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The London Diary: Logistic nightmare behind elections

By - Joseph Ngugi | July 28th 2013

By Joseph Ngugi

A general election in any country is a serious business. Printing and delivering voting materials in time and without errors is a logistical nightmare. Ordering for the voting material or making changes at the last minute come with a huge cost and other consequences.

When Kenyans woke up to go and vote on 4th March this year, they didn’t realise the logistical nightmare or the efforts the exercise had suffered the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and a United Kingdom family owned company.

The exercise, whose sophistication and thoroughness would have put a military war operations to shame saw Smith & Ouzman Limited shipping more than 100million ballot papers, weighing close to 600 tonnes delivered within three weeks in six chartered 747 jumbo jets.

The IEBC had paid almost Sh3 billion and an additional Sh373,679,260 to hire the 6 jumbo jets. Although there are legitimate reasons to give such a lucrative contract to a foreign company, the feeling among Kenyans was that such huge kind money should have been given to local firms with the same printing and technological capacity.

Critics argue there wasn’t much goodwill from the IEBC to empower local companies the way the European countries would do. For example, it would have caused a huge political furore if materials to be used in UK general elections were sourced out from Kenya or any other country. That would have been termed as scandalous. Heads would have rolled.

But sourcing of the ballot papers from Europe by IEBC was seen as a way of legitimising the voting process. The fear that individuals would be tempted to sabotage the process was live and the corrupt nature of most business establishments could not have been trusted to keep each and every printed ballot paper securely under key and lock till the voting time. I am sure some voting material would surely have found themselves in the hands of people like Kethi Kilonzo.

Smith & Ouzman, which has worked with the electoral management bodies in Kenya supplying General Election ballot papers since 1997 says that this year’s General Election was unprecedented in its complexity and scale. The 2013 Kenya General Election was the first under the country’s new Constitution, which was passed into law in 2010. As well as the presidential election, votes were also to cast for county governors, the senate, national assembly, special seats for female MPs to the national assembly, and also county assembly seats.

Apart from the huge task of ensuring that all the ballot papers were friendlier and easy to use by all voters, Braille tactile folders were produced to assist visually impaired voters. But this family run business, which was started by two friends in 1946, has not only Kenya but most other countries in Africa as its’ main business partner. This started in 1991 when the company received an order to supply ballot papers for the Zambian presidential election.  This was the first ever multiparty election in Africa and was a deviation from the single party dictatorship that had ruined competitive politics in the entire continent.

Because of the political interests from the international community in the Zambian elections, Smith & Ouzman were under pressure to offer the best services under intense internal media glare.  And the company, which was keen to exploit the free publicity from the international media did not disappoint.  This worked very well for future business deals and the successive launch of their Africa business plan led to a string of similar other orders, including the election for Uganda’s constituent assembly in 1993, the ?rst Post-independence elections held in Namibia in 1994, the second multi-party elections in Kenya in 1997, the Nigerian presidential election in 2003 and the parliamentary and presidential elections held in Malawi in 2000 and 2004.

While the Kenyan elections in 1997 required 35 million ballot papers, 67 million ballot papers, weighing 350 tonnes were sent to Nigeria using six charter ?ights. The 2007 General Election in Kenya required 43 million ballot papers. Through its director, Nick Smith, who began frequently travelling to the African continent in the late 1990s, the company made further inroads into other markets, such as Botswana,

Swaziland and Zimbabwe. But although most of the company’s export business is concentrated in Africa, Smith & Ouzman’s examination certi?cates are found in the Caribbean, its cheques in Pakistan, Nepal, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and its ballot papers were used for elections in Afghanistan during 2005, the single largest order ever won by the company.

The work for the Kenya’s 2007 elections was broken down into three categories with 14.3 million ballot papers going to the civic representatives, 14.3 million for parliamentary and 14.3 million for the presidential candidates.

The company now has a new half-million pound printing press, which can print more than a million sheets a day. An extra 100,000 items of mail can be enclosed and posted each day following the purchase of a further mailing line. This was in response to increased demand for time sensitive transaction mail from financial institutions and local government across the UK as well as around the world.

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