New Technology Meets Familiar Problems in Mozambique’s Election

(Bloomberg) -- In October, Shafee Sidat was on a victory lap around Marracuene, a poor district on the outskirts of Mozambique’s capital city, Maputo. It had been one week since election day, and as early municipal results came in, the business tycoon and mayoral candidate proclaimed himself winner. Sidat, sporting a red and white football shirt, the colors of ruling party Frelimo, raised his fist in salute to the crowd of supporters marching alongside him. Local WhatsApp groups in the area buzzed with his celebratory message: “Marracuene is the place to be, and with Frelimo, there is no doubt.”

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But there was. Within days, citizens and election observers were making accusations of electoral fraud across the country. Videos circulated purporting to show ballot stuffing. By the time local newspaper A Verdade called one municipality for opposition party Renamo, based on results seen by their reporter, those results had already been changed to put Frelimo on top. Several prominent news outlets ran stories based on initial and parallel counts, declaring preliminary victories for Renamo that were later reversed. The country’s constitutional council, the highest body on constitutional and electoral law, ordered re-runs in a handful of areas. When protests broke out across the country, they were met with tear gas and, in some places, live ammunition.This is the second in a three-part series about the failed promise of biometric voting systems in Africa. Read the first installment here: Uganda’s Sweeping Surveillance State Is Built on National ID Cards

The local elections had been billed as a litmus test for Mozambique’s new voting technology and a preview for the October 2024 presidential election. In the months leading up to the vote, the government spent millions of dollars on scanners, solar panels, printers for PVC cards, voting software and power banks. People lined up across the country to have their photographs, fingerprints and signatures taken, receiving voter cards in exchange. This mass registration had been pitched as a way to increase electoral transparency. Instead, it came to illustrate how biometric technologies could create new avenues for fixing elections.

Mozambique is one of the ten poorest countries in the world. The former Portuguese colony held its first democratic vote in 1994 following a 15-year civil war, which claimed over a million lives and ended with a peace deal between the Soviet-backed Frelimo and the South Africa-supported Renamo. Three decades on, the young nation is grappling with mounting debt, a jihadist insurgency in the gas-rich north and the ongoing fallout of a government corruption scandal.

The country has held six national elections in the past three decades, and human rights groups have raised concerns over increasing violence by security forces during elections and Frelimo’s growing consolidation of power. According to Zenaida Machado, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, “for decades, the state has found it difficult to distance itself from the ruling party.” Electoral protocols strengthen these ties. While citizens still cast paper ballots manually, the voter registration process has been entirely biometric since 2008, and under the law, the electoral roll must be recreated from scratch before every election.

This means that “every five years, the technically bankrupt Mozambican state, with a huge public debt, spends millions and millions acquiring new equipment for a voter registry,” explained Domingos Rosário, a professor of political science at Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane University who has spent the past decade studying election contracts. And, he added, “it only serves to be thrown away a few years later.”

For the last two elections, government officials associated with Frelimo chose Artes Gráficas, a company owned by Shafee Sidat’s brothers Feizal and Rafik, to oversee the purchase and operation of voter registration systems. Shafee, who is co-owner of a company called Académica Limitada, was also awarded a no-bid contract in 2023 to provide voting materials including ballots. The three brothers, wealthy businessmen with ties to Frelimo, have been granted at least ten government tenders over the years. The contracts to provide electoral equipment have been among the most lucrative.

In 2022, Artes Gráficas, in consortium with the South Africa-founded biometric technology vendor Laxton, won a 8.1 billion meticais ($127 million) no-bid contract to supply and operate a new national voter registration system for the 2023 municipal and 2024 presidential elections.

Laxton would provide the mobile ID kits — units that consist of specialized laptops for biometric data, scanners and printers — and hire a small group of technicians to support the registration process. Artes-Gráficas would act as an intermediary between the company and ruling party officials.

That equipment was used to register voters before last October’s municipal election, and according to people involved in the process, it was critical to Frelimo efforts to suppress and manipulate the vote. In a joint investigation drawing on seven people closely involved in the electoral process, as well as confidential meeting minutes, internal government documents and WhatsApp chats seen by reporters, Bloomberg and investigative newsroom Lighthouse Reports also found that Laxton and Artes Gráficas were awarded the 2022 contract despite concerns over Laxton’s equipment and the technology’s value for money. It also found that, in the run-up to the election, Laxton staff turned a blind eye to the manipulation of their equipment.

