SHADOWY Israeli security company, Nikuv International Projects Ltd, widely accused of manipulating the disputed July 31 2013 general elections for the ruling Zanu PF to win, is consolidating its already entrenched position in government.
The Zimbabwe Independent this week discovered that Nikuv has now officially moved into its new premises at the army headquarters at KGVI Barracks production centre in Harare, further embedding itself in the system.
Nikuv, which deals with population registration, births and deaths, marriage and divorce issues, ID cards, passports, immigration and citizenship, agriculture, security matters and elections, landed a new contract after the July 31 polls.
Sources close to the development this week told this paper that Nikuv has now taken over the complete production of passports at the KGVI production centre, a new building which will soon be commissioned by President Robert Mugabe in a move that suggests the company is now deeply rooted in government structures and bureaucracy.
“The Israeli company is now officially operating from the new offices where it is now printing the whole passport instead of only installing security features as it used to do in the past,” said a highly-placed government official.
“This week 29 employees from the Registrar-General’s office at Makombe Building (in Harare) were moved to join the Nikuv staffers at KGVI production centre, even though they still remain on government payroll,” the source said.
“It is not clear whether Nikuv is now part of government structures or not, but the movement of staff shows it is becoming increasingly entrenched in the system.”
The relocation of workers from the RG’s office along Herbert Chitepo to work at the KGVI production centre for a private company suggests Nikuv is now operating virtually as part and parcel of the Home Affairs ministry.
“Right now only six employees in that area are left at Makombe Building where they are rounding up passport applications,” the source said, adding “Nikuv agents are rotating duties because every day there are four to five Israelis manning the new production centre who are being paid by government.”
The Independent — the first newspaper in Zimbabwe to write about the presence of Nikuv in the country and in the RG’s office particularly more than a decade ago — has been closely following the company’s activities given its role in electoral matters.
Nikuv received controversial payments amounting to at least US$10 million from Registrar-General (RG) Tobaiwa Mudede’s office in a blitz of mysterious deposits between February and the day before the July 31 elections last year. Sources in the RG’s Office told the Independent Nikuv has been rewarded for its role in the disputed elections through a fresh contract for the production of passports.
The new contract enables Nikuv to print passports, something which in the past was done by the government-owned Fidelity printers. In an interview yesterday, Nikuv’s Zimbabwe representative Ron Asher refused to comment on the new developments. “Look I am only a consultant and I do not talk to the press on issues to do with my clients,” he said.
Asher has consistently refused to shed light on Nikuv activities in Zimbabwe.
This is not the first time Nikuv is working on Zimbabwe’s identity documents.
It produced the current e-passports, also known as biometric passports, which contain an electronic chip encoded with surname, given name, date and place of birth and gender information. It also includes a digital picture of the bearer’s face.
Nikuv’s website actually shows a sample of the new Zimbabwean passport as well as an illustration of the plastic IDs which replace metal ones. Pictures of controversial voter registration cards once printed for use in Zambia and Zimbabwe are also on display on the website, while Mugabe and Mudede — with an unidentified white man supposed to be a Nikuv official — are seen commissioning a new Makombe Building section in 1999.
“In the past, their (Nikuv) role was just to input data and digitalise the passport with Fidelity Printers doing the printing. But now Nikuv will expand its role to include the control of the entire e-passport production process.
“The new contract will allow Nikuv to produce a new digitalised document that will eliminate counterfeit passports and also allow the country to match international e-passport standards. Its role will now entail designing procedures, supplying special chemical products and passport issuance workflow. This will also include the provision of the passport issuing equipment and passport booklets, including their security features,” one official said.
During the elections, Nikuv officials found themselves crammed in a room dubbed the “Situation Room” along with some security service chiefs from the Joint Operations Command — which comprises heads of the police, army, prisons and intelligence services — to map out election scenarios and possible outcomes.
“Nikuv has installed high-tech digitalised fingerprint equipment which will replace the traditional ink fingerprint-captured data,” another source said.
The company initially had a small office at Makombe Building. It also operated from Avondale and Borrowdale.
In the build-up to the July 31 elections and after, the Independent carried several articles based on information which showed that Nikuv, accused of rigging elections in Zambia in the 1990s, was deeply involved in the polls.
After the elections, Nikuv hastily shut its Avondale offices after further disclosures of their involvement in the controversial elections and shifted to Ballantyne Park in Harare where Eli Antebi, younger brother of Emmanuel Antebi, Nikuv CEO, resides.
Nikuv, which was in 1996 taken to court in Zambia over vote-rigging, says in its official profile it deals with voter registration, creating and printing of the voters’ roll, demarcation of constituencies, voter registration cards, nomination of candidates and election results.
The latest development also confirms Mudede’s claims that his office has intensified the issuance of passports with an average of 2 241 passports issued daily. Mudede could not be reached for comment yesterday.