[By Tuesday Bwalya]
I AM deeply disappointed that 56 years after Zambia’s independence, we cannot print ballot papers for our elections locally.
What is wrong with us Zambians and our leaders? It is really shocking that we have continued to export printing jobs to other countries. We have also continued to strengthen other countries’ economies by giving them millions of US dollars in printing contracts which we need to stabilise our currency.
Since the days of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the country has been printing ballot papers for our elections abroad. The MMD government was printing the ballot papers in South Africa, and Zambia used to pay millions of US dollars to South African printers such as the Universal Print Group. Many stakeholders including the now ruling Patriotic Front (PF) complained about this irrational and counterproductive act.
Before the 2011 elections the PF, through the current Justice minister Given Lubinda, held a series of press conferences where it denounced this practice and promised that once in power, their government would localise the printing of ballot papers. They further promised that Government Printers would be rehabilitated and secured so that ballot papers could be printed in an environment that would be acceptable to all stakeholders. I thought what the PF in opposition was saying made sense and was meant to create more jobs locally. Further, I thought it meant to reduce the cost of running elections in the country.
Surprisingly, when the PF took over power from the MMD in 2011, they backtracked on this promise; they embraced the practice of printing ballot papers abroad. They went further by taking the printing of all ballot papers from South Africa to Dubai. Indirectly, this increased the cost of the whole exercise. The PF government took the printing of ballot papers outside Africa, to another continent, across the Indian Ocean. Even ballot papers for simple mayor or councillor by elections are now being printed in Dubai. It is laughable!
What is so special about the ballot papers that we cannot print them locally? I have failed to understand that Government Printers cannot print such papers. In the first and second republic of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) government, all the ballot papers for elections were printed locally at Government Printers. If the current government thinks Government Printers’ equipment is not good enough to print ballot papers, why have they not bought new equipment to upgrade this public facility?
Surely 56 years after independence, Zambia still cannot print ballot papers locally? We have already been informed that even the 2021 ballot papers will be printed in Dubai because Al Ghurair Printing Company, the Dubai-based firm, has been recommended as being the best bidder, beating our Government Printers which was deemed to be too expensive and failed to meet tender specifications.
It does not make sense for the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) and the government to say that Government Printers was expensive and did not meet the specifications. To start with, the government has not upgraded Government Printers. Secondly, why should a responsible government advertise the printing ballot papers when it has a government department mandated to print everything on behalf of the people of Zambia?
The government should not hide in the fact that the printing of ballot papers was advertised by ECZ and that many companies expressed interest, therefore, a company which was cheap and met the specifications was picked. If Government Printers did not meet the specifications, it is because the government has deliberately failed to give it capacity so that it can be in a position to print the ballot papers.
I am very disappointed that the government has failed to empower Government Printers. This was one of its campaign promises in 2011 and 2016. This government should tell Zambians why it has continued to export printing jobs. As Zambians we need to be holding our politicians accountable. The PF made campaign promises which included printing ballot papers locally.
The cost of printing ballot papers abroad is huge for this country. Zambia’s economy is limping; the economy is flat. Jobs are not being created and the currency is very weak. At this point in time, we cannot afford as Zambia to export jobs and forex to Dubai. Further, printing ballot papers in Dubai entails extra expenses to stakeholders who wish to observe the printing of ballot papers.
ECZ has already indicated that in 2021, it will not sponsor any stakeholders to go and observe the printing exercise in Dubai; stakeholders have to meet their expenses. This in itself is ridiculous and will raise suspicion among political players. It will be deemed to be a ploy by ECZ to scheme the rigging of the 2021 poll on behalf of the PF.
As I conclude, I wish to ask the government and ECZ to tell Zambians why they have continued printing ballot papers abroad when in fact this government campaigned on the promise of rehabilitating Government Printers so that the printing of ballot papers could be done locally. This madness of printing ballot papers abroad should come to an end.
Let us empower our Government Printers to print our election papers like it was in the day of UNIP. This will reduce the cost of running elections in the long run and create more printing jobs as other neighbouring counties that are still printing their ballot papers abroad will be coming to Government Printers.
The author is a lecturer at the University of Zambia, department of Library and Information Science.