A Laxton spokesperson said that its system had been reviewed and approved by numerous stakeholders, “including government agencies, multiple political party representatives, civil society, and technical experts.” The company said it had carried out “the successful registration of a record 16.8 million voters” and that “alleged isolated incidents do not reflect the overall success and reliability of the system.”

Representatives from the government, including Frelimo, the president’s office, and the two bodies in charge of election registration and management did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

With the next presidential election only four months away, Laxton’s technology has already played a key role in whether millions of Mozambicans will be eligible to vote.

“In Mozambique elections are not free and fair,” said a senior international diplomat who did not want to be identified out of concern for his safety and the sensitive nature of the subject. Biometric technology, this person said, “is mostly a way for Mozambican companies to make money.”

On a Friday evening in October, Lazaro Mabunda was struggling to find a seat in a noisy bar in Matola, a working-class opposition stronghold in Maputo. A coordinator at the anti-corruption non-profit Center for Public Integrity, Mabunda had spent part of the year travelling across Mozambique training local observers and overseeing voter registrations. When polls finally closed, his colleagues spent 48 hours counting ballots by flashlight amid power outages.

At the bar that night, neighborhood regulars dropped in for drinks and music blasted in the background. But even as Matola geared up to celebrate a Renamo win, Mabunda expected a different outcome when the results were announced the next day.

His prediction was borne out — Frelimo was declared the victor by an overwhelming majority.

While the news came as a disappointment in Matola, it was not a surprise. Had the party lost, it would have ended Frelimo’s unbroken record of winning every election in Matola for the past three decades. According to a confidential European Union memo from 2012 shared with Bloomberg and Lighthouse, the party consolidated its control in the 1990s, when it established informal networks to pair companies friendly to Frelimo with business opportunities involving government contracts. These networks have allowed Frelimo to influence the economy and increasingly, elections.

“The tendering process for the purchase of biometric registration equipment always revolves around the same people and the same Mozambican companies,” said Rosário, the political scientist.

Artes Gráficas and Laxton secured their first government contract for a biometric voter registration system in 2018. It was for $24 million, three times as much as the total cost of the previous election. That vote saw Frelimo win 44 out of 53 municipalities. In a final report, an EU observer mission to Mozambique flagged serious issues with the registration process, including instances of voter inflation in places sympathetic to Frelimo and complications registering voters in opposition areas.

Three years later, Laxton made a presentation to the Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration (STAE), the national body in charge of voting logistics, offering new voter registration technology for the 2023 municipal and 2024 presidential elections. Internally, STAE staffers expressed concerns about the cost and technical feasibility of the proposal. According to one high-level former staffer, part of Laxton’s appeal as a vendor was that, because they had been previously contracted, it should have been possible to reuse mobile ID kits from the last election as a cost-saving measure. Instead, Laxton offered completely new equipment, at what this person called “a scary price.” STAE staffers also described the new equipment as “fragile,” “slow,” and cumbersome to transport to rural areas, according to an internal government document seen by Lighthouse and Bloomberg.

One reason for the high cost was the introduction of new PVC voting cards, which would replace simpler, laminated ones that had been issued in 2018. Confidential minutes from a November 2021 meeting between electoral officials and the company show government employees questioning the benefits of the new cards. One former member of the National Election Commission later described the PVC cards as “nothing more than a prop to bump the price up.”

An Artes Graficas spokesperson described the introduction of the PVC card as key to the registration effort, which it described as “remarkable” in light of the armed conflicts in Mozambique and various logistical obstacles.

A Laxton representative said that the PVC cards could theoretically be used to access other services, and would offer future savings should the government ditch the law requiring voters to be re-registered before every election.

Despite concerns over cost, as the 2023 election approached, the government declined to hold an open tender, instead announcing an “exceptional” direct award to Laxton and Artes Gráficas for $127 million. In April 2023, STAE technicians began registering voters across Mozambique and Laxton employees were deployed in the country’s provincial capitals to provide technical support for the mobile ID equipment.

On the Friday after the municipal election, Mabunda, the election observer, sat in a corner of the bar with a beer and a traditional tripe stew, dobrada, constantly checking his phone for messages. He spoke calmly, his low voice faint over the loud music. During his time in the field, Mabunda said that he had received multiple reports from colleagues about STAE engineers manipulating mobile voter registration kits on Frelimo’s behalf. When the units broke down, Mabunda said, STAE employees would show up and simply pretend to fix them: “They would just get there and move things around.” While he said that Laxton technicians were aware of equipment manipulation, Mabunda believes it was not in their interest to speak out.

