SPOTLIGHT AFRICA: Will BVR save grace to Zimbabwe’s electoral system?



By Lulu Brenda Harris


Come 2018, Zimbabwe goes into a defining national election. Critical to that election will be the proposed Bio-metric Voters Roll (BVR), which has already generated lots of debate over credibility.

The ruling Zanu PF has been in power since independence in 1980 with President Robert Mugabe at the helm at each election cycle, save for the 2008 national elections where the key opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC snatched victory from him albeit temporarily pending a controversial required majority.

Zanu PF stalwarts claim the ruling party has not faced a serious threat of losing although that remains to be seen in next year’s election where a chronologically old Mugabe wants to contest.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) is already in the process of introducing a biometric voter registration system, a technology that captures unique physical features such as fingerprints and facial scans for the purposes of identification.

However, there will be no biometric or any electronic voting as the new technology shall only be confined to voter registration.

Unlike other options where the unique point of identification is the national identification number and photographic image verifiable by the naked eye, biometric voter registration uses a more sophisticated and reliable system where physical features unique to each individual are used.

These features can be detected and recorded by an electronic device as a means of confirming identity.

Under the biometric voter registration, everyone of voting age, including voters who voted in the last 2013 election have to register again for them to be eligible to vote in 2018, implying everyone will start afresh.

With the majority of Zimbabweans living in rural areas, it is therefore a challenge to adopt this system, as it appears too technical for the ordinary person to comprehend.

Already some Zimbabweans have expressed scepticism over the introduction of biometric voting system, saying there is a need to first perfect the current manual system that was shrouded in controversy before moving onto a more complicated technology.

In 2013, an audit by the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) on the final copy of the voters roll released revealed discrepancies in the manual system.

The RAU research revealed that nearly two million potential voters aged under 30 were unregistered, over one million people on the roll were either deceased or departed, 63 constituencies of Zimbabwe had more registered voters than inhabitants and 40 constituencies deviated from the average number of voters per constituency by more than the permitted 20 per cent.

Some said the manual voters roll was not the problem rather it were the “Incompetent” ZEC officials who controlled the voter registration system.

By right, biometric voter registration has the advantage of minimising electoral fraud, chief among them preventing voters from casting their ballot twice.

It was then pointed out that even if a biometric voters roll was adopted, the machines could still be manipulated by ZEC officials, who stand accused of “rigging” election results to suit Zanu PF.

For Zimbabwe to implement the biometric voter registration and compilation of the voters’ roll, an excess of US$50 million is needed because the system requires new machinery.

In the 2016 National Budget, ZEC was allocated an US$8.3million, while for 2017 the figure marginally rose to US$9.8 million to prepare for the 2018 elections.

Reports from other African countries indicate that the cost of introducing biometrics into local systems where countries have poor infrastructure is very high.

For Kenya’s 2013 election, over US$200 million was spent on polls, at $20 per voter and in Cote d’Ivoire the last election cost $44 per voter. DRC’s 2011 elections cost US$360 million, with US$58 million spent on biometrics.

In Zimbabwe, the government pledged $US17 million towards this process while UNDP offered to pay the balance.
However, red flags were raised when the Zanu PF government made a U-turn and snubbed the offer under unclear circumstances considering that UNDP had offered to procure the kits on behalf of the country.

Suddenly, the government announced it had secured the money for the procurement of the BVR kits although it did not say the actual amount or who the source was.

The opposition raised concerns with Government’s plans to adopt the biometric mechanism for the forthcoming polls and accused Zanu PF of hijacking the procurement of BVR kits in order to manipulate the voter registration process and election results.

Initially, the UNDP, from its base in Copenhagen, Denmark had floated a tender for the supply of BVR kits, which according to most political parties, was handled in a transparent and respectable manner, with five companies out of the 12 interested selected for meeting all requirements.

ZEC had even invited five representatives of political parties to witness the opening of the bids. Together with the UNDP, ZEC advised political parties and the country on the remaining steps to be taken in the procurement of the kits.

Political parties were assured they would be allowed to monitor the remainder of the procurement process, of which they showed satisfaction with the level of transparency at that stage of the procurement of the BVR kits.

Opposition parties in the National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA) and the Coalition of Democrats (CODE) vehemently rejected the proposal by government to take over the BVR kits procurement process.

“It is interesting that the government declares it has no money but when it suits itself they suddenly have it. This confirms our fears that this government is determined to rig the 2018 elections, highlighting it was more shocking for government to elbow out the UNPD in this process. Even more flabbergasting was the decision by ZEC to endorse this illegal move by the government,” the parties said in a statement.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) chipped in to say such a move by the government could likely compromise the polls, if transparency was undermined.

