Biometric Bid Winner Meets All Requirements -NEC Says Bidding Process Transparent, Credible

MONROVIA – Towards the much-talk-about crucial general and presidential elections in Liberia, the stakes are expectedly too high as the fears and counter-suspicions amongst politicians and their supporters regarding the probity and integrity of the electoral process. Even the procedure to produce biometric voter cards, which is the first ever in the country, and those who were qualified to produce them, are under the most cynical scrutiny. And this has generated so much apprehensions and debate amongst citizens to the extent that it prompted public statement from the country’s international partners. But as The Analyst reports, the Electoral Management Body has certified that the winner of the bid to produce the biometric system has undergone every test of logical, professional and credibility standard.   

The National Elections Commission (NEC) has assured the general public that it followed all the due processes required in the selection of the preferred bidder of the biometric contract contrary the cynical views that that was not the case.

The NEC indicated it had written the Public Procurement and Contract Commission (PPCC) requesting for a “No Objection” towards its decision and said the preferred bidder, which is a joint venture of Ekemp International Limited, INITS Limited and Palm Insurance Inc., met all the requirements set up by the internal bid evaluation committee of NEC.

The assertion of the electoral body was contained in a response to the PPCC’s communication of September 9, 2022, a copy of which is in possession of The Analyst, in which PPCC made three requests to object to the process.

Among other things, the PPCC indicated that all the bidders who took part in the process should be recalled to do another physical presentation of their respective enrollment and de-duplication process, that the presentation must be video-recorded and that NEC must re-evaluate the bidders’ proposals.

NEC noted that PPCC curiously did comment on one of the selected bidder partner’s expertise and capacity to pre-finance but did not comment on any other bidder’s expertise and /or capacity to finance.

Giving details how the joint venture that won the award on the basis of “being the most responsive bidder” emerged in the competitive bidding process, NEC in its letter addressed to the Chairperson of the PPCC, Atty Jargbe Roseline Nagbe Kowo said it received 6 bids from interested parties and named them as Laxton Group limited, the joint venture of Waymark Infotech and Mwenata, Electoral Services International, The joint venture of Ekemp International Limited, INITS Limited, and Palm Insurance Inc, the joint venture of Professional Services Inc. and HID Global and Network Solution Liberia Limited.

NEC said the submitted bids were opened on July 29, 2022, in the presence of the bidders’ representatives and other observers where information from bidders’ submissions, concerning financial responsiveness, and the capacity to pre-finance, was read out loud and documented on the Bid Opening Checklist.

The NEC communication added: “After the public opening on July 29, 2022, a bid evaluation panel comprising five (5) of NEC staff was constituted. The Panel worked for about three (3) weeks and on August 26, 2022, submitted its Report to the NEC Procurement Committee. The Report, signed by all five of the Panel’s members, recommended the joint venture of Ekemp, INITS, and Palm as the most responsive bidder. As the PPCC is aware, the term ‘Most Responsive bidder’, on the basis of which the contract shall be awarded to the corresponding bidder, means the bidder with the best value for money considering technical specification, delivery, etc., which are the benchmarks for the award of contract.

“With this in mind, the Procurement Committee reviewed the Panel’s Report, which includes the cards printed on the spot by three bidders during their presentations before the Panel; reviewed the submission of each bidder; and found that the Panel ‘s Report had factual support and met the legal requirements, the Procurement Committee endorsed the Panel’s report and on August 30, 2022, submitted same to the PPCC, requesting a ‘No Objection’ to award the contract to the Joint Venture of Ekemp, NITS, and Palm.”

The PPCC upon receipt of the document, and having reviewed the papers, wrote a reply on September 2, 2022, signed by Atty Jargbe Roseline Nagbe Kowo, Chairperson of the agency, to take exception to the ‘No objection’ request  bordering on the financial position of one of the parties in the joint venture, Palm Insurance which reflected total equity and liabilities of US$2,899,027 as at December 31, 2021 as well as  the lack of video recordings of the process and that the joint venture agreement signed among the three parties was not notarized.

In similar manner, NEC Chairperson Madam Brown Lassanah on September 13, 2022 on behalf of NEC again wrote back to PPCC stating that the further information requested may have been prompted probably because the integrity institution did not read the agreement in its entirety, and therefore endeavored to provide more light beginning with the financial capacity of the preferred bidders.

The letter further said: “Considering that some vendors, irrespective of the information contained in their financial statements, requested advance payment during the signing of the contract and do not prefinance as a matter of policy, the NEC wishes to inform PPCC that it views the joint pre-finance responsibilities of Ekemp International Limited/INITS Limited/Palm Insurance Inc. in its totality (including their commitment found on Page 2, Count 3 of the cover letter of its submission) as follows:

“Count 3, we confirm that we are capable and able to Pre-finance the supply and delivery of biometric equipment, software & materials for the voter registration for the 2023 general elections.

