THE ongoing police investigations of serious fraud at the Zimbabwe Election Commission (Zec) involving abuse of equipment, election budget materials and missing fuel coupons have opened a Pandora’s Box at the battered integrity of the electoral body tasked with the crucial role of running the country’s polls.
In terms of the constitution, Zec is mandated to run presidential, parliamentary and local government elections.
It replaced the Electoral Supervisory Commission which was abolished in 2005 by the 17th Amendment to the Lancaster House constitution, later replaced by a new constitution following last year’s referendum in March.
The investigations bring into sharp focus persistent allegations Zec is unable to manage and preside over credible, free and fair elections in the country.
Zec has always been in the spotlight amid reports its secretariat is composed largely of people who once worked in the military, police or Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and remain strongly attached to the ruling Zanu PF.
Two internal audit reports, one carried out soon after the 2013 referendum and another after the July 31 elections, revealed serious abuse of funds by senior officials in the election-managing body.
In a story broken by this paper, highly-placed sources in Zec said the body inflated the 2013 election budget to give room for looting.
“The budget was inflated as the Zec executive made sure surplus funds are availed so they could loot,” the source said. “The executive also fraudulently procured a lot of superfluous materials such as iPads, cellphones, safety shoes, shirts, sun hats and food hampers for personal benefit.”
During the build-up to the referendum and elections, government had to revise downwards the budget submitted by Zec for the two plebiscites. Zec had budgeted US$220 million for the two events, but the amount was brought down to US$192 million.
Internal audits revealed violation of tender procedures in the procurement of tents.
“A tender on 85-litre plastic bins was awarded to Nasford Investments (Pvt) Ltd and Kotrum Enterprises yet the prices were far above the average market price,” reads part of the audit report.
“The quoted prices were US$27 and US$49 per unit as compared to an average market price of US$20. The commission may have been prejudiced of US$18 495.”
This has opened a can of worms at a time Zec’s conduct in running last year’s general elections has been slammed following, among others, a chaotic voter registration exercise, a shambolic special vote and failure to produce a voters’ roll. In its election report, Sadc, among other concerns, queried the excess number of ballot paper the commission printed.
Political analyst Godwin Phiri said current events at Zec discredited the credibility or integrity of the electoral body.
“This mirrors all other government commissions,” Phiri said, adding: “It is clear the elections have always been managed by people who are not suitable. If they can steal money, inflate prices and abuse the commission’s equipment, what will stop them from stealing a vote?”
The allegations raised in the audit reports give credence to calls by civil society for the re-organisation of the Zec secretariat to make it a truly professional body.
During the run-up to the July 31 elections last year, Zec’s capacity and preparedness were questioned after the election monitoring body ran a chaotic special voting process in which the majority of uniformed forces who were supposed to vote prior to election failed to do so.
A local public policy think-tank, the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI), in 2013 invigorated calls for the then coalition government to take measures to demilitarise the Zec secretariat and its national operations in a bid to restore its full independence so it could run free, fair and credible polls.
ZDI indicated that the unreformed Zec secretariat could not deliver free and fair elections. The think-tank also claimed Zec provides an opportunity for powerful political forces to manipulate popular influence through institutionalised mechanisms and political strategies.
“We call upon Sadc to urge the inclusive government of Zimbabwe (2009-2013) to, as part of the elections roadmap, ensure fresh recruitment of Zec employees and ensure that they have no connections to the security sector,” read part of its report.
“This includes recalling all military and security agents retired and serving in Zec and starting an open and transparent recruitment process.”
According to ZDI, a credible and impartial Zec is a critical factor in attempts to deliver a democratic electoral process, outcome and consequently a smooth transfer of power in Zimbabwe.
Another analyst, Rashweat Mukundu, concurred with the ZDI report, saying the election managing body has never had a proficient secretariat.
“Zec has never had a professional secretariat as its appointments have always been secretive and chances are that the politically connected are appointed to do certain work for their masters,” said Mukundu.
“No one should be surprised by these investigations of fraud because that is what secretive and unaccountable institutions do. And with such a secretariat, can we be confident on how they conduct elections?”
Another analyst, Mukasiri Sibanda, from the Zimbabwe Environment Lawyers Association (Zela) said fraud investigations confirm the fears people have always had concerning Zec.
“A series of events taking place at Zec confirm our fears which we have always harboured,” Sibanda said.
“Everything now points at the alleged partiality and conduct of Zec during elections.”
He added: “The surplus of irregularities that overwhelmed the electoral process shows the secretariat wanted to defend the status quo and in the process protect their interests, namely, looting public resources.”
Sibanda said government can take advantage of these investigations to clean up the mess at Zec and appoint a competent secretariat which has integrity and is professional.