“Furthermore, ZESN notes that the (existing) Electoral Act is silent on the procedures of the procurement of the BVR equipment, hence, the need for provisions outlining how the procurement will be conducted. The absence of transparency on the procurement of the BVR kits, coupled with inadequate funding for ZEC, will compromise the credibility and delivery of key electoral processes,” ZESN said in a statement.

However, ZEC forged ahead, stressing that the electoral body was committed to transparency contrary to claims hailing from the opposition.

“We have not diverted from that process we started with the UNDP. The integrity that was there at first is being maintained right up to the end. We made that deliberate decision that we will not go outside the process that we had agreed with UNDP,” ZEC chairperson, Justice Rita Makarau was quoted saying.

Afterwards, ZEC released its rules for the bio metric voter’s registration. Some of them include: (1) Biometric voter’s registration will run from May 2017 to December 2017. (2) The registration will take 15 days per province and is open to any Zimbabwean citizen above 18 years of age. (3) Voters will register in a specific Constituency at a specific Polling Station and in 2018 voters will vote at that specific Polling Station they had registered, meaning a person is registered to vote at a particular station only and not at any other. (4) Each polling station will have a maximum of 1000 voters only, a situation where some voters are likely to be shut out. (5) Registration requirements are National Identity Card, Proof of residence in form of water, electricity or phone bills in ones name or a stamped affidavit signed by police, local councillor, MP or Senator or a letter from a Headman or Chief in case of those residing in rural areas.

The last requirement raises concerns that traditional leaders who are known to be affiliated to Zanu PF may refuse to sign confirmation letters for opposition supporters while landlords may also refuse to provide proof of residence for various reasons.

Requirements for proof of residence rule out those living in the Diaspora while the regulations do not state how a person can prove their local residence.

In terms of these voter registration regulations, a person wishing to register as a voter must physically present himself or herself to the registration office.

The regulations do not make provision for voter registration agents of political parties yet they provide that the voter registration officers may limit the right of entry into voter registration premises.

While the regulations make provision for inspection of the voter’s rolls, it does not make it mandatory that the periods of inspection must be uniform.

The regulations do not provide the time period within which the voter’s roll will be availed to the public or interested parties.

Say for instance, if the voters roll is availed less than thirty days before elections, then the voter’s roll is not challengeable no matter how objectionable it may be.

MDC- T secretary general, Douglas Mwonzora, described the regulations a disaster.

“It was expected that any new voter registration rules would be designed in such a way as to make voter registration much easier and simpler to the voter. This way they would lead to more enfranchisement than the disenfranchisement of the Zimbabwean people, yet a closer look at the draft regulations published by ZEC seems to suggest a clear and deliberate plan designed to disenfranchise a lot of Zimbabweans.

“In terms of both Zimbabwe’s constitution and the Electoral Act interested parties are entitled to both electronic and printed copies of the voter’s roll but the price is exorbitant,” he said.

Recently, ZEC announced that in April 20 to 28, 2017, the electoral body would test biometric voter registration kits at polling stations that will be used in the 2018 harmonised elections.

Three bidders, the Chinese, Belgian and German firms, contracted by the government, are vying to supply the equipment, and this test exercise, where representatives from political parties have been invited to participate, would help determine the winner.

“We have made progress on the procurement of biometric voter registration kits in that we have now invited three bidders to come for a site validation test… We are going to involve stakeholders: political parties, observers, media and civic society organisations. It has got to be a thorough process; that is why we welcome comments from stakeholders and that will hopefully lead us to an informed decision on who to go with,” Justice Makarau said.

The site validation tests will also include ‘a lab test’ and will include assessing whether the equipment is shockproof to certain elements.

After the validation test, ZEC wants the bidders of the BVR kits to register the controlled number of voters in a given day.

The registration will be done in two schools, one in an urban setting and another school in a rural setting.

Reports say at least 25 African countries such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire have tried using the biometric voting system but have failed.

In Ghana’s 2012 election, biometric kits failed in many parts of the country forcing voting to be extended to the second day.

In Nigeria, the then incumbent presidential candidate Goodluck Jonathan also faced challenges in 2015, as the card reader failed to recognise his identity.

Jonathan had to wait for 50 minutes before he was able to vote while elections also had to be extended to a second day to cater for those who had not voted.

In Kenya, many of the classrooms used as polling stations had no electricity and laptops deployed as part of the biometric kits ran out of battery power just an hour before polling began.

The question at the end of the day is will the biometric system work in Zimbabwe or will it fail as witnessed in other African states.Top of Form