How polls body set itself up for failure in 2013: IT study

Sunday August 2 2015

IEBC Chairman Issack Hassan. Correspondence

IEBC Chairman Issack Hassan. Correspondence between Mr Hassan and ICT experts shows that he ignored their warning that the electronic voter kits were bound to fail unless a different concept was pursued. FILE PHOTO | BILLY MUTAI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By JUSTUS WANGA
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Computer technology experts warned the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) that the electronic kits they were planning to use were bound to fail but the advice was rejected, documents seen by the Nation reveal.

It turns out that the commission may have set itself up for failure days to the 2013 General Election — as Kenyans and the world hoped that the kits would keep away impostors and improve the poll’s credibility.

Correspondence between IEBC Chairman Issack Hassan and information communication technology (ICT) experts — both from the commission and externally— shows that he ignored their warning that the electronic voter kits were bound to fail unless a different concept was pursued.

An internal memo by ICT director Dismas Ong’ondi on December 6, 2012, to then CEO James Oswago kicked off the storm by putting a caveat that Face Technologies Ltd, a company that was poised to get the contract to supply the electronic polling kits, had no capacity to do so.

“The bidder indicated they would not be able to provide regional support for the devices to the commission.

"The original specification of the electronic voter identification devices (EVID) envisioned that the gadgets would have 3G modules for data transmission. Face Technology can no longer supply this with the EVID devices,” he wrote.

Mr Ong’ondi explained that, effectively, the devices could not have network connectivity to transmit provisional results and periodic voting progress reports from polling stations.

“There are other critical and competing priorities that make the realisation of the EVID project risky. So we do not recommend the simultaneous introduction of so many technologies so close to an election since doing so leaves us with inadequate time to test/pilot and stabilise these new solutions before full use.

"The directorate recommends termination of the EVID tender as no contract has been signed.

Most of the kits failed to remit results to the national tallying centre as had been envisioned.

On December 10, the same year, Mr Michael Yard, country director of the International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES), contracted by the Commission, wrote to Mr Hassan validating Mr Ong’ondi’s advice on why the tender award to Face firm ought to be terminated.

“Face has reneged considerably on what they promised in their bid, and are now far out of compliance with tender specifications.

"Most importantly, Face says they will not commit to loading the data onto the devices, but will transfer that responsibility to IEBC.

"Ask yourself why a vendor would be willing to walk away from a $30M (about Sh306 million) contract rather than hire enough people to load the data,” he posed.

Mr Yard pointed out that Face Technologies had itself realised its inadequacies and was treading with care.

“The reality is that this is so time-intensive on these devices (which operate more slowly than what Face originally offered), that there is a high probability that the data cannot be loaded in time to distribute these for Election Day.

"The vendor is unwilling to accept the risk of failure. Should IEBC be willing to accept that risk?” he asked Mr Hassan.

Keen not to antagonise the leadership of the commission, Mr Yard did not copy the other directors the mail.

“I wanted to reply to your email without copying the broader distribution,” he noted.

Mr Yard unsuccessfully sought to convince the poll chief that the risk of failure in a last-minute deployment of untested devices is greater than the risk of cancellation.

“I urge you to carefully reconsider your determination to push forward with procuring a technology that has already raised so many red flags.

"Consider how the Kenyan voters and politicians would react if you had the same failure of devices that Ghana just experienced.

“In terms of risks to IEBC’s image by cancelling another procurement, this provides a different message.

"The first vendor has indicated they are unable to provide what the tender documents specified, and even what they originally bid on, so IEBC is moving to the second lowest bidder,” he said.

Mr Yard’s advice had been prompted by an earlier email by Mr Hassan on December 7, 2012, to Mr Ronan McDermott, IFES consultant, who had categorically asked him to cancel the tender.

“Ronan, with tremendous respect, your recommendation coming so late in the day is most unfortunate and unacceptable.

"We need to separate results transmission from the poll book. Another tender cancellation will seriously undermine the dwindling confidence levels in the commission.

"I am sorry I have not met you formally but permit me to tell (you that) your advice is bad advice,” Mr Hassan said.
Mr McDermott had called on the IEBC to focus on the use of technology for results transmission and use paper voter lists on election day.

“These lists have a successful track record in Kenya, as well as many countries around the world. Ease of identification of a voter and the difficulty in voter personation make the Photo Voter’s List a highly plausible contingency where there are no EVID devices in use,” he recommended.

Mr Hassan told EACC that he had not seen the December 6 memo from Mr Ong’ondi.

The unfolding story, more than two years after the poll, casts a pall on a body that many people look up to for efficient electoral management, bearing in mind that elections in Kenya are fiercely contested.

Details of the boardroom haggling also reveal that the laptops used by the commission were neither serialised nor branded, exposing them to external interference, something Mr Issack acknowledged in a statement he recorded with the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission on its investigations into tendering flaws.

Mr Hassan admits that the anomaly made tracking and voter identification processes difficult.

But he says no one ever brought details of Mr Ong’ondi’s memo to him, indicating that had this been the case, he would have supported the idea of cancellation.

“I first learnt about its existence during the presidential election petition at the Supreme Court,” he said.

FEAR OF PUBLIC BACKLASH

What is, however, puzzling is Mr Hassan’s admission that much as he could have toyed with the idea of a cancellation, the fear of a public backlash would not have allowed him to do so, after all.

“On December 7, 2012 I received an email from the commission management copied to me from McDermott.

He proposed that the whole procurement be cancelled, but I was concerned with the negative publicity due to another cancellation of a tender after BVR. I suggested that everything possible should be done to salvage the process,” he writes.

Mr Ong’ondi, who was sacked by the commission after he advised against procurement of voter identification devices, also accused Mr Hassan of having vested interests in the deal.

“Possible competing interests — the Chairman of the Commission, Mr Ahmed Issack Hassan, was directly or indirectly (through commissioner Mohamed Hussun Alawi), lobbying for some vendors to win the BVR (Lithotech, ESI) or EVID (Avante Tech, Face) tenders,” he told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chaired by Rarieda MP Nicholas Gumbo.

Both Mr Oswago and Mr Ong’ondi have appeared before the PAC to shed light on what could have transpired. Mr Oswago has also been arraigned in relation to the tender award.

Even as most of the electronic kits stalled on Election Day, the push and pull between the commission and its suppliers saw some voting materials delivered long after elections had been conducted.

Faced with serious credibility questions, the Hassan-led body is embroiled in a fight for survival. It hopes to regain public confidence through its recently launched strategy plan.