Elections in Africa have become some of the most expensive in the world.
A major part of the reason is deep mistrust among the participants leading to levels of paranoia about rigging that would make an Afghan politician squirm.
But at the heart of the matter is the simple reality that, with the atrophy of most of its pillar institutions, democracy has been reduced to elections in most of Africa. When elections are all there is, the vote attains sacramental significance in the ritualised state, and all fiscal logic must be sacrificed on its altar of convenience.
Hence the reason why the UK spent $150 million on its 2015 general elections, whilst its former colony and democratic imitator, Ghana, splurged $212 million on its 2016 version (the budget was in fact $278 million, but due to constraints about 40% could not be disbursed). Looking at it from a cost per voter perspective, Ghana spent $13.5 whilst the UK spent about $3.2. Put another way, elections relatively cost Ghana more than four times what they cost the UK.
The mistrust and paranoia alluded to above have endowed African countries like Ghana with some of the most advanced electoral systems in the world. Roughly half of African countries have deployed state-of-the-art biometric technologies to prevent cheating at the polls; nearly no Western European or North American country has.
In those places where democracy has led to sound institutions, voters can rely on identification established by other state institutions. In Africa, electoral bodies and the political parties insist on a separate, watertight, identification system just for elections. Everything else can keep using the leaky, messy, systems, but not elections. Elections are holy ground that must not be profaned.
But paranoia-driven, bleeding-edge, technology is not the full story. African electoral management bodies are not the efficiency paragons their political party enablers would have them be. They are as wasteful and disorganised as many of the other atrophying democratic institutions in your typical African country. Once again, let’s use the case of Ghana.
Though the Electoral Commission (EC), Ghana’s elections management body, charges considerable filing fees when political candidates seek to stand for office, and also rents out its services to various political parties and institutions for their own internal elections, it refuses to consistently report its “internal generated funds” (the jargon in Ghana for earnings made by state institutions, usually from commercial services) for financial planning purposes. Expenditure planning datasheets used by the Ghanaian Ministry of Finance to map out spending over the medium-term horizon have in recent times spotted blank spaces where the EC’s internal generated funds data should be. State auditors report spending on capital infrastructure at a level ten times what the legislature approves. They also lament failure by the institution to submit accounts for auditing by statutory timelines.
At one point, the EC even sold access to voters’ data on the electoral roll to a private fintech startup called BSystems and promptly forgot, or so it claims, to collect the revenue.
The 3x growth in its budget from circa $65 million in 2008 to circa $200 million today is thus not all due to the “escalation in sophistication” of the electoral process as a result of paranoia. A significant proportion of the cost escalation is due to sheer waste. And nothing exemplifies that fact more than the EC’s ongoing effort to rip out the existing biometric system used for identifying voters, along with its accompanying electronic infrastructure, and spend as much as $150 million (inclusive of contingency) building a brand new one.
When the EC started its campaign, its claims seemed rather reasonable. It anchored its arguments on apparent facts that the existing biometric system was largely obsolescent, having been implemented for the 2012 elections and used since then for two general elections and multiple district level polls, by-elections, mop-up registration exercises, referenda, and council of state elections etc.
According to the EC, the Israeli contractor responsible for procuring key components of the biometric system – BVRs, used for voter registration and BVDs, used for verifying voters on voting day – had informed them that all the equipment are at the end of their serviceable life and ought to be replenished and upgraded. The vendor had, according to the EC, quoted $74 million for this activity. Buying a brand-new system on the other hand would cost “just” $56 million.
Who can argue with such logic. If throwing away $60 million of existing equipment would lead to cost avoidance of $74 million and replacement expense of just $56 million, then surely this makes sense? Even if doing so would also mean an additional $70 million spent registering and collecting biometrics of all 17 million voters afresh.
Except that the whole argument betrays a mindset of such perverse wastefulness that were the account to be true, every one of the eighty-one information technology (IT) personnel on the organisation’s payroll, who shall be responsible for this new setup, would need to be whipped. And they might deserve it since previous state audit inspections have found equipment gathering dust in various stores, and an absence of even a rudimentary asset register.
But in this instant case of “throwing away millions to save millions is cheaper” though, a certain historical rite comes to mind: the Florentine Bonfire of the Vanities.
A Dominican Friar, called Savonarola, emerged on the scene in Renaissance Florence whose art of persuasion was so strong that he convinced some of that epical city’s most famed artists and scholars to turn over priceless works of art and scholarship to be burned in massive bonfires as acts of edification. Irreplaceable valuables, rare manuscripts and fine ware, were collected from many eminent citizens and brought to the bonfire to be consumed before chanting crowds. Until, finally, the Church began to fear Savonarola’s excessive influence, and had him excommunicated and executed.
