Nigeria: INEC DDC Contract – the Twists, the Turns

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Nigeria: INEC DDC Contract – the Twists, the Turns

Nduka Nwosu , Kunle Akogun And Chuks Okocha

10 September 2010


analysis

Lagos/Abuja — The Independent National Electoral Commission is in a mad race against time. To effectively hold credible elections between January 15 and 29, it has to compile a new voter register along with other logistics required for the exercise. The federal government, in turn, has released a substantial portion of the astronomical N87.7 billion budget requested by INEC for the conduct of the election, the bulk of which will be used for the procurement and deployment of 120,000 Direct Data Capture machines in polling stations nationwide. NDUKA NWOSU in Lagos, KUNLE AKOGUN and CHUKS OKOCHA in Abuja, capture the twists, turns, controversies and the logistical problems surrounding the multibillion naira contract for the Direct Data Capture equipment required for the voter registration exercise

Manual to Electronic Registration

In recent weeks, the buzzword in the nation’s political circles has been the Direct Data Capture equipment that will be deployed for the voter registration exercise ahead of the 2011 general election. Though a technology already in use in other parts of the world, it was first introduced into the local political lexicon by the Professor Maurice Iwu-led Independent National Electoral Commission in the run up to the 2007 election.

It was supposed to be an improvement over the technology used by the Sir Abel Guobadia-led INEC for the 2003 election. Back in the day, Guobadia had resorted to the Optical Mark Recognition form to compile a voter register. However, manual registration was also used alongside the electronic registration system introduced by INEC at the time.

This nonetheless had its hiccups. The process was slow and most of the eligible voters were not captured during the exercise, coupled with the fact that there wasn’t much time available to implement the voter registration to a conclusive end. In the end, the process came bundled with the Automatic Finger Identification System but this was suspended before the elections.

The defects noticed in the voter registration exercise in the run up to the 2003 election may have persuaded Maurice Iwu to transit to the Electronic Voter System of which the Electronic Voter Machine was the key component. As a build up to the EVS, INEC introduced the DDC platform as the new efficient technology for voter registration.

The equipment comprises a notebook computer with an inbuilt web camera, a hand-held device cum scanner to take fingerprints of potential voters, and a printer to print the temporary voter cards. Indeed, it was not dissimilar to the equipment used by the Nigerian Immigration Services and embassies worldwide for processing machine readable passport and visa appications. All of this was meant to be integrated alongside the registration software meant to capture voters nationwide and transmit to regional and central servers at INEC’s offices.

Bungled Registration

Beyond that, the field staff – ad hoc and permanent – of INEC were required to undergo training to effectively use the devices for the desired results. This, however, was not to be during the 2006 registration exercise. First, INEC reportedly made the mistake of contracting the supply and integration of the machines to mostly foreign companies – specifically, a local firm, Trenko Nigeria Limited, was awarded the bulk of the contract, but it sub-contracted the job to a Canadian-based firm that lacked the capacity to deliver on schedule. There were reports at that time that some vested interests in the presidency recommended the firms and their foreign partners but they failed to deliver. This put INEC in a very tight corner.

It took the intervention of an indigenous ICT firm, Zinox Computers, to deliver the machines at the eleventh hour. In all, INEC in 2006 deployed about 33,000 machines in 120,000 polling stations over a limited time. Each DDC equipment was expected to cover about four polling stations; and with the maximum number of voters per polling booth pegged at 500, each machine was expected to contain biometric information of not more than 2,000 voters.

However, because of time constraint – funds were not released to INEC on time coupled with the Third Term pursuit of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, INEC staff did not get the requisite training to manage the equipment. Added to this, INEC played into the hands of politicians by recruiting just about anybody as ad hoc personnel, many of whom happened to be party agents and disgruntled miscreants.

This compromised the registration process as some politicians allegedly working in concert with some of the INEC staff, mutilated the voter register with foreign names introduced in some cases. Other flaws noticed in the 2006 exercise include under-age registration, duplication of names and persons supposedly registered, and the introduction of fictitious names into boxes without matching pictures. This embarrassment prompted INEC to adopt the use of NYSC members as ad hoc staff in place of the previous personnel used by the commission.

Staying on Course

In spite of these flaws in the first attempt at electronic data capture for elections, political pundits and information and communications technology experts have consistently maintained that there is no alternative to this method if the nation must keep a credible voter register. Most of the flaws noticed in the 2006 exercise were largely due to human error, some arising from improper technical orientation on the part of the INEC staff and some due to outright mischief and manipulation by the staff in collusion with politicians.

