Story by Gregory Gondwe

A company in the Dubai-based Al Ghurair group is again in the eye of a storm after landing a US$4.6-million (R66-million) contract to print ballot papers for Malawi’s upcoming elections that has drawn heavy flak from both opposition parties and a prominent rival bidder. Al Ghurair Printing and Publishing’s contract price was the highest of 13 contenders. A South African company that performed the same contract in 2014 came in at US$2-million (R28-million) cheaper.

All Ghurair has previously been at the centre of controversies in Zambia, Kenya and Uganda over contracts to print election materials. These have revolved around complaints about excessive prices and the company’s allegedly close ties with ruling parties. In a telephone interview from Dubai, its commercial and business development manager, Rajeev Kumar Tyagi, challenged AmaBhungane to carry out proper research on his company. “We have never been controversial,” said Tyagi, who declined to answer further questions. He promised to reply to them via email, but had not done so at the time of publication. At issue is a major contract to print about 24-million ballot papers for Malawi’s presidential, parliamentary and local elections, to be held simultaneously on May 21.

Inspection of the bid prices shows that Johannesburg-based Ren-Form CC bid of US$2.68-million against Al Ghurair’s winning bid, at US$4.6-million, was 72% higher and the costliest of all 13 bidding companies. Ren-Form said it has printed materials for close to 80 elections in 22 African countries, and successfully produced ballot papers for the last Malawian tripartite poll, in 2014. The Johannesburg-based company’s sales manager, Jean-Pierre du Sart, described the Malawian tender outcome as “suspicious”, saying Ren-Form had written to the electoral commission expressing its “disappointment in the adjudication process”. In the letter, which AmaBhungane has seen, Du Sart complains that Ren-Form received no official notification of the tender award or explanation of why the company’s bid had failed, and only learned of the outcome through the media.

“Our bid submission complied fully with all technical and delivery requirements. At the tender opening, our pricing was the lowest and in accordance with the specifications,” he said. “The bid was awarded to a company that was $2-million more expensive than us. And it is not from the SADC, meaning that the electoral commission will have to pay more in duties and taxes.” The Malawian Elections Commission had visited the company’s factory to carry out due diligence, he added.

Rajeev Kumar Tyagi of Al Ghurair group

The commission’s chief elections officer, Sam Alfandika, strongly denied any impropriety, and insisted that bid prices are not the main deciding factor in awarding tenders. This echoed a comment by Grace Thipa, the public relations officer of the Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets Authority (PPDA),which oversees government procurement in Malawi. Thipa argued that price is “the last factor to be considered in the bid evaluation process. Bids were first assessed to see if they met tender specifications and legal requirements.” Alfandika said the commission followed a “very clean” tender process in which Al Ghurair had emerged as the best of 16 bidders. “It has a good record as one of the best security printing companies in the world. “The PPDA duly approved the procurement process and the company to print the ballot papers,” he said.

He failed to respond to the complaint that the electoral commission failed to inform or offer an explanation to the losing bidders. Bidders for the Malawi contract were asked to provide prices for ballot papers of A3 and A4 size, as well as an average price for both. The key bids were for A3 papers, which the electoral commission opted for. In this category, all the other contenders were cheaper than Al Ghurair. In addition to Ren-Form, they were Sintech Security (US$576 000), Shave & Gibson (US$1.9-million), Tall Security (US$2.7-million), Aero Vote (US$2.8-million), Uniprint (US$2.9-million), Lithotech (US$3.8-million) and Oriental Security Printing Solutions (US$4.5-million). In 2016 Lusaka Times reported that opposition parties in Zambia had publicly attacked the Electoral Commission of Zambia for choosing Al Ghurair without conducting proper due diligence on the company. The parties were quoted as alleging that the company worked closely with the government of President Edgar Lungu and that before the polls, Lungu travelled to Saudi Arabia where he met Al Ghurair officials. His response was not recorded.

The award was also challenged by Ren-Form CC, which had printed ballot papers for Zambian elections in three previous elections. Thirteen companies vied for the printing contract, with Ren-Form bidding $1.7-million (R24.6-million) and Al Ghurair coming in at $3.6-million (R52.1-million). The Zambia Procurement Authority overturned the tender, but when it was re-advertised Al Ghurair won it again, with the electoral commission saying that the company met its specifications for security features on the ballots. To allay suspicions, the commission offered to sponsor an agent from each candidate in the presidential elections to witness the printing of ballots in Dubai. Al Ghurair’s general manager, Lakshamanan Ganapathy, told Zambian journalists that none of the 12 countries whose ballot papers had been printed by Al Ghurair in the past ten years had ever raised dissatisfaction about the professionalism of the company or the quality of its ballot papers. In 2017, there was an outcry from opposition parties after Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) awarded a ballot printing contract to Al Ghurair. The parties alleged that representatives of the Dubai-based company had met President Uhuru Kenyatta, while The Star newspaper reported that during his visit to Dubai in February 2016, Kenyatta was introduced to the Al Ghurair family, owners of the Al Ghurair Group. In a statement to the Sunday Standard, Al Ghurair said it had no links with any Kenyan political party.

