The voter registration exercise, which wound up on November 9 2018, was far from smooth, with issues such as the disappearance of the lost-but-found Biometric Registration Kit (BRK) and other stolen equipment casting doubts on the safety of data. As if that were not enough, FESTON MALEKEZO discovered that the registration exercise was not watertight as, in some centres; one could just walk in and register, with traditional leaders unavailable to vet one’s nationality. In other cases, one could find forms already signed by invisible chiefs then register. Were foreigners not registered?
A Chilomoni Township, Blantyre, resident , whose identity we are protecting, narrated to The Daily Times how he registered easily for the national identity card (ID) so that he could, in turn, register as a voter at one of the centres in Blantyre.
“I just went to the centre and filled a registration form. They took my picture and it was done. I am waiting for my ID. I was not asked anything regarding a letter from the chief or ID as proof,” he said.
In an ideal situation, it would be impossible for a foreigner to obtain resident or work permits in a country, let alone citizenship.
Thus most Malawians were stunned to learn that, somehow, foreigners registered for the ID, despite general perceptions that the process would be more watertight than other processes we have alluded to, especially when it was being conducted simultaneously with the voter registration exercise.
In a bid to vet foreigners and ensure that only bonafide Malawians registered, the process of acquiring the ID was initially presented as involving and rigorous as it required undoubted evidence of citizenship.
Officials at the National Registration Bureau (NRB), which the
National Registration Act mandates to undertake the exercise, demanded either a letter from one’s respective village head or block leader, national passport or Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) 2014 voter registration card.
The exercise resulted in 9,186, 689 Malawians registering as citizens.
However, lapses in scrutiny surfaced when NRB, through Mec, opened a window for those who did not register during the mass registration exercise.
As The Daily Times observed in some centres especially in cities, the process was seemingly flexible and easy to override.
In Blantyre, for instance, at a registration centre at Blantyre Youth Centre, block leaders were not present all the time.
It was, however, noted that, on some days, National Registration 1(NR) forms could be found stamped already by traditional leaders as their presence at the centres was not guaranteed.
In Chibavi Township, Mzuzu City, we met a Zambian man who was contemplating registering for the Malawian national ID.
“I come from Zambia but I am based in Mzuzu. Of course, I have also lived in Karonga District. I failed to have the national ID in Karonga so I want to try my luck here,” he said.
The Zambian argued that he wanted the ID because he would stay in Malawi for a long time.
However, one of the traditional leaders in the area, Village Head Mahenga, dismissed fears that non- Malawians might have registered for the ID.
Mahenga said, whenever he was not around, he could select one of his subjects to be at the centre—Chibavi Admarc—to assist new registrants or those who had lost their IDs, among other roles.
“What I did was that whenever I was not available at the centre, we agreed that there should be somebody on standby…of course, some people would find me home. We were very strict with new faces so we were working hand-in-hand with [members of] our community policing committees. But suffice to say we did not register a case of a foreign national attempting to register,” he said.
Such stories sum up the eighth and last phase of the voter registration exercise which was concluded on November 9 2019 in Mzuzu, Nkhata Bay, Mzimba and Likoma districts. he exercise, which started on June 26 2018, offered a window of opportunity to those who did not acquire the ID during the mass registration exercise which ended in November 2017.
The ID was proof of one’s claim to Malawian citizenship, engineering one’s ability to register in the voter registration exercise so as to be eligible to vote in the May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections.
Announcing statistics of the mass registration exercise in February 2018, President Peter Mutharika hoped that the IDs would tighten security in several sectors including public finance management.
Mutharika said the IDs would help Malawians easily obtain passports, access public hospitals and get easily identified in subsidy and social cash transfer programmes.
NRB spokesperson, Norman Fulatira, while not ruling out the possibility of some non-Malawians registering during the ID exercise, said the bureau is also mandated to register resident foreigners.
Fulatira said foreign nationals living in Malawi with necessary documentation and permits receive a Resident Foreigner Identity Card.
“It could happen that we have registered some foreigners but, at the same time, we can capture that foreigner.
“But even if NRB goes ahead to print that ID for a foreigner, which is fraudulent, chances are that, through reporting to police, NRB can revoke that ID and arrest the person,” he said.
Fulatira added that data captured at a particular centre are scrutinised first before an ID is printed.
“What we encourage is that, whenever people have such issues, they should report to us. What people should understand is that registering people at a given centre is not an end because, at the back of it, NRB scrutinises the data before printing the national ID.
“But this demands collective responsibility from all of us, Malawians, to guard jealously our national IDs so that foreigners do not abuse our registration system,” he said.
During the exercise, the bureau registered an incident in Mulanje District where foreigners attempted to register but police officers turned them back.
On the voter registration exercise having loopholes, Fulatira said:
“What we were concerned with, as evidence, was that a person needed to bring a witness with a national ID. That was prime to us…this seemed easier as compared to the mass registration.”
The ID exercise puts Malawi on track to achieving one of the targets under the Sustainable Development Goals on legal identity for all and birth registration by 2030. During this window, NRB targeted to register over 700,000 Malawians.
Apart from fears that some foreigners might have registered, the voter registration exercise had its fair share of tales.
The lost-but-found BRK, which found its way in a Vale Logistics coal train in Mozambique, sparked debate among electoral stakeholders, raising fears of possible election rigging.
Mec Chairperson, Jane Ansah, has been on the defensive, saying this is not a cause for worry and rejected demands from some political parties to resign. She argued there was no was valid reason for resignation.
Concerned political parties asked for a forensic audit of the whole process, in order to restore people’s trust in Mec.
Mec Chief Elections Officer, Sammy Alfandika, assured that, despite the issue of BRK, no data were tampered with.
“This was one of the most successful registration exercises we have ever conducted. I am saying this because we used biometric registration, which minimises errors. Among other things, the people who registered twice or more will be exposed.
“What people should know is that an election is a sensitive activity; so, what people were talking about, releasing statements when they had no facts, bears implications on people’s trust in Mec,” he said.
Mec’s preliminary results indicate that 6, 856, 295 million Malawians have registered to vote for next year’s elections.
University of Livingstonia political analyst, George Phiri, first cautioned NRB to make a thorough evaluation of the entire ID registration process to be double-sure that only Malawians registered.
He also said the bureau should make sure that eligible Malawians who have not yet registered for the ID should be given room.
On the voter registration exercise, Phiri said the low turn-out evidenced by a drop of 664,521 from the 7.5 million who registered in 2014, signifies voter apathy.
“People have lost trust in their leaders and they see no reason to vote,” he said.
Political parties, notably the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), have cried foul.
MCP publicity secretary, Maurice Munthali, claims they saw the issue of low turn-out cropping up.
“We have been complaining to Mec to consider reopening some centres where there was low turn-out during the first phase. We still believe Mec will consider our request,” he said.
In reaction, Alfandika said: “Looking at the response that we earlier gave, that we have to wait and compare the figures with the other phases, we have come to the conclusion that there has not been much difference in terms of numbers of registrants. Still, we will make a decision together with the other electoral stakeholders.”
Meanwhile, foreign missions in the country have commended Mec for the successful registration of the 6.8 million (preliminary) voters nationwide in Malawi’s first biometric voter registration exercise.