IEBC dilemma after ban of controversial Kiems French firm

Sunday April 28 2019

IEBC TENDERS

IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati (left) and Chief Executive Officer Marjan Hussein during a past appearance before the National Assembly Public Accounts Committee. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

KEN OPALA
By KEN OPALA
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The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has been exposed — and now finds itself between a rock and a hard place.

The electoral body could be thrown into disarray after Parliament on Wednesday blacklisted a French multinational firm that supplied last election's voter registration kits.

Idemia Securities Limited, previously known as Safran Morpho and later OT-Morpho, was banned from operating in Kenya for 10 years following findings that it interfered in the last two elections and violated the Companies Act. The firm also maintains IEBC's Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system which hosts the register of voters.

The company also won the Sh6 billion tender for the ongoing Huduma Namba registration that is surrounded by uncertainty despite assurances by ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru that the ban would not affect the process.

NEW SYSTEM

On Saturday, IEBC acting Chief Executive Officer Hussein Marjan said, “if that (the blacklisting) was to be true, then it is going to impact on us in a big way” since the company handles the crucial Kenya Integrated Election Management System (Kiems).

“ It would put the entire system into disarray, including uploading voter details to the BVR and transferring the same to Kiems. That would be like abandoning the entire system we have in place and procuring a new system. This will be very costly," he said.

IEBC signed a contract with Safran in 2016 for five years (ending 2021) for maintaining the BVR.

“Perhaps MPs need to weigh the options by carrying out a risk assessment of such a major decision, bearing in mind too that the firm could also go to court if we breach our contract,” he said.

If the ban is maintained, IEBC will be forced to acquire new technology within a short time. The new technology will be expected to be ready for the boundary delimitation expected ahead of 2022 election and possibly a referendum.

Kiems, which comprises four sub-components working together — BVR, candidate registration, voter identification and results transmission systems — was created to supplement the manual process in the electoral process, and even political party and candidate registrations management.

According to the 2017 contract between Safran and IEBC, the multinational was to supply, install, configure, test and commission the Kiems, supply the requisite licences and royalties, and train the commission’s staff on the use of this technology as well provide technical support.

Kiems and related contracts cost Kenyans more than Sh10 billion and this added up to make Kenya’s elections one of the world’s most expensive.

At Sh2,540 per registered voter, it is only cheaper than Papua Guinea’s Sh6,300. The global benchmark is Sh500. In 2016, Ghanaians paid Sh70 a voter while 23.3 million Tanzanias spent Sh516 per voter. Neighbouring Uganda spent Sh400 (in 2016) while Rwanda last year spent Sh171 per voter.

Although IEBC owns the technology, it will have to let it go if the MPs’ decision stands. There are three reasons why.

One, the commission lacks the capacity to operate and maintain Kiems. Two, Idemia may not be enthusiastic about providing the requisite technical support after being bundled out, and questions will be asked should it offer such services. Three, IEBC is known to be unable to preserve its technology once vendors disappear from site.

During the 2013 and 2017 elections and the repeat presidential election, Safran took near full control of the electronic results transmission process.

PREDICAMENT

IEBC staff played a rather minimal, if not negligible, role. And to illustrate IEBC’s predicament, the French company increased its technical personnel, from 94 during the General Election to 292 in the repeat elections, following the collapse of the electronic results transfer system in the August polls.

Thus, the cost of the repeat election-day support was Sh443.8 million which, according to the IEBC’s own internal audit, “was almost twice that of the General Election."

It would appear this French company was convinced that Kenyans couldn’t manage the system and that’s why it increased its technical presence during the repeat elections.

“Safran controlled everything during the elections,” an IEBC insider confirmed to this writer.

“Chris Msando is the only person in IEBC who had interacted much with Safran and thus appeared to understand the whole Kiems system; nobody else. So his absence meant that the French had to run the whole thing,” the insider says in reference to Mr Chris Chege Msando, then IEBC information technology manager who was murdered days to the August 2017 General Election.

Safran, through proxy, was also in charge of the backup infrastructure after four companies contracted to deliver the same failed.

IEBC paid it Sh73.67 million for this purpose during the fresh presidential election, according to report by the Auditor General.

And even when claims of hacking emerged, it is the same Safran, through Verizon Telecommunications Company, that audited the electronic results transmission system. Based on the audit, IEBC went ahead to declare in its post-election evaluation report, thus: “the ICT infrastructure deployed in the August 8 election met high international standards in terms of security.”

FAILURE RATE

But IEBC, from previous engagements, has done poorly in preserving its own technology. Once a device is used, it is left to become archaic or to malfunction altogether.

According to the Report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Matters Relating to the IEBC of 2016, only 8,000 of 15,000 BVR kits available from the 2013 elections were serviceable as at August 2016.

Of the 34,600 Electronic Visual Information Display Systems, only 22,500 were usable — and even in this case, their functionality wasn’t certain owing to a high failure rate.

Of 40,000 mobile phones used in the 2013 General Election, only 15,000 were available, three years later.

Kiems replaced the Sh513.5 million Biometric System Vendor Support and Maintenance contract that IEBC had awarded Safran in 2016.

The switch followed a resolution by the inter-parties parliamentary group to have an integrated system.

It’s unlikely that Indemia will henceforth be enthusiastic in maintaining its Kenyan technology following the decision by the National Assembly to ban it for 10 years.

EXPENSIVE PROCESS

From the new development, Kenyans should brace themselves for another round of an expensive electoral process.

Elections here are very expensive, largely due to acquisition of goods or services at exaggerated prices and the lack of market survey reports, according to IEBC’s own admission. Thus, the exit of Kiems provides electoral mandarins another opportunity to make money.

In a letter terminating Mr Ezra Chiloba’s employment at IEBC as chief executive, chairman Wafula Chebukati claimed that “the acquisition of goods and services from M/S Safran Identity and Security was done at unjustifiably high price contrary to Section 68 (1) (a) and (b) of the Public Finance act (2012).

“As a result, it cannot be confirmed whether value for money was realised in the acquisition of goods and services from MS Safran” at Sh2.52 billion.

Until Saturday, Safran appeared to enjoy so much leverage in Kenya yet its performance and output had been questioned in virtually all its contracts in Kenya.