Ghana is in the throes of a similar seduction. Many people watch on helpless, and some have even been seduced by the rhetoric, as the EC prepares to rip out $60 million worth of equipment and burn them (for that they must, as there is no market for second-hand electoral technology).
Yet, the EC’s arguments do not pass the most basic of common-sense litmus tests, much less expert review. Those seriously interested in this topic may consider reading this document issued by IMANI on behalf of a large group of civic organisations in Ghana opposed to the EC’s plans.
This simple table below provides a snapshot of the state of the current system by focusing on the key question of wear and tear.
Fig. 1. Ballpark Asset Wear & Tear Analysis*
|Biometric Voters Registration Machines (BVRs)|
|Number of times used||Depreciated Value|
|A||$10.5 million||8 times||$5.5 million|
|B||$7 million||4 times||$5.5 million|
|C||$5.25 million||2 times||$4.75 million|
|Biometric Voters Verification Devices (BVDs)|
|Number of times used||Depreciated Value|
|A||$12 million||10||$4 million|
|B||$4.2 million||4||$3 million|
|C||$5.25 million||2||$4 million|
|D||$5.25 million||0||$5 million|
*For ease of analysis, the software and communications peripherals (such as ground satellites) also costing millions of dollars and scheduled for destruction were not considered in this analysis. Thus, not all the $60 million worth of assets to be “bonfired” are represented in this table.
One analogical framework that has brought this fairly complex technical subject home to people is referring to the BVRs as “laptops with fingerprint sensors and webcams” and the BVDs as mobile phones or POS payment terminals. When people are then asked to imagine the wear and tear rate of such devices if they are used only once or twice a year, their eyes light up, the scales fall off, and the con suddenly becomes very clear. The pictures below should make visualisation even easier.
A Biometric Voters’ Registration Kit (BVR)
Credit: Laxton Group
Credit: Isidore Kafui Dorpenyo
The trick to understanding the con is realising that the BVRs and BVDs were not all supplied in 2011 or 2012 and that not all of them are used for each registration or voting exercise.
The mid-term registration programs (called “limited registration” in Ghana) for instance typically require half of the overall portfolio of BVRs and there is usually an excess margin of about 15,000 BVDs that are not deployed during even general elections, not to talk of smaller-scale elections such as the Council of State elections or by-elections. Meanwhile, about 60% of the system dates from just 2016. Some equipment has, in fact, never before been used.
Furthermore, continuous purchase of fresh equipment from the original Dutch vendors, HSB, has always involved an upgrade of the auxiliary software both on the devices as well as in the datacentre, including the critical fingerprint matching technology, known as the ABIS, supplied by another Dutch vendor, Genkey.
Thus, as is amply clear from the table, it can easily be shown that millions of dollars’ worth of equipment has been used much too infrequently to be damaged beyond repair. And many of the devices were bought too recently to be end-of-lifecycle or incapable of being refurbished except at cutthroat costs.
If the EC were to continue buying replacements for only truly worn out devices, it would also avoid the $70 million it intends to splurge on fresh biometric enrollment of 17 million voters plus many other middleware components.
By buying an extra 3000 BVRs and 10,000 BVDs in a truly transparent and competitive tender, in continuance of the current continuous upgrading regime, it shall be entitled to an upgrade of the auxiliary software as well. It’s total expenditure shall be in the region of $15 million (throwing in datacenter and communications systems upgrades) and not the $150 million it plans to spend.
The EC commissioned an audit of the biometric system in 2016, the only time it has done so. The findings provide no support whatsoever for the obsolescence theory. In fact, the EC’s current claims about how much it will cost to refurbish or upgrade the system are all based on what it claims it was told by a self-interested contractor whose agreement with the EC had been abrogated a year ago. No other independent audit of the biometric system has been conducted since 2016. Requests for even internal equipment audit reports that recommend this drastic, wholesale, replacement action are met by blank stares and stonewalling by the EC.
The costs related to the complete replacement of the system, the EC’s preferred cause of action, on the other hand, seemed to have emerged from a shadowy tender that could qualify as the opaquest tender ever conducted in the world. The hints the EC has given about likely pricing following the sham tender ($3000 for a BVR and $400 for a BVD) suggest costs almost double what countries like Zimbabwe, Kenya and Nigeria have been able to obtain in the market in recent years for one component or the other.
Very untypical of a public tender, neither the Expression of Interest nor the Request for Proposal was published on the EC’s website or exposed to the press. (Mysteriously, the EC’s website went down on January 12th as soon as the controversy over its plans to build a new register and biometric system flared up again and has since not come back up.) Despite the tender having closed in April 2019, not a single press release has been issued by the EC to provide information on the bidders, the longlist, shortlist, or winning bids. Naturally, no evaluation reports have been seen.
The EC’s claims of being motivated by savings are thus as ephemeral as the purported divine benefits of Savonarola’s famed bonfires.