The merits of the electronic method over the manual method obviously buoyed the current INEC chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, to thread the same path, albeit cautiously. Jega may have learnt the inherent lessons from his predecessor’s romance with the electronic system. Unlike Iwu, Jega wants to deploy 120,000 machines at the rate of one machine per polling unit. He is also continuing along the same path of his predecessor by deploying only NYSC members as ad hoc staff.

Besides, Jega’s INEC, in spite of the short time the commission has, is placed in a better position to get it right this time. A substantial portion of the N87.7 billion INEC requested has been approved and released to the commission by the Ministry of Finance, a sharp departure from the past when INEC was forced to go cap in hand to the presidency for every Naira it needed.

Sources revealed that an estimated N45 billion has been budgeted by INEC for the voter registration exercise, of which Jega stated, would be used to register about 70 million voters over a period of 14 days. He intends to achieve this using 360,000 registration officers to be recruited from the NYSC. The use of NYSC members holds the prospect of helping the process as youth corps members who are still serving would be cautious not to be compromised by politicians or their proxies. Any NYSC member caught in the act could be easily identified and adequate punishment meted to such person unlike in the past when just about anybody, including persons of no fixed address, were used.

Under the electronic method being pursued by Jega, each DDC portal shall consist of a notebook computer, a USB camera, USB fingerprint scanner, USB connected printer, a portable power supply with 2 by 3-pin British sockets, external hard disk and reasonable quantity of paper and printer ink. It is projected that not more than seven minutes would be required to register one voter. At such speed, it is possible to conclude the process within the stipulated time. It appears a tough call but it seems achievable especially in view of the abiding commitment of President Goodluck Jonathan to leave a legacy of overseeing the nation’s freest and fairest election ever.

Foreign over Local OEMs

But there was a caveat: Jega just like Iwu has been romancing with the idea of outsourcing the supply of the machines to foreign firms. This newspaper learnt while INEC was busy subjecting mostly local companies that had expressed interest in supplying the electronic equipment, to integrity checks at the State Security Service and the EFCC, it had already commenced negotiations with a Chinese-based IT firm Lenovo for the same contract. Lenovo came into global prominence when it acquired US-based IBM for $1.75 billion in 2005 and took over the production of the IBM Think Pad, which it re-branded Lenovo, a popular notebook computer used worldwide.

Investigations revealed that at the outset, 39 companies comprising mostly local Original Equipment Manufacturers – an industry term used to describe manufacturers of IT hardware equipment such as computers, scanners, servers, printers and so on – suppliers and middlemen representing the interest of some OEMs and other interested parties, had expressed interest in supplying the equipment for the voter registration.

All 39 were invited to make live presentations to INEC, following which the number was pruned to a manageable 12. These 12 companies were then subjected to screening by the SSS and EFCC to ascertain their financial integrity and capacity to deliver the goods. They were also screened to ensure that they were not being used by fronts for money laundering and related economic crimes. Of the 12 companies, this newspaper learnt that only three companies passed the SSS screening before being passed on to the EFCC for further checks, as most of the companies could not meet INEC’s stringent criteria for the DDC contract.

However, after making the 12 companies pass through the rigour of security checks, INEC made an about turn and decided to award the contract to Lenovo, the Chinese-based OEM, which did not express interest in the job, nor was it subjected to the same screening others had undergone. In fact, a source in INEC quoted a Request for Quotation (RFQ) numbered INEC/CH/GC/073/VOL.1 and dated August 18, 2010 to buttress the argument that all the integrity checks were a façade to hoodwink other companies that had gone through the regimen.

In the RFQ personally signed by Jega and addressed to Lenovo, it was said to have been prompted by the Chinese office of the United Nations Development Programme, a UN agency said to have been spearheading a campaign to ensure that indigenous OEMs were shut out of the contract. The letter read as follows: “Further to the enquiries by the China office of the UNDP on behalf of the Independent National Electoral Commission of Nigeria regarding the acquisition of hardware for Direct Data Capture, I write to request for additional information from you.

“In order to complete the procurement process, the Government of Nigeria would want to know the prices and delivery timelines for different quantities of equipment”. The letter listed the equipment to include laptops, high resolution webcams (4megapixels), fingerprint scanners at least 600dpi, portable standalone printers with battery packs, back up batteries, semi-rugged casings to contain the afore-listed items and cost of air freight.

The letter also requested the Chinese company to quote delivery timelines ranging from two weeks, four weeks and six weeks, adding: “In addition to the above, you should provide the cost validity period for the entire package”. The letter was concluded: “We would appreciate your timely response to be specific by Friday, August 20, 2010 at the latest to enable us complete further arrangements”.