“With this, the NEC found that the Joint Venture can pre finance at its level of responsibilities. The three parties in the joint venture are direct service providers and/or original equipment manufacturers, which enables the partners to immediately begin the processes and deliver to the Commission within the timelines required. Moreover, the terms of the contract, as PPCC is aware, will supersede and each member of the joint venture is held individually and severally responsible/liable.”

On the use of video recording during the bidding as requested by PPCC apparently to ensure transparency, NEC responded that the presentation of vendors was done physically before the Bid Evaluation Panel of which there were only physical demonstrations, no video recording was done, and the Bid Evaluation Panel did not request any PowerPoint presentations to be turned over to it. It added that photos were taken during the presentation and said photos were submitted to the PPCC on September 2, 2022.

On the observation that the Joint Venture (JV) Ekemp/Palm Insurance Ltd./INITS Agreement was not notarized, NEC told PPCC that the standard bidding document did not require bidders to notarize their joint venture agreement.

Still not satisfied with the response from NEC, PPCC again wrote another letter dated September 9, 2022 with reference IFB no. NEC/VRPLE/1CB/001/2002 , under the signature of the Chair, Madam Kowo to repeat its earlier concerns on the pre-finance capacity, expertise, knowledge and experience of Palm Insurance, the local  partner in the tripartite joint  venture and requested more clarity on the subject matter in order to inform her decision making.

NEC said with the repeated claims on the subject matter, PPCC might have not read the bidder’s submission in its entirety because if it had done so then it would have seen the audited financial statement of Ekemp which showed that as of January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020 it had HKD55, 552,785.13(USD7,077,603.71) and from January 1, 2021 to December 2021 had HKD 95,527,850.00 (USD12,170,555.69)to know the solvency of the institution.

Further clarifying, the NEC wrote: “The NEC submits that if the audited financial statement is all that is required to determine a vendor’s capacity to pre-finance, then all would agree that Ekemp’s audited financial statements show that it is also financially capable of pre-financing. Moreover, the joint commitment of Ekemp, INITS, Palm to pre-finance (“We confirm that we are capable and able to Pre-finance the supply and delivery of biometric equipment, software & materials for the voter registration for the 2023 general elections“) as found on page 2, Count 3 of the cover letter, should put to rest any concern as to whether the selected bidder demonstrated its capacity to pre-finance a contract of that will be performed in three stages with payment being made after successful completion of each stage.”

NEC further said that a procuring entity cannot require partners to a joint venture to submit their respective financial statements for evaluation only to have such statements ignored by the PPCC.

It urged the PPCC to review the bidder’s submission in its entirety, and assess the overall joint financial capacity of the three partners, adding the fact that one is a manufacturer of the biometric equipment, the materials that will be used and the fact that in case of a breach all three will be held jointly and severally responsible to the Government of Liberia, through the NEC.

Looking beyond the audited Financial Statements, NEC said some vendors, irrespective of the information contained in their financial statements, do not pre-finance as a matter of policy, adding that the NEC’s review of the selected bidder’s capacity to pre-finance did not stop at the audited financial statements. It said the NEC reviewed the partners’ joint venture agreement, and observed that the respective obligations are in stages, with Ekemp’s obligation appearing first, followed by INITS’ and then Palm’s.

“Ekemp International Limited, based in China, develops, designs, and manufactures biometric terminals, and provides biometric registration and verification, and intelligent identification solutions. As per their joint agreement, upon the award of the contract, Ekemp shall be responsible for the following: Provision of goods and services; vis-a-vis; manufacture, test, delivery, installation, and customization of Voter Registration Kits and materials for the 2023 Liberia General Elections; will assist in providing training to NEC staff; will provide a sample kit of biometric voter registration equipment, materials, and software upon request by the NEC; and will execute the project as stipulated in the bid document and contract award”, NEC said.

The NEC told PPCC that Ekemp’s obligation, as outlined in the partners’ joint venture agreement, does not say that Palm must pre-finance Ekemp’s obligations before Ekemp will perform, referring to the joint venture agreement.

Giving more weight to the JVA as it relates to Palm Insurance’s role, which was one of the major concerns of PPCC, NEC said the company in addition to opening a bank account at a local bank in Liberia, Palm is to provide all pre-financing as “may be required” for the procurement of materials and services but the other partner Ekemp had everything it takes to execute the project thus the financial capacity of Palm should not arise in the premise.

“The Partners commit that they shall jointly and severally indemnify the NEC against any injury, damages, or loss attributed to the breach of their obligations.

“That any dispute or claims arising out of the subject matter shall be governed and construed in accordance with the laws of Liberia”, NEC said .

In conclusion NEC said as an institute that prides itself in conducting free, fair, and transparent elections, it has worked within the confines of the law to be fair to all bidders, adding that fairness to all bidders, including the joint venture bidder evaluated as most responsive, requires the NEC and the PPCC to act on the actual facts of the procurement process, and review a bidder’s submission in its entirety.

The NEC letter concluded: “As shown in its joint submission and highlighted in this communication, the joint venture of Ekemp, INITS, and Palm has demonstrated the capacity to pre-finance and has the requisite expertise, knowledge, and experience to perform as required.”

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