By Tabora Bojang
The chief electoral officer of the Independent Electoral Commission has told a National Assembly select committee that history has shown that the involvement of local companies in the procurement of electoral materials could engender electoral violence and dispute.
At least 3 overseas firms; Electoral Service International, Ekemp International and Dermalog have all expressed interest in the IEC contract alongside Smart Business Group, a Gambian company.
The director general of the Gambia Public Procurement Authority, Saloum Malang said the restriction on including local partnership in awarding the contract is discriminatory and goes contrary to the GPPA Act. The GPPA had also insisted that the TOR should be inputted in the bidding process to spell out exactly what is agreed on. The Standard understands all that has now been inputted into the new bidding which is now being evaluated by the IEC.
Many other commentators have made it known that the country’s own local firms should be given the opportunity and trust to implement such contracts, especially if they are responsive and show competence as Smart Business Group has demonstrated.
But according to Samboujang Njie, the procurement of voter materials is accompanied with a lot of risks, citing several instances like hacking when contractors sought local partnership.
“We are talking from experience and do not want a repetition of the same mistakes that used to happen in some other countries like Ghana and Kenya because they [local partners] gave the electoral data to a local political party and the system was hacked,” Njie told lawmakers.
“The local contractors often belong to a political party and when they do the printing, the voter data ends up with politicians and they tamper with it. For example, in 2016 someone just walked into the office of our chairman and said he was directed to cut off the IEC office internet and that was a local partner. Almost all these companies are affiliated and if we [IEC] do not put our foot on the ground at the end of the day and the interests were so high, they would influence us to do something that would be detrimental to the peace and stability of this country,” he said.
Njie charged that the IEC, having further taken into consideration the risks attached to local partnership, will not entertain awarding the contract to a beginner.
“These local partners are our own brothers and we wish them all the best of luck but we do not want to do something that would backfire on us and the entire country,” he added.
He added that ESI was recommended due to the successes it registered in the 2011 and 2016 elections, having printed out 800, 000 cards in 44 days.
“We don’t expect anything but improvement and the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know and we cannot start with a beginner in this atmosphere, especially if the election is just at the corner. If anybody is holding The Gambia, it is not us. We were ever ready and informed Gambians since July 2020 that we are coming for the registration but why would GPPA wait until the last minute and ask us to indicate the terms of references of the bidders?” Mr Njie said.
Smart Business Group reacts
However, asked to comment on this, Omar Njie, the CEO of Smart Business Group the only local company in the bidding process, said the IEC’s argument does not hold water.
“They have always wanted to give this contract to ESI. In the first place, if they had their way, they would not even open this bidding to others. They further intended to edge out competitors by stipulating that companies with local partners, or in our case, international partners, will not qualify among other bottlenecks,” Mr Njie said. He dismissed IEC’s fear of local companies compromising data to political parties, arguing that most of election fraud cases around the continent are committed by foreign companies. “How can anyone tamper or commit fraud when the IEC would be the only entity controlling the entire process and in charge of every data? The entire process is owned and controlled by the IEC and only they can commit errors not the production company. Our partner Genkey is a worldwide renowned company with years of experience in election material production in many countries in Africa. They worked in Ghana, Tanzania with 30 million voters. Our partners have never had any record of fraud or mistakes. They know our partners have very strong credentials that was why they initially did not want partnerships in the bidding process,” he said. My Njie added that his company had taken the trouble to go to Ghana to find out the activities of Genkey and chose it among many other possible partners because of their solid reputation and credibility.
Mr Njie said as a citizen of The Gambia, the last thing his company would wish is to compromise Gambian elections or cause conflict. “It is unfortunate that the IEC should think like this,” he concluded.