26 April 2007 07:29, Johannesburg, South Africa    

As the massive irregularities in the Nigerian presidential poll come into focus, it has emerged that South African companies were asked at the eleventh hour to print ballot papers that often did not reach polling stations in time.

A local printer says it declined a request four days ahead of the poll to print the bulk of the presidential ballots, as there was not enough time to do a proper job. Three other local companies printed the ballots, but did not add time-consuming security features.

The presidential election, held in tandem with federal legislative elections last Saturday, was won overwhelmingly by Umaru Yar'Adua, the ruling-party candidate and hand-picked successor of outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Observers have highlighted the late delivery -- and sometimes non-delivery -- of voting material as one of the central failings in elections some have branded a "charade". Nigerian observers and opposition parties have demanded a rerun.

Many claim the distribution of ballot papers was deliberately skewed to disenfranchise opposition voters. One monitor told the BBC of his experience in Nassarawa state: "We noticed that ballot papers were available in [ruling People's Democratic Party] PDP strongholds in the state and voting started in those areas on time. But, in places where the PDP wasn't in control, voting was delayed."

The opposition Action Congress of outgoing Vice-President Atiku Abubakar claimed that in all its strongholds, the Independent National Electoral Commission (Inec) "deliberately ensured inadequate supply of voting materials … If this is not rigging, we don't know what else to call it."

The last-minute printing rush in South Africa flowed from Inec's initial barring of Abubakar as a candidate. Abubakar fell out with Obasanjo last year when he opposed the latter's bid for a third term. He was subsequently indicted for corruption and omitted by Inec from the candidate list. On Monday last week, five days before the elections, the Supreme Court reversed Inec's decision.

Inec chairperson Maurice Iwu was quoted last month as saying: "Yes, he [Abubakar] will run if the Supreme Court says so. This is where the logistics issue actually comes in … I am not the type that makes a plan without having plan A, B and C."

Inec's fall-back plan, however, did not mean having ballot papers with Abubakar's name included.
Local printer Lithotech, whose ElectionsAfrica division supplied 100-million ballot papers for the Nigerian state elections a week before the presidential and federal elections, confirmed this week that it was invited on Tuesday last week to reprint 40-million presidential ballot papers to include Abubakar's name. Nigeria has 61-million registered voters.

Lithotech group development market manager Ben Sachs said the company "declined the offer to print within the short time-frame as air-freight availability and production time [were] not sufficient and the requirement could not be met". He said Lithotech "would never entertain accepting a contract where the risk of non-compliance as required in this instance is so high".

'Professional experience'

The Mail & Guardian has established that three other printers -- Media24-owned Paarl Printers; Formeset, which handles large South African government orders; and Ren-form, which has ballot supply experience -- were then asked by Nigerian authorities to supply the entire requirement, to be delivered to Nigeria by no later than Friday, the day before the elections.

The ballots were printed without counterfoils and serial numbers -- features usually included to establish an audit trail.

Paarl Print MD Mike Ehret confirmed the print order came on Tuesday. "Sure, we were under a lot of pressure, but it was a professional experience."

Ren-form manager Jean-Pierre du Sart said his company started printing on Tuesday evening and delivered locally Thursday evening. He said Ren-form had provided a "packing list" and labelled pallets to help establish an audit trail, but that serial numbers would have taken too long. "If we had put on serial numbers, I don't think the election would have taken place."

Du Sart added that "it must have been a logistical nightmare to distribute ballots to even the most remote areas in Nigeria".

Norman du Plessis, deputy chief electoral officer at South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission, confirmed that local printers had contacted the commission about time constraints. "To reprint 60-million ballots in three days would be a horrendous task," he said.

The ballots were flown to Nigeria aboard four cargo flights. Locally based Norse Air, say insiders, flew a cargo of about 40 tonnes, arriving on Friday afternoon at its Nigerian destination -- only to be ordered by armed men to take it to another airport, causing a further delay.

European-based MK Airlines transported about 170 tonnes on two flights on Friday, the second arriving at about 7pm in Lagos. A fourth consignment, also on Friday, was organised directly by the Nigerian government aboard a passenger plane whose seats had been removed.

The Commonwealth observer mission said the ballots' "arrival in the country on the eve of polling clearly affected their timely distribution. The lack of serial numbers on the presidential ballots also made them less secure."

M&G Africa editor Stephanie Wolters said from Nigeria, however, that there were clear instances where ballots were delivered to local authorities, but not distributed onwards to polling stations. "I don't think it was a logistical problem -- it was intentional."

Lithotech's Sachs said his company had delivered the state-level ballots to Nigeria on April 9 -- five days before those elections were held.

How shortages affected poll

The Transition Monitoring Group, which reportedly deployed 50 000 Nigerian observers, and the European Union observer mission have called the Nigerian elections a "charade".

Commonwealth observers, though more measured, highlighted the late opening of polls "