All Hell is Let Loose

However, a senior INEC official faulted the letter as giving undue advantage to the Chinese firm. He held the view that no such “benevolence was extended to other companies prospecting for the job. I think we are getting things wrong by allowing the UNDP to lead us by the nose,” the official stated.

In addition to the objection raised by the INEC official, was the consternation within the Computer Professional Registration Council of Nigerian (CPN) and the Nigerian Computer Society (NCS), which were concerned over the attempts by the INEC to contract the hardware and software components needed for the voter registration to foreign based firms, leaving out local ICT firms with the competence to build and supply the components.

Expressing their concern, both computer professional bodies wondered why INEC directed local firms that had expressed interest in supplying the equipment for the voter registration exercise, short listed them, and made them undergo security screening, only for the commission to turn round to shut them out in favour of a foreign-based ICT firm.

Specifically, the association explained that contrary to what the public has been made to believe, the DDC machines are not devices built by any manufacturer in the world for data collection and processing, rather they comprise of notebooks, webcams, and finger printing machines that are integrated for data capture. It was on this basis, the body explained, that several local OEMs and software developers submitted proposals and made presentation to INEC to be considered for the job.

Some of their members which submitted proposals to INEC include Joint Komputer Company, Zinox Computers, Google, Basmak, Image Technology, Resourcery and Dimension Data, among others. Zinox, the largest manufacturer of notebook and desktop computers, servers and workstations in the country, CPN confirmed, was short listed by INEC to supply the front end aspect of the job that comprises the supply of the computers, printers, webcams and finger print scanners for biometric data capture. Zinox also has the advantage of possessing the requisite experience of undertaking similar jobs in the past. Zinox in 2006/2007 was brought in at the last minute by INEC to provide the computers and other equipment for the voter registration exercise after Trenko Nigeria Limited failed to deliver.

Also, NCS had cautioned INEC not to award the contract soley to foreign firms as this would directly negate the ICT policy of the federal government to patronise indigenous ICT products and services. Obasanjo, during his tenure issued a directive to ministries, departments and agencies to patronise indigenous ICT firms. This helped to strengthen local capacity and discouraged capital flight. Both the CPN and the NCS have argued that such policy should not be discountenanced at this time since some Nigerian companies have shown proven competence in hardware and software engineering as well as in systems integration to deliver the INEC job.

At the heart of their complaint was the fact that INEC was not helping to build local capacity and was aiding and abetting capital flight from the country, because this is a multibillion naira job. Sources in INEC confirmed that the value of the contract for the supply of the hardware equipment, comprising the backend (servers) and front-end (computers, webcams, scanners and printers) aspects of the job, is approximately N35 billion, while N5 billion is meant for the software operating system on which the integrated systems would run.

The reason, the commission adduced, was that because of the limited time, it was better for INEC to deal directly with foreign OEMs rather than going through local vendors. However, this has not gone down well with indigenous ICT experts who have maintained their readiness to execute the job within the limited time. CPN further cautioned that the problem with outsourcing such jobs to a foreign firm was that INEC could not be assured of future upgrades, local engineering and technical support, and warranties, given the short time frame it has to implement the voter registration exercise.

Beating a Retreat

However, sources at the commission revealed that Lenovo bailed out of the job all of a sudden. It threw back the RFQ to INEC because the electoral body failed to commit to firm payment terms, which is the norm with international tender documents. This prompted INEC to retrace its steps. Accordingly, by Monday, August 30, the commission had issued a new batch of RFQs to Zinox Computers, Haier Thermocool Nigeria Limited and US ICT company, Avant Technology.

Although Haier Thermocool is better known in Nigeria as a manufacturer of refrigerators, washing machines, cookers and air conditioners, its website shows that it is also an OEM that manufactures notebook and desktop computers. Haier Thermocool is a joint venture between PZ Cussons Nigeria Plc and Haier Group. The Haier Group is a Chinese company that is largest white goods manufacturer worldwide, producing over 30,000 products including televisions, DVDs, refrigerators, dishwashers, microwaves, and computers.

Avant Technology, on the other hand, is a Texas-based OEM with specialisation in microchips and backup servers.

Sources in INEC revealed that the three companies were asked to supply the hardware equipment in the following order: Haier Thermocool was given an RFQ to submit a quotation for the supply of 90,000 units; Zinox Computers – 22,000 units; while Avant Technology was asked to quote for 20,000 units. Under the RFQs, the three companies were given 48 hours within which they were expected to submit their quotations, following which their proposals were sent to the Office of Due Process for evaluation.

Should the companies meet the due process evaluation, INEC will issue them notices to supply the equipment within 28 days from the date indicated in their letters. The letters for the award of the contracts to the companies are expected to be delivered next week. However, one source complained that the RFQs issued by INEC to the three companies once again failed to stipulate the payment terms.

