Liberia’s Elections Quagmire: A Comprised NEC’s Decision Appears to Have Come Back to Haunt
IN THE BUILDUP to the October elections, the National Elections Commission has been under scrutiny over its ability to effectively conduct a free, fair, and impartial presidential and legislative elections.
THE SKEPTICISMS OVER NEC’s ability stem over the controversy surrounding the bidding for the biometric contract initially awarded to the Chinese company, Ekemp.
NEC’S DECISION last year to award the contract to Ekemp over more qualified companies with better financial standing raised a lot of eyebrows, especially given the fact that the Public Procurements and Concessions Commission (PPCC) initially rejected the electoral body’s choice of selecting Ekemp as contractor for the biometric kits. According to the PPCC, Ekemp simply fell short of requirements spelled out in the standard bid document.
DESPITE NEC’S CONCERNS, Davidetta Brown Lansanah, chair of the elections commission insisted that Ekemp remained a company of choice, justifying that it was among the bids that made it to the final stage of the evaluation process.
AFTER MUCH PUBLIC PRESSURE, NEC was forced to drop its interest in Ekemp and turn to Laxton Group, one of the participants in the controversial bid selection process for the supply and delivery of biometric voter registration equipment and software ahead of the 2023 general elections.
IN ITS LETTER TO THE PPCC, NEC explained that its selection of Laxton was based on the former’s recommendation that it select amongst the remaining bidders, a company most suitable to provide the biometric voter registration equipment and software. “With the procurement Committee having endorsed the Panel’s report and recommendation, the National Elections Commission thereby requests “No objection” for its intent to award contract to Laxton Group for the supply and delivery of Biometric Voter Registration Equipment and Software,” excerpts of NEC’s letter read.
NEC’S REQUEST FOR A “No Objection” letter was accompanied by an inter-office memo to the Bid Evaluation Panel dated November 14, 2022; the Bid Panel’s November 15 report; minutes of Procurement Committee meetings approving the evaluation report and a draft contract worth US11, 956,834.32 (Eleven Million, nine hundred and fifty-six thousand, eight hundred and thirty-four, thirty-two cent).
WHERE IT GETS tricky, is the fact that under NEC’s own tender document for the biometric bidding, Section ITB 11.1(h) to be exact, the payment terms states that 50% should be made available to the winner of the bid after completion of voter registration exercise; 25% after Exhibition and 25% after the elections. These requirements were the detailed payment terms as indicated by NEC in their tender. Hence, a key requirement was proof of acceptance by bidders to pre-financing of the project.
LAST WEEK, while speaking at the Eighth Edition of the Archbishop Michael K. Francis Intellectual Discourse on Peace and Social Justice, the NEC chair Lansana startled some in attendance when she alarmed the biometric process would be stalled and pushed forward if the fund is not available to the Laxton Group.
EXPLAINING THAT THE PROCESS critical to the October elections, the NEC boss averred that the body has been working with the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning to provide funds to endure that the BVR process is carried out promptly. “To date, we received 14 million in Liberian and United States currencies. There is a deficit of 4.5 million. This is outstanding. “The reason why it is critical is that according to our contract, we have to provide a letter of credit to the bank for the Laxton Group.”
THE NEC CHAIR ADDED: “This money, the balance money. If not received in a few days, the delivery of biometric equipment to the country will be stalled and if it is stalled it means that there is a potential to push forward the voter registration.”
THE TIMING of the NEC boss’s statement is concerning for several reasons: Laxton, according to NEC’s bidding guidelines, the first payment is only supposed to be made after the vendor, Laxton had supplied the equipment and biometric voter registration had taken place. Simply put, this is not the time for NEC to be talking about paying Laxton a penny, especially when the equipment have not been delivered and the registration not yet completed.
THE LINGERING QUESTION is, why has NEC changed the terms – after the awarding of the contract to Laxton? Remember, other vendors were disqualified because of NEC’s prefix’s ace and payment terms.
IF NEC IS NOW SUGGESTING that the conduct of the biometric voter registration (BVR) exercise may experience hindrances over the government’s failure to disburse the amount of US4.5Million to Laxton, then what was the essence of insisting on every detail of the bidding requirements, only to come to this?
THIS LAPSE IN JUDGEMENT on the part of the NEC chair raises yet another question about the electoral body’s ability to conduct the upcoming elections impartially and fairly.
SADLY, THE DATE for election is creeping albeit rapidly. Phase one of the BVR process is expected to commence March 20th and ends on April 9, 2023, in Bomi, Gbarpolu, Grand Bassa, Grand Cape Mount, Margibi, and Montserrado Counties.
THIS MEANS the biometric exercise may not commence as planned.
NEC FINDS ITSELF in a very delicate dilemma and owes it to all political stakeholders to explain why it is going against its own requirements now. Laxton, from all indications of what was submitted to NEC should be in a strong financial standing to prefinance as the bid documents indicated.
VOTING IS CRUCIAL to the holding of free and fair elections. Even more importantly, the October election is critical time for Liberia.
WHAT NEC MUST understand is that it is embarking on an experimental process Liberians are unfamiliar with, a process that could trigger post-election conflict, if it does not live up to the expectations.
WHAT PLANS ARE BEING put in place to sensitize the public about this form of voting? What does it entail? How many people will be able to access the registration process? These are questions that NEC must answer.
WHILE MANY ARE HOPEFUL that the NEC’s plan to use the biometric technology will limit cheating at the polls, the process leading to this must also be transparent and done in a way that will leave very little room for foul play.
NEC OWES IT TO LIBERIA and Liberians to make sure that every step of this process, which is being implemented for the first time is done in a way that leaves no room for doubts. After all, a process that promises to prevent Identity theft, voting fraud, and other forms of tampering should itself be void of suspicion.