The Court of Appeal of Kenya subsequently ordered that the Dubai-based company should be allowed to fulfil the contract, as it was unable to find evidence of electoral malpractice and the High Court had failed to take into account the short time remaining before the vote. Rejecting complaints of “exceedingly high” printing costs, the IEBC chief, Ezra Chiloba, said the commission’s duty “is to ensure competitive prices within the market as required by law, which I have no doubt … we have achieved”. In Uganda, Al Ghurair and two other companies providing electoral printing services were accused of helping President Yoweri Museveni win the February 2016 election. The Supreme Court of Uganda upheld the election outcome, although the nine judges said they had found evidence of electoral malpractice, including the late delivery of polling materials. In Malawi, the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and its election alliance partners, the People’s Party and Freedom Parties, are challenging Al Ghurair’s credentials, claiming that the tender process was insufficiently transparent and noting that there had been concerns over its credibility in Kenya and Zambia. MCP spokesperson Reverend Maurice Munthali told Nyasa Times that the party and its alliance partners would object to the tender award. Local media reported the opposition as alleging that the top brass of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was responsible for the award of the contract to Al Ghurair, and that DPP leaders celebrated after the electoral commission announced its decision.
UDF spokesperson Ken Ndanga objected that his party had received any information about the procurement, other than the announcement of the tender and contract adjudication. “We were never part of the team involved in the due diligence process,” said Ndanga. DPP spokesperson Nicholas Dausi declined to comment, suggesting that amaBhungane should speak to the commission.

Sam Alfandika Malawi Electoral Comission(MEC) Chief Elections Officer

The commission told all political parties and candidates in Malawi that if they wished to monitor printing in Dubai, they would have to do so at their own expense and get accreditation from the Chief Elections Officer for access to the printing premises. On the controversies surrounding the company elsewhere in Africa, Alfandika said he had checked with the relevant electoral bodies. “They all said those were mere allegations and that the company is credible,” he said. “Zambia has even printed ballot papers from the same company twice this year for by-elections.”

The PPDA’s Thipa argued that procurement decisions could not be based on allegations. “It was the duty of [the electoral commission] to check with electoral bodies in the countries you mention to verify the allegations and inform us accordingly,” she said. She said Al Ghurair’s documentation showed that it had successfully completed many contracts, including those for elections in Ghana, Afghanistan, Libya, Kenya, Zambia, Haiti and the Central African Republic. “This firm also successfully printed and supplied coupons for [Malawi’s] 2018 Fertiliser Input Subsidy Programme,” she said. Thipa also dismissed objections that the process was secretive, insisting that the most transparent of all procurement methods, the Open Tendering (International Competitive Bidding) procedure, was used. “Further, the Intention to Award Notice was published before the contract was awarded, making the process open, transparent and fair,” she said. Asked whether the PPDA recommended Ren-Form for the job, Thipa said PPDA does not recommend suppliers. “Procurement decisions are made by entities carrying out the procurement, in this case the electoral commission.” She added: “Once a decision has been made by the procuring entity, PPDA is mandated to review the decision to ensure that the contract is awarded to the rightful bidder based on the legal framework,” she said.

The authority could then issue or withhold a “no objection” ruling and guide the procuring entity accordingly. Thipa said procurement law mandates the assessment of bidders in three stages – preliminary, technical and financial. Al Ghurair had emerged as the successful bidder from this process. She was adamant that price is not the first factor to be considered when evaluating bidders, stressing that bidders must first meet administrative and technical factors before their price offers are compared. She did not specify which administrative, legal or technical factors put Al Ghurair ahead of its rivals. Section 30 of Malawi’s Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Act stipulates that all public procurements should be conducted in a manner that promotes economy or value for money.

In 2016 a British company, Smith and Ouzman, was convicted in a London court of making corrupt payments totalling £395 000 (R7.5-million) in connection with contracts for the printing of ballot papers in Kenya and Mauritania and ordered to pay a fine of £2.2-million (R41.8-million). Smith and Ouzman put in bids for the printing of ballot papers for this year’s elections in Malawi, as well as in 2009.

Grace Thipa, the public relations officer of the Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets Authority (PPDA)