By John H.T. Stewart
The statement by NEC Chairman Jerome Korkoya that the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is to blame for the purchase of faulty camera equipment for the Voters Registration Exercise, the shortage of Optical Marked Recognition (OMR) forms as well as his disclosure to Prime FM reporter that NEC, in the face of overwhelming problems, had registered about a million voters in the space of one-week, cannot go without comment.
It must come under careful scrutiny in view of all the unfolding developments pointing to incompetence, ineptitude and gross negligence on the part of NEC officials as well as UNDP and this is important particularly since UNDP played critical supportive roles during the 2005 and 2011 electoral processes both of which were problem free.
It is an open secret that since the commencement of the Voters Registration Exercise on February 01, a spate of complaints has been pouring in from the public about the poor manner in which the entire exercise is being handled by the Electoral body. From the shortage of OMR cards, malfunctioning cameras, recruitment of unqualified staff to a stunted Voters civic education program, corruption and lack of transparency as now being experienced, none of such was the case during the last two elections.
The question now is why after two (2) problem-free successful Presidential and Legislative elections over a six (6) year period, NEC, as well as the UNDP, appear so ill prepared to handle the current Voters Registration exercise? NEC Chairman Jerome Korkoya has attributed blame for the current lapses to UNDP but the UNDP has since not responded to Chairman Korkoya’s accusations.
According to reliable sources, UNDP had as far back as July 2016 requested the NEC to submit its procurement plan for the 2016 elections which according to NEC sources was done in timely fashion. All the requisite specs for needed equipment such as cameras, indelible ink, OMR forms, etc. were included in the procurement plan according to NEC sources and sent to the UNDP.
By reason of experience, UNDP Liberia Elections Project Chief Technical Adviser, Mr. George Baratashvili and his team of UNDP experts should have been able to, in collaboration with the NEC technical staffs, review those specs to determine whether they met internationally approved standards before giving the approval for purchase. Why then was the go-ahead given for the purchase of faulty equipment and who did indeed approve such transaction? Further, what were the actual specs sent to suppliers of the equipment? Were the specs the same as those submitted by NEC or were the specs changed?
If indeed the specs sent to suppliers were those submitted by NEC, then the suppliers should stand liable for supplying worthless or faulty equipment and UNDP and the Government of Liberia should ensure that they are held accountable. If on the other hand the specs were changed, then the public has the right to know why the specs were changed and who ordered the change. This are the questions to which UNDP Chief Technical Adviser George Baratashvili must provide answers.
At this stage it is not clear whether there was any competitive bidding done for the purchase of the equipment since the transaction was done entirely by UNDP under the Direct Execution (DEX) arrangements meaning, the transaction did not have to go through the Public Procurement Concession Commission (PPCC).
It is also not clear whether the specs were ordered changed by NEC Chairman Jerome Korkoya (an idea to which CTA George Baratashvili may have acquiesced) or whether the specs were changed by CTA Baratashvili himself for ulterior motives including self- benefit. Public speculations however abound about possible collusion between CTA George Baratashvili and Chairman Korkoya which has resulted in what is apparently fast becoming a Voters Registration fiasco.
As it stands, it is the NEC by virtue of its oversight responsibility and ownership of the elections project and, UNDP, by virtue of its exclusive control over the purchasing process under the DEX arrangements, that must bear responsibility for this unfortunate outcome particularly considering the crucial nature of these elections and their critical relevance to sustained peace and stability in the country. Meanwhile local media continue to report that cameras used at several Voters Registration Centers have been faulty and unable to work.
There have also been instances of riot and confusion at several Voter Registration centers where there has been a noticeable absence of Police and Immigration officers to maintain order and assist NEC staff in the screening and identification of non-Liberians attempting to obtain Voters Registration cards. Even NEC staff are not uniformed and properly identified. On the day of President Sirleaf’s visit to Bomi County, for instance, rioting broke out at a center near where the President was visiting. It was later brought under control by Police.
