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BVR: Time to move on

BVR testing in Mabvuku (pic courtesy of Newsday)

After weeks of delays, the Government of Zimbabwe has finally announced the winner of the tender to supply BVR equipment to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). The winning bidder is the Laxton Group, a Chinese company. Dermalog, a German company lost the bid. A third bidder dropped out at the last minute.

Some of the opposition parties are unhappy with the outcome. They are suspicious of the Laxton Group, largely because of it nationality. They believe that the Chinese company won the tender at the behest of or in order to please ZANU PF, which traditionally has close connections to the Chinese government. These Communist Party, which runs the Chinese government, has in the past openly supported ZANU PF’s election campaigns. The opposition parties suspect that the State Procurement Board which was in charge of the selection process may have been unduly influenced by the ruling party.

The outcry from the opposition is hardly surprising. They had already expressed dissatisfaction with the way the tender process was handled. Initially, the process was in the hands of the UNDP, which the opposition were comfortable with as they viewed the UN agency as a neutral third party with no direct interest in the election. However, the government decided to take over the process mid-way through. Legally, the opposition were in a weaker position. As the sovereign authority, the Zimbabwean government was well within its powers to take over the process. The only argument the parties could have used would have been based on the principle of legitimate expectations, but even this would have been a long shot.

Nevertheless, politically, the take-over of the process was poisonous since ZANU PF, which is in charge of government, is an interested party. It immediately raised suspicions that ZANU PF wanted to influence the decision-making process in its favour. From the moment the government took over the process, it was foreseeable that ZANU PF would prioritise its political advantage and that the opposition would cry foul. The Chinese were always the favourites to win it ahead of a Western company. The opposition cannot be surprised by this outcome. They should have seen it coming.

Although it is disappointing to the opposition, the leaders have to be more strategic and avoid conceding more ground to ZANU PF. The election is as much a mental game as is it physical. Voters can only go to the polls if they have some hope. People can only get up to register to vote if there’s hope. It is hope that motivates people to drop important things to go and queue up to register and to vote. If there is no hope, they won’t be bothered. Why waste time queuing up to register and to vote when there is no hope of winning?

This is why the opposition leaders must invest more in hope and drop their energy-sapping public statements. The more they moan that ZANU PF has rigged the BVR selection process, the less motivated potential voters become. What’s the point of going to register to vote if the process is already rigged?

For its part, ZANU PF is not bothered by claims that the selection process was rigged in favour of the Chinese company. In fact, they are happy with such claims and they will privately encourage them. The reason is simple: it confirms to already intimidated and scared voters that ZANU PF is firmly in control and not only that the opposition is weak but that it can’t even do anything about it. It says to voters that ZANU PF is so powerful that it can literally do what it wants. Every time that the opposition leaders moan about ZANU PF’s rigging, ZANU PF celebrates because it simply enhances the narrative that they are in charge and cannot be beaten.

There is also the problem of credibility. If, every time you moan about rigging but you still go ahead and participate in the processes, people will end up questioning your sincerity. In this case, if the opposition parties have good cause to challenge the selection process, they really ought to do more than cite the fact that the winning company is Chinese. So what if the Laxton Group is a Chinese company? Shouldn’t Chinese companies ever win tenders in Zimbabwe just because they are Chinese? What is it about the Laxton Group that makes it unsuitable? Is there any evidence of connections between the Laxton Group and the Chinese government? If so, what is it? Give this information to the people.

The point is, there has to be more to demonstrate that the Laxton Group is unfit for the job. The opposition parties think Dermalog should have prevailed, but why? What gave Dermalog the edge over the Laxton Group? The nationality of a bidder was surely not the main criteria. The issue should be about competence. The idea of dismissing the Laxton Group simply because it is Chinese is lazy. Did the opposition parties or civic groups do technical evaluations of the competing bids and decide that Dermalog was better? One presumes that the opposition parties had experts observing the process. If so, where is that technical report? If it is available, why not avail it to the public? Show the people why Dermalog was better than the Laxton Group bid.

The process exposes a perennial weakness in opposition parties – they have never invested enough in the intelligence arms of their organisations. By now, they would be armed with detailed intelligence reports on the bidding companies, with intimate details on who is who within those companies and how they are connected to political actors. It is the same intelligence lapses which meant Nikuv International, the Israeli company which has notoriety in Zimbabwe over alleged election rigging, was allowed to play an influential role in previous elections.

But this process is done. There is nothing more that the opposition parties can do to reverse it unless they have evidence that the selection process was flawed. If they don’t have any evidence to challenge the process, they must now get on with it. Moaning that ZANU PF rigged it only confirms that ZANU PF does what it wants and has got its way once again. The effect of this is to confirm that the opposition is powerless in the face of ZANU PF. It deflates voters.

As already stated, elections are a mental game, too. People gravitate towards winners. If you always show weakness, people are likely to lose confidence. The opposition leaders must change the script. This BVR selection process is done. They participated in it and allowed it to run the course. The important thing is what do now that the BVR supplier has been chosen. They must invest in monitoring and keeping the Laxton Group and ZEC on their toes, making sure the process is conducted transparently, fairly and efficiently. Right now, there are no regulations for BVR. This is the next big step, ensuring the legal framework is firmly in place.


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