A Laxton representative said it was “improbable” that its equipment had been deliberately or systematically disconnected. Even so, Mabunda’s account corroborates findings from the Mozambican election observer consortium Mais Integridade. In a report assessing the 2023 voter registration process, it noted recurring equipment malfunctions — including disconnected mobile ID units, printer breakdowns and interruptions due to electricity outages — during voter registrations. In site visits across the country, the authors wrote, they found over 800 incidents of “posts with disabled equipment or lack of material, with over half of these cases being due to malfunctions with the voter cards printer.”

WhatsApp messages seen by Lighthouse and Bloomberg between field technicians and a government official responsible for regional election coordination show that such occurences were not always accidental.

In one exchange, a municipal STAE director instructed local election technicians to enroll voters selectively: “Our daily objective is not to reach the goal of registering 135 people per day, our main objective is registering our [Frelimo] voters, you can register only 40 a day, as long as they are our people.”

The STAE did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding this exchange, or about broader reports of registration manipulation.

Technology-enabled electoral meddling was a problem in Mozambique before 2023. One morning a few weeks into the 2018 voter registration drive, a Laxton technician heard a knock at the door. The man, who did not want to be identified out of concern for his safety, found himself speaking to the police, who were summoning him to a meeting with the local director of the National Election Commission and Frelimo and Renamo representatives.

The technician had been hired several months earlier to troubleshoot voter registrations. His role consisted of monitoring the process from a company laptop and working with state employees to solve problems. It was straightforward, and did not typically involve high-level political meetings.

Upon arriving, he discovered that he was there to referee what was described to him as an argument over the battery life of Laxton equipment. Mobile ID kits in rural Mozambique would periodically stop working, and while Frelimo election officials attributed this to electricity shortages and technical problems, Renamo was accusing Frelimo of switching off equipment.

The technician had reason to believe the failures were intentional. He and other Laxton employees had witnessed election officials deliberately allocating equipment to areas without electricity, a strategy he described to this investigation as “political manipulation.”

The meeting ended with a decision to invest in solar panels to charge the mobile IDs, which the technician said seemed to appease all parties. But when the panels arrived, they turned out not to be compatible with the biometric equipment.

Across the country, election observers and activists were tracking unusual patterns in voter registration. João Sande e Castro, an EU observer who began working in Mozambique nearly two decades earlier, said opposition areas registered suspiciously low numbers of voters that year, whereas voter turnout in Frelimo strongholds was not only high, but significantly higher than the numbers of people who officially lived there.

People involved in the election said that Laxton was aware of these issues at the time. Three company technicians said they briefed their Laxton managers in Maputo on a regular basis via email and WhatsApp about how voter registration was going, and had reported instances of mobile ID kits being deliberately switched off. Two high-level government sources said that Laxton and Artes Gráficas representatives were present in multiple meetings with electoral officials where concerns were raised over malfunctioning and misused equipment.

Laxton denied that its technicians had regularly briefed managers about voter registration problems. “While isolated instances are possible, Laxton management is unaware of a systematic attempt to deliberately switch off machines and obstruct registrations,” the spokesperson said. The company added that it was not contracted to oversee the use of mobile ID equipment in the voter registration process and that it was impractical for its 26-person in-country team to oversee more than 25,000 government-appointed technicians.

On their website, they hailed their 2018 election work as a success. “The country saw its highest voter turnout and the most trustworthy elections to date.” On October 27, 2019, Frelimo’s Filipe Nyusi was re-elected president with 73% of the vote. The EU observer mission responded with an excoriating report highlighting the irregularities around voter registration. In a follow-up publication, the EU noted that Mozambique had “dropped positions in many governance and transparency indicators,” and cited a “lack of confidence in the independence of the election administration.”

With the new election cycle ramping up, both STAE and the National Election Commission have remained largely silent in the face of such complaints, although they have responded to some technical concerns. In May 2023, a STAE spokesperson acknowledged that the equipment had trouble capturing photographs of the elderly and people with albinism, and last month, the Commission pledged to address problems with printers not working.

After weeks of deliberation by the Constitutional Council over last year’s disputed municipal elections, Shafee Sidat took office in Marracuene in February. Voter registration for this year’s presidential elections finished in April. This fall, Daniel Chapo will run for president as Frelimo’s candidate. On October 9, millions of voters will head to the polls, flash their new PVC cards and have their names checked off voting lists. Inside the booths, they’ll manually fill out papers ballots and drop them in a box, dipping their fingers in indelible ink as they leave.

After that, the voting cards will be discarded. But before long, a new tender will be issued, and one of the world’s poorest countries will start its expensive and laborious process of biometrically registering voters all over again.

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