Where then we must ask, is the collaboration with the Police, Immigration, etc., that was plainly evident during the last two (2) Presidential and Legislative elections in 2005 and 2011? Such examples of rowdiness and confusion has been the experience in several electoral districts. As a result of these developments, fears are that the cutoff date for the Voters Registration exercise may have to be extended and that such may have adverse implications for the conduct of the 2017 elections.
Moreover, allegations of fraud and official misconduct on the part of NEC officials abound and continue to persist all the while NEC officials continue to cry for the lack of money. Reliable sources say that even with the little that is given, it is not being properly accounted for and is not being applied to the intended purposes. For example, they cite the cutting of NEC field and technical staff allowances purportedly to defray costs associated with the shipping of electoral materials, costs which NEC insider sources say have been defrayed by international partners, including UNDP and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).
Although these allegations are difficult to confirm, NEC insider sources however point to what they say are fraudulent activities allegedly on the part of NEC officials which makes it difficult to rule out the commission of fraud in the purchase of equipment for the Voters Registration exercise. They cite as an example the awarding of an electronic billboard contract worth US$160,000 allegedly to former Deputy Finance Minister for Budget, Sebastian Muah. Payment for the billboard which is yet to be installed, is said by NEC insider sources to have been taken from the US$400,000 allotted for Voters education.
All said and done the Voters Registration exercise is indeed imperiled by the lapses currently being experienced and if nothing is done to address the situation, prospects for the holding of successful Presidential and Legislative elections in a mere eight (8) months from now will appear bleak and portend trouble. It must never be forgotten that never ever before has there been such a spate of elections disputes finding their way to the Supreme Court as it has been under the Korkoya leadership.
As a matter pf fact, elections disputes arising from the 2014 Senatorial elections are still pending before the Supreme Court even as we approach Presidential and Legislative elections in October 2017. The blaming game and the purveying of outright Trump type lies by Chairman Korkoya must not be allowed to continue. For it appears nigh impossible that NEC would have been able to register one million persons within such space of time-one week. By contrast, in 2011, it required NEC, in the absence of all such problems now being experienced, five (5) weeks to register 1.5 m individuals.
Against the backdrop of all these missteps and mishaps, Chairman Korkoya has, however, declared that despite the problems being experienced, people are pouring in droves at Registration centers and that so far about one million (1,000,000) people have been registered to vote in less than a week. The problem with this claim is that the Liberian public knows that Chairman Korkoya’s statement is obviously an outright and bold-faced Trump type lie. The truth is, according to NEC insider sources, OMR forms have been in short supply and it is only a few days ago additional OMR forms were brought in.
And so Chairman Korkoya must take blame for all of this including the recruitment of poorly qualified staffs to conduct the Voter Registration exercise. At one registration center, the Calvary Baptist school, registrars could not spell “Abraham Johnson”. At another center located at the G.W. Gibson school on the Capitol By-Pass staffs alleged that although they had started work, they had not signed any contracts with NEC obligating the institution to pay them for their services upon completion of the exercise.
At the same center, digital pocket cameras were being used to photograph registrants. Each registrant was required to ink his/her own finger and there was no specific finger being used as compared to previous exercises which required the inking of the thumb only by select NEC staff. This is part and parcel of the integrity check process to guard against fraud and it has to be done by a select staff. But in the current exercise, this is not the case, although budgetary provisions were made, according to NEC insider sources to hire com.
Finally, it is of little surprise that all of these mishaps are being experienced. It points to the lack of proper organization and planning by the NEC Board of Commissioners. NEC insider sources say for months now the Board of Commissioners have not been holding plenary which would have given them (Commissioners) the opportunity to adequately discuss and plan properly. Worse still, the Chairman is reportedly not on speaking terms with some of the Commissioners and according to sources, some Commissioners spend very little time in country.
And so, having said and written so much to warn of the dire consequences that await us as a nation if we do not get it right, we must ask ourselves what more can be said and what more needs to be done to address the situation. The answer is clear, Chairman Korkoya by virtue of such gross display of incompetence must be given his marching orders as well as Chief Technical Adviser George Baratashvili. The Board of Commissioners should be revamped and competent and experienced individuals, preferably from ECOWAS, be recruited and brought in to assist the process.
A hint to the wise is sufficient!