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IEC, RFP fight over voters’ roll

…as Matekane’s party clamors for free and fair elections

Silence Charumbira

The Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) has begun a spirited battle to try and force the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to produce an electronic version of the national voters’ roll for easy inspection and verification ahead of the upcoming general elections.

A legitimate, reliable and verifiable national voters’ roll is the basis and essence of any credible election, insists the RFP via its lawyers.  The party thus wants the IEC to furnish it with an electronic version of the voters’ register to enable all its members to inspect and verify their bona fides on the roll.

But the IEC has balked at the request, insisting that it only has a hard copy version of the roll dating back to 2001.  The electoral body nevertheless promises it is trying its best to have the hard copy converted into an electronic format.  But the RFP is not buying that story. It suspects the IEC wants to use a defective and unreliable roll for the elections to swing the elections in favour of those long-established parties that have been long contesting elections and that might have duplicate names on the roll.  An epic court battle between the two now appears inevitable.

The Sam Matekane led RFP had written to the IEC – through law firm Molati Chambers – on 27 August 2022 giving the electoral body a 72-hour ultimatum to produce an electronic copy of the roll to enable its supporters to inspect if their names were correctly recorded on the roll ahead of the 7 October 2022 elections.

The IEC did not meet the ultimatum.  Instead, its director of elections, Advocate Mpaiphele Maqutu, wrote back to the RFP complaining that the 72-hour ultimatum had been brisk and unrealistic. Moreso, the fact that the RFP letter had been delivered during the weekend gave the IEC little time to respond, Adv Maqutu argued.

Nevertheless, he said the IEC had already started exploring ways in which an electronic voters’ roll could be obtained but the efforts had not yet yielded results. A service provider working with the IEC on the voters’ roll had demanded a payment of M2 million to produce one, Adv Maqutu said, in a response that appear to only have further enraged the RFP. Some party sympathizers see the M2 million issue as a ruse by the IEC to forestall the release of an electronic version.

“How on earth can they say they don’t have an electronic copy of a voters roll in this day and age yet they are constantly registering voters….,” asked one source sympathetic to the RFP but who did not want to be identified because she does not have authority to speak on the issue.

“How did they even manage to print a hard copy without an electronic version. Their story simply doesn’t make sense. For you to be able to print something, you must first have it loaded electronically especially a voters’ roll that is constantly updated….?”

The RFP which was formed in March 2022 will be contesting its first ever election cycle in October. The party is clearly not taking any chances in wanting to ensure that the elections are credible, free and fair and there are no hidden benefits for long established parties that have been through many election cycles and that could benefit from duplicate names of their supporters on the roll while new young voters – seen as supporting the RFP – are excluded.

It wants its members to inspect the national roll to ensure its full credibility and to close any loopholes that might be used against it.

Indeed in their letter to Adv Maqutu, the RFP’s lawyers had emphasized that a credible voters’ roll was the very essence of any credible election.

But despite having been asked to provide both a hard copy and an electronic version, the IEC had only issued a hard copy.  A hard copy was nevertheless difficult to work with in the limited time given by the IEC for roll inspection. The RFP’s supporters were too many and a hard copy would naturally be inconvenient to use, the party had said in its 27 August 2022 letter entitled: “Verification of voters’ roll/Request for electronic copy of the voters’ roll/ Revolution for Prosperity”.

“The integrity of the voters’ roll is paramount to holding free, fair and peaceful elections whose outcome faithfully reflects the will of the voters,” the letter from Molati Chambers reads.

It said the RFP had long been on record requesting the IEC for both then electronic and print versions of the voters’ roll.

The RFP had only received the print version of the roll on the 25th of August 2022, way after its original request and only a few days before the IEC’s 29 August 2022 deadline for the finalization of inspection and verification of the roll.

“…. We are greatly disheartened at our client being denied an electronic copy or version of the voters’ roll. Moreso, when the excuse being given is that it is not yet ready,” Molati Chambers wrote, warning the IEC the RFP was ready and willing to go to court to compel the electoral body to produce the electronic copy.

The lawyers made it clear it did not make sense for the IEC to claim that they did not have an electronic copy of the roll yet the hard copy could only have been printed from an electronic version.

“How can there be a printed version in the absence of an electronic copy? Where would a print version materialize from?” the lawyers asked.

The IEC has also “set extremely preposterous timeframes within which our client is required to conduct and complete a verification process of the voters’ roll across all 80 constituencies by the deadline of Tuesday the 29th of August 2022”.

The tight deadline, the lawyers said, would only make sense if the RFP was in possession of an electronic copy of the roll.

“It is our considered view that it is logistically untenable for our client to coordinate and organise its supporters across the country to verify their names on the voters’ roll.

“The time afforded makes it practically impossible as (our) client has a large number of supporters. The time allocated does not allow the party to reach all its members and the fact that there is one copy of the roll in print form means that it can only be used at the head office.”