Windows Vs Linux

In spite of the seeming resolution over which companies should supply the hardware for the voter registration, other controversies continue to swirl over the contract. For instance, eyebrows have been raised over the decision to retain a Kenyan national, Mr. Nyimbi Odero, who was said to have advised INEC to patronise Chinese OEMs. Some INEC officials and ICT stakeholders spoken to queried the hiring of a Kenyan for such a sensitive job when there are many competent Nigerians that can effectively handle the job.

Similarly, ICT experts are up in arms over INEC’s decision to download an open source software from the internet for the biometric voter registration exercise. The open soft software programme is being championed by Odero who also happens to be the Google Country Manager in Nigeria and has been appointed by INEC to serve as its technical consultant for the voter registration. Google is one of the several companies that have indicated interest in providing the software solution for the voter registration, despite the fact that the company has never shown competence in software applications and solutions that cater to large-scale data collection.

To make matters worse, the operating system that has been recommended by this Odero is the Linux Operating System, in a country where 99.999 per cent of computers run on the Windows Operating System. “This is bizarre” said one ICT expert, “the Linux OPS is hardly used in this country. The version being recommended is one even made in Brazil. There will be the big problem of compatibility with Windows which is used almost everywhere in the country.”

Industry professionals have termed INEC’s decision to contract a Kenyan in place of hundreds of ICT and software experts in the country as difficult to comprehend. They also questioned Mr. Odero’s track record in the industry, disclosing that before taking up his present appointment with Google, he had worked for Alteq/TSC and Socket Works, two Nigerian software solutions providers that were not pre-qualified by INEC to bid for the software side of the DDC contract.

Logistical Nightmare

Yet again, a Nigerian IC T expert, with vast experience in DDC procurement and supplies abroad, Mrs Onyinye Dike recently told this newspaper in Abuja that the decision to split registration software and hardware applications was a mistake. Dike maintained that “there is always a link between the hardware and the software components and there is a need to perform field tests of all the equipment combining the hardware and the software,” adding that “separating software and hardware is theoretically interesting but will practically lead to problems in terms of responsibility for training, technical support and maintenance.”

She explained that in the event of a technical glitch with the equipment, it may be difficult to identify whether it comes from the hardware or the software and this, according to her, “will mean time loss and money wasted.” She further queried: “Where are the warehouses where the equipment will be stored for the software to be downloaded and equipment tested before deployment into the field? Who is going to own the field tests for the equipment (software and hardware).”

Another key issue that should be considered, according to Dike, is the reliability and reuse of the equipment, that is, the overall cost of ownership of the solution. Therefore the need is to purchase an integrated solution featuring hardware (notebooks, web cameras, fingerprint scanners, printers) and power packs – batteries and chargers) that is robust, field proven, easily transportable, and difficult to steal.

She maintained that an important topic that has not yet been thoroughly addressed is the timeline, pointing out that “not only is this a Herculean task, but many experts in logistics and procurements, as well as experts in electoral operations, do consider that it is just unrealistic within the targeted time frame.” She therefore proffered that more time be added by INEC “to ensure a credible voter registration exercise if this is really the objective.”

According to her, this is because the batteries cannot be sent through air freight; they need to be shipped from Asia by sea freight; manufacturing of integrated kits will also have to be included; procurement of some devices such as fingerprint scanners may take up to 14 weeks; training of 360,000 staff to handle the equipment has not yet been planned by INEC; registering 70 million people in two weeks is too ambitious and may not be achievable, as voters usually show up on the last days of the registration exercise. An extension of time may therefore be necessary, she advised.

Add to this the logistics of transporting 120,000 units of hardware equipment and getting them integrated with the software all around the country which has not been taken into consideration. Dike explained that “to provide 120,000 units of DDC hardware within a few weeks requires at least a fleet of 10 Jumbo Boeing aircraft to carry the 120,000 units (the weight of one unit is about 10 kilogrammes and the maximum weight a Boeing 747 jumbo can carry is 120 Tons).”

She noted that this is only one logistics problem out of several others that INEC would have to deal with. Pointing out that “INEC is really in a serious dilemma and has to take its responsibilities seriously”, advising that “if we really need to have a credible voters’ register, it is not a shame to go with reputable companies; ask them to bring local partners on board and transfer technology and the know-how.” To get around the identified problems and ensure a hitch-free voter registration exercise, Dike suggested the engagement of several reputable suppliers or consortia with verifiable track records, and adequate technical know-how and expertise in ICT for the deployment of equipment all over the country.

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