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Smudged ID cards, missing names blemish Congo’s $1 billion election

CONGOLESE law student Stephanie Mbafumoja was exhilarated to sit for the photo for a voter identity card that would allow her, for the first time, to have a say in the future of her nation.

The 23-year-old’s enthusiasm soured when she was handed a card bearing a distorted image she said looked nothing like her. Within a few weeks, the printed text on the card began to fade.

“On election day, the card was completely illegible,” she said, speaking in the city of Butembo, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a month after the December 20 election.

The card was issued as part of an electoral roll update carried out using equipment provided by South Korean company Miru Systems Co. Ltd. through a contract that at $105 million, was almost double what officials initially budgeted, unpublished documents seen by Reuters show.

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So many voters across the country reported smudged, illegible cards that the government announced, one week before the election, that people could vote without them.

Problems with the cards and the electoral roll, along with a failure to count ballots from thousands of polling stations, severely undermined voter confidence in the democratic process, three election monitoring missions said in public declarations following the vote.

President Felix Tshisekedi’s landslide reelection – 55 points ahead of his nearest rival – was large enough to convince most observers that he won despite these problems.

But election integrity campaigners are demanding accountability, including for any shortcomings of Miru Systems’ products, along with an audit of an election that, at an estimated $1.1 billion in public spending, cost more than Congo’s defence budget.

Around $250 million of that money was awarded to Miru Systems.

Reuters reporting for this story did not establish corruption or artificial price inflation in the contracts.

In response to Reuters questions, Miru Systems said it “decided to replace a certain number of voter ID cards” and that according to the manufacturer warranty, “a set of equipment and consumables were freely provided to” the electoral commission.

The problem of fading cards “requires a thorough investigation” to pinpoint responsibility, the company said. “When properly used” Miru Systems said, “our solutions lead to the required results.”

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The company said it met contractual obligations and conformed to regulations. Creating and printing voter lists were not among its responsibilities, it said.

The commission and Tshisekedi’s office did not respond to detailed requests for comment for this story.

“MYSTERY”

Long before the election, senior officials at the election commission were alarmed by how the process of choosing Miru Systems was handled.

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“The mystery surrounding the contracts” was so opaque “that it arouses legitimate concern on my part,” Patricia Nseya, among the commission’s most senior officials and in charge of voter registration, wrote to commission president Denis Kadima in a memo dated November 2022, seen by Reuters.

The process bypassed officials who would usually be involved in such large public tenders, an apparent violation of a law governing the electoral commission, according to internal communications seen by Reuters as well as accounts from two electoral commission sources and two government sources.

The decision to choose the company was concentrated in Kadima’s office, the four sources said.

“In my capacity as supervisor of (voter registration), I have no member of my cabinet on the team coordinating the management of the Miru project,” Nseya wrote.

Nseya declined to respond to Reuters questions about her concerns. Kadima told Reuters in October, before the elections, that the South Korean firm was the cheapest and “by far the best.” Kadima dismissed criticism that procurement had been opaque. He did not respond to follow-up questions.

Congolese legislation grants the commission administrative and financial independence to avoid political interference in its work. It is, however, subject to the same rules around transparent procurement as other institutions.

In a preliminary statement on the election, the Carter Center criticized the commission’s “limited transparency” concerning election procurement.

On Dec. 20, Mbafumoja travelled 15 km back to the polling centre where she’d registered, only to find her name did not appear, which should have excluded her. Despite that, and her illegible ID card, a poll worker allowed her to vote.

“He took a sheet of paper, asked me to write down my name, and that was it,” she said, expressing dismay at the lack of checks and balances.

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Organising elections in Congo is no easy feat and this was not the first poll to face problems. Equipment has to be delivered to remote communities in one of the world’s biggest jungles. Electricity is scarce in much of the country, and armed groups remain active even after peace agreements aimed at ending a war that killed millions of people.

When results were announced on Dec. 31, nearly two weeks after the polls opened, the electoral commission said it counted votes from only 64,000 of the 75,000 polling stations, potentially disenfranchising around 7 million Congolese. The commission has not given an explanation of what happened and did not reply to requests for comment.

The way the election was conducted “deprived around 7 million Congolese of their right to vote,” said Ithiel Batumike, senior researcher at the Congolese political research institute Ebuteli, citing the uncounted polling stations and voters discouraged by illegible cards or not on the lists.

BAD ELECTIONS, BIG MONEY

Founded in 1999, Miru Systems’ biggest shareholder is its low-profile CEO Jeong Jin-bok. It reported operating losses until 2013 and recorded revenues of 14.6 billion won, or around $12.6 million, in 2016.

The following two years, however, marked a turning point. Miru Systems won contracts to supply voting machines for elections in Iraq and Congo, and company filings show it brought in $273 million in revenues over the course of 2017 and 2018.

While financially successful, Miru Systems came under fire for its role in both elections.

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In Iraq, the concerns about the company’s equipment led to a partial manual ballot recount.

Following Congo’s 2018 polls, the U.S. Treasury Department placed the election commission’s then-president and two of his deputies under sanctions for “undermine (ing) democratic processes or institutions.”

Treasury accused the official of inflating the cost of Miru Systems’ voting machine contract by as much as $100 million and having the company channel the surplus funds back through a local company he controlled. The official denied the accusations.

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Miru Systems told Reuters that Treasury had not disclosed the basis of the allegation. Miru Systems said “no American organisation was involved” in the 2018 contract and that the company was not mandated to investigate its customers. It blamed the allegations in Iraq on disgruntled competitors.

Last month, Miru Systems won a $320 million contract for voting machines ahead of the Philippines’ 2025 general election. The Philippines electoral commission said Congo had assured it that Miru Systems voting machines did not present irregularities.

CONTRACTS

In June 2023, a few weeks before making a call for bids, the commission estimated the voter registration tender would cost $55 million, slightly less than it paid a different company for the equivalent task ahead of the 2018 elections, according to unpublished accounting reviewed by Reuters.

In the event, Miru Systems’ $93 million bid was the lowest, publicly available procurement documents showed, below the $106 million bid made by the nearest competitor Smartmatic, which has worked in a dozen countries.

However, after the contract was awarded to Miru Systems, an amendment was issued that increased the cost to $105 million, an unpublished document from Congo’s public procurement oversight agency shows.

In addition, Miru Systems was directly awarded a contract worth $20 million to supply photovoltaic energy sources for voter registration. The contract did not enter into a tender process.

Responding to Reuters’ questions, Miru Systems said the costs – including a $133 million no-bid contract to supply and refurbish voting machines – were due to legitimate inflation, including from global chip shortages and air transport required to meet deadlines.

Under Congo’s rules, no-bid contracts are permitted in some cases when only one supplier could meet the requirements.

“We couldn’t go to somebody else, to avoid incompatibility,” Kadima told Reuters.

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By SONIA ROLLEY

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