A single copy of the printed roll also made it difficult for voters to verify their registrations as some had been moved to new constituencies from the ones they voted in during the 2017 elections, the lawyers said.

“All citizens should be afforded a chance to check the roll and get any anomalies resolved… to… guarantee free and fair elections,” the RFP lawyers stated in the 72-hour ultimatum letter.

In his response which he copied to all political parties, despite that it was the RFP that had raised the grievance, Adv Maqutu said it was the responsibility of individual RFP members to visit the IEC’s constituency offices to inspect the voters’ roll and to ensure the accuracy of the recorded information. That was not the responsibility of the party, the IEC said, further enraging the RFP, which believes an electronic copy should be readily available for ease of inspection and verification.

Adv Maqutu said the letter from the RFP’s lawyers had been received when the IEC had already started exploring ways around getting an electronic voters’ roll. While that was being done, the RFP members should use the available existing options of verifying their credentials on the roll.

“We wish to bring to your clients’ attention that the IEC had on the 22nd of August 2022 written to the service provider that is responsible for the voters’ roll to explore the possibility of providing the electronic copy of the voters’ roll as part of the IEC’s continuous drive to embrace the use of technology in its dealings with all its stakeholders. The said request was done out of IEC’s own volition as a way of better servicing all political parties and stakeholders, and your client’s demand comes way after IEC has explored this possibility,” Adv Maqutu said, without naming the service provider.

He explained this effort had not yet yielded any positive results “as the service provider has slapped the IEC with an invoice in excess of M2 million for the reconfiguration of his systems (sic) that would translate into the production of the electronic voters’ roll, while mindful of all the related security considerations”.

“As the IEC we have sought to be fully compliant with the Electoral Law of the land by providing all political parties registered with the Commission with a copy of the voters’ roll as dictated by Sec 39 of the National Assembly Electoral Act, 2011 as we have been doing for the countless elections since Lesotho’s return to democracy. The inspection and corrections to the electors’ roll extends  (sic) for as long as the voters’ roll is on display in all our constituencies.”

Adv Maqutu emphasised it was not the RFP’s responsibility to visit the IEC’s constituency offices to inspect the voters’ roll  but that of the party’s individual members to establish their bona fides on the role and make any corrections if need be in relation to themselves as individual electors.

He also said the roll inspection period had been extended by one month until 30 September 2022, seven days before the 7 October elections.

But the RFP remains adamant that the IEC is playing dirty tricks by not immediately producing the electronic version, according to sources close to the both the electoral body and the party.

One official in the know – who did not want his name used because of the sensitivity of the matter – said it was completely illogical for the IEC’s service provider to start charging an extra fee for providing an electronic voters’ roll. This because the tender document originally issued by the IEC had sought the establishment of a “web-enabled” roll and system.

According to the tender document titled “Expression of Interest – Electors Registration System-IEC Lesotho” dated 4 October 2021, the Commission had specified that it required among other things that “the (roll) system must be web-enabled”.

“The system must be able to perform transfer of voters and keep history of such movement,” the tender document also states.

If the web enabled (electronic) roll was part of the brief of the winning service provider as per the tender, it was wholly untenable that more money be now demanded for the production of an electronic version, the official said.

However the IEC’s director of legal services, Adv Lehlohonolo Suping, last night said that tender was never awarded. There was thus no basis to speculate that anything was amiss with the IEC’s current efforts to get an electronic version of the roll.

He insisted the October 2011 tender was never awarded to any bidder after some legal challenges over the award of the tender. The IEC was therefore still using a 2001 roll.  That was the one that it now wanted converted into an electronic format.

The IEC was thus not yet able to provide an electronic version of the roll. It was working hard to be able to do so, he said.

“The IEC is working towards providing an electronic voters’ roll. We made a request to our service provider for an electronic voters’ roll several weeks before the RFP demanded it. We are still working on it even now.

“The IEC technicians are also working flat out on that,” Adv Suping said.

“We did not proceed with the original tender (October 2021) after bidders contested the awarding to a company called Laxton. The process was reversed by the Procurement Policy and Advisory Division (PPAD) of the Finance ministry, and the preferred bidder then challenged the reversal in the Commercial Court. The Commercial Court ruled that the PPAD had erred in failing to give Laxton a chance to make representations in court, but it was too late for us to continue with the tender.

“The voters’ roll we are using was crafted in 2001 and it is not electronic. This is why the service provider has quoted us in excess of M2 million to produce an electronic roll,” he said.

While negotiations with the service provider were ongoing, the IEC’s information technology (IT) technicians are also working hard to produce an electronic voters’ roll, Adv Suping said.

But it appears until and unless that is done fast, a court challenge from the RFP against the IEC is now inevitable.