivery of secured biometric voter cards.

EKEMP

When contacted, a Liberian diplomat told the Daily Observer under the condition of anonymity that the US Embassy issued the press release as it did to protect the best diplomatic posture, “which calls for non-direct interference in the domestic affairs of Liberia as a country that is independent and sovereign on its own,” the Liberian diplomat said.

“I think, from a diplomatic perspective, the Embassy did not want the diplomatic note leaked to the public. I read the response from Mrs. Sawyer in your story published before the U.S. Embassy issued its statement and the best and safest thing to say is that, it is certain that she acted under mandate. Now that she said yes, indeed, she wrote [the letter to NEC], the best thing to do further is to seek from her proof of the diplomatic note she probably received from the Embassy, instructing her to write NEC,” our source who sought anonymity concluded.

The Daily Observer has contacted Madam Sawyer for her response to the US Embassy’s statement but, up to press time, she has not yet replied.

There were six international companies including Network Solutions, Laxton, and Waymark & Mwetana, HID Global & PSI, Elections Services, and Ekemp International, who submitted bids to produce the required biometric voter registration cards with specified security features including hologram and barcode in order to prevent any act of duplication by anyone.

After the evaluation at NEC, HID Global and PSI, alongside its local partner Elections Services, and EKEMP International, remained the satisfactory responsive companies, sources from NEC told the Daily Observer.  

Yet, according to the sources, EKEMP, which reported US$50 million in revenue for 2021, was chosen even though it expressed lack of capacity to pre-finance the contract, valued at approximately US$12 million. Laxton, a Canadian company that was disqualified, reported annual revenue of US$48 million for the same year, while HID Global reported total annual revenue of US$6.2 billion.

If EKEMP loses the bid based on its alleged lack of capacity to produce the biometric VR cards with guaranteed security features as required by NEC in its bid document, coupled with other challenges, what next will be NEC’s move?