Liberia: U.S. Concerned About NEC’s Biometric VR System

The US government has sent a diplomatic note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting a specimen of the 2023 national voter registration (VR) card, which is expected to be biometric.

The American government, through its international development agency (USAID), provides support to the elections management body; as such, it is concerned about American taxes being spent appropriately and judiciously.

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 they have been awarded the biometric contract.

But this has not gone down well with the US, which is using its diplomatic channel in Monrovia to ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to disclose the specimen that NEC intends to use for 2023 election identification cards. Acting on the US Embassy’s letter, the Ministry then wrote the NEC on August 1 conveying the US government’s concern, and calling for timely redress.

“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 Mrs. Thelma Duncan-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.”

However, the NEC, according to sources, is yet to respond to the Ministry’s letter but has since asked the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC) to issue a “no-objection” letter in favor of its decision to award the EKEMP the contract.

The PPCC by law has a period of 14 days to respond, to “no-objection” requests — in this case, the 14 days end on September 13. The no-objection, if granted, would make EKEMP the official winner of the bid for the supply of biometric equipment, software, and materials for the 2023 voter registration exercise.

EKEMP, according to sources at NEC failed during its presentation before the electoral body’s procurement team, which was made of Cllr. Teage A. Jalloh (NEC lawyer), Matthew Kollie, Edna Freeman, Isaac Zahn (head of NEC data center), and Marolyn Wonkpeh.

The company, among other things, failed to prove that its biometric voter registration sample kits meet the qualification requirements as indicated in the bidding documents, sources added. EKEMP, sources noted, was unable to provide the security features as requested by the bid document. Rather, the firm included its own features. The biometric voter registration materials contract in question is worth nearly US$12 million.

This is despite the company claiming the Electoral Commission of Namibia, and the World Bank among its success stories. For Namibia, EKEMP works in partnership with face technology, and Bharat Electronics Limited on Namibia’s 2014 national election project, according to information on its website.

At the World Bank, EKEMP says it provides Biometric Fingerprint Terminals for the registration and verification of labor to ensure fair access to benefits, the company said.

EKEMP also failed to meet key futures as outlined on pages 63 and 92 of NEC’s bid document for the 2023 Voter Registration procurement processes, the Daily Observer sources at NEC said.

Page 63 of the bid is quoted as saying “Templated VR Card shall be designed with unique features for use by the Commission. Key features shall include Seal of Liberia, the logo of the NEC along with other security features that shall protect the sanctity of the Voter Registration Card.”

“There shall also be provision for a QR/barcode that shall bear unique details for each registered voter. These QR/Barcodes shall be printed at the point of registration and be used for multiple purposes. The templated VR card shall contain areas that shall store the details of each voter.”

Page 92 noted that “Security features desired to be embedded (during templating) QR/Barcodes, holographic overlapping 75% of actual VR cards to be packaged into a 500 pieces new pack.”

EKEMP, having failed, according to sources, to meet the NEC bid requirements was however preferred over other bidders, who sources said performed better and satisfactorily with their bids. The company then moved to list the electoral body on its website as its partner and customers but later deleted the NEC logo, in the night hours of yesterday despite having it there for a while.

The logo of the NEC was placed among several others at the bottom of the company’s homepage. It comes as there is no proof that EKEMP has ever provided any biometric service to the NEC.

EKEMP listed NEC as a partner and customer, while the PPCC is yet to approve the NEC’s “no objection” request, the Daily Observer has been told. Six companies — Waymark and Mwetana, HID Global and PSI, Elections Services, Network Solutions, Laxton, and Ekemp — were the ones that applied for the bid to supply a biometric voting system including its software for 2023 polls.

The NEC’s latest procurement saga brings to memory that of the November 2021 situation involving Tuma Enterprise, a local technology company which the NEC leased twenty facial recognition thermometers from at the total cost of US$182,320 while presiding over the procurement committee.

The firm, according to a Daily Observer investigation, had strong family links to the NEC chair, Davidetta Browne Lansanah. The company’s Vice President for Operations, David Browne, is her paternal brother, while Arnold Badio, owner and incorporator of the company, Tuma Enterprise, is a brother of David Browne from the same mother.

The NEC boss, since then, has not denied the findings of the Daily Observer investigation, which was confirmed by the Liberia Anti- Corruption Commission that she influenced the awarding of the US$182,000 contract to a firm with which she has strong family ties.

Although the technology at the time cost not more than US$1,500 on Amazon.com, NEC opted not to procure its own, but instead spent US$9,166 to lease each facial recognition system from the Tuman Enterprise. That means NEC paid Tuma Enterprise a total of US$183,320 for 20 units of the equipment.

However, the NEC Chairperson managed to have the LACC indictment against her — charges of conflict of interest, and money laundering — dropped on a technicality, instead of facing the merit of the case.

Judge Ciapha Carey of Criminal Court ‘C’, without looking into the merit and demerit of the case on April 28, granted a motion from Lansanah’s lawyers to dismiss the indictment because the LACC violated the National Code of Conduct of 2014 when it took upon itself the function of the Ombudsman, to investigate violators of the law as provided in Section 12.2.

Under the 2014 law, the office of the Ombudsman has exclusive authority to receive and investigate alleged violations of the code and impose administrative sanctions. The LACC however appealed against the ruling at the Supreme Court and the matter is pending.

Meanwhile, the US concern about EKEMP is now coming to the public a few weeks after the NEC announced a plan to move to a biometric voter registration system for the 2023 presidential and legislative elections.

The biometric system would help to better secure the NEC voter roll and the integrity of the elections process: voter registration, voter verification, and the transmission of results.

The NEC has for years been under pressure to dash its optical manual registration (OMR) system. The OMR system, for many, does not improve the accountability and transparency of electoral processes and is usually tainted by controversy and mistrust. In a biometric voting system, the voters are registered based on their unique physical characteristics, such as fingerprints and even facial recognition.

When contacted, the NEC’s Executive Director, Anthony Sengbeh, did not confirm or deny the Commission’s receipt of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs letter. He noted that the electoral body will speak to the public at the appropriate time and digressed to discuss the NEC’s request to the PPCC.

“In keeping with the PPCC Act and Regulations, the NEC informed the PPCC of the bidder that was evaluated as the most responsive, and has requested a ‘no objection’ from the PPCC for the award of contract,” Sengbeh said.

He then defended the NEC’s silence on disclosing EKEMP as its bid winner, saying they do not want to undermine the work of PPCC, which has the legal right to evaluate any public bid before a contract is awarded.

“The company selected has a history of past biometric registration in Nigeria and other places, and has demonstrated to the NEC during the evaluation its ability to perform on the requirements, including producing cards with barcode and security features,” he said.

“The information saying that EKEMP did not meet the requirements as provided for by NEC are false and misleading, as we are in no way gambling with the process but ensuring that the best outcome is realized.”

Sengbeh added that the principal use of biometric voter registration is to improve accuracy in capturing data, including texts and photographs and that it is a good tool for detecting duplicate registration and enhancing integrity.

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