By Takura Zhangazha*
Until Zimbabwe actually votes in 2018, the biometric voter registration (BVR) exercise is going to perpetually rear its controversial head. Not least because its about elections and who gets power next year but also because it still regrettably remains little understood.
This is until either the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) or an elections management related body and political contestants begin to explain it to Zimbabweans through what can only be a massive public awareness campaign.
The latest assumed controversy is around the awarding of the tender for supplying, maintaining and operationalising the BVR kits to Chinese owned firm, Laxton Group.
The initial disagreement with the awarding of the tender came for MDC-T secretary general Douglas Mwonzora who argued that the awarding of the tender to a Chinese owned company was likely to scare away voters but that his party would still soldier on with the process. Other opposition parties were to also condemn the awarding of the tender on yet to be proved allegations that the winning company Laxton Group may be politically partisan or compromised.
Election support organisation the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN) in its statement on the same argued that contrary to a media report saying it supported Laxton Group, it held no brief for it or any other involved in the bidding process. It argued that what is imperative is that there be openness and transparency around the finer details of voter registration personnel, data storage and the nature of the equipment utilised in the BVR process.
Its counterpart the Elections Resource Centre (ERC) in its statement on the same issue asked that ZEC proves it was not arm twisted into awarding the tender to Laxton Group by central government. And in this ERC urged government to fully align the Electoral Act with the new constitution.
The fact that there has been no official statement from the ruling Zanu Pf party on this issue is indicative of the probability that it has no problems either with Laxton Group or with the process’ outcome.
There is also no popular public outcry against the BVR kit tender process. At least for now. That may also indicate either how distant the issue of BVR is from the public’s priority concerns or that it is invariably not understood until someone somewhere starts explaining what exactly it entails.
The different positions or lack of them on the issue of which company provides not only the BVR equipment but how to use it effectively is also indicative of a number of issues.
The first and most important one is that the voting public does not know or understand what BVR is. Because if they did there would have been great public outcry merely on the basis of the allegations against ZEC by the mainstream opposition parties.
This lack of public outcry even after the opposition identified the winning company as Chinese also means that the identity of the company is not as big a public issue or again, the public does not know the full import of this BVR process.
This latter point would require that we also understand the general suspicion the opposition has of the Chinese government and its relationship with the ruling Zanu PF party.
The reality of the matter however is that the opposition to varying degrees actively participated in some of the processes that led to the awarding of the tender. And has been part of ZEC’s consultative processes. So it’s a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
For election supported organisations such as ZESN and ERC the key element might be that they avoid being drawn into either hasty or too politically correct statements without first analysing what they would consider to be the merits or de-merits of a specific electoral process. Almost as they are wont to do when covering an actual election as it occurs.
And this is why it remains important that their oversight role is maintained at the highest possible levels and not compromised in aide of maintaining a good working relationship with ZEC. It should essentially be about democratic values and principles as they relate to the electoral cycle and fact based assessments of all players in the same.
The essential point that must be made is that barring a miracle or a volte-face from central government, BVR is now an electoral cycle reality in Zimbabwe. Even if we dispute a tender after it has been awarded. Or if the media or whistle-blowers make it publicly known that there was something opaque about the awarding of the tender. All stakeholders must concertedly work to let the people know what it is all about as the top priority as opposed to borderline elitist sparring and short lived moments of political angst in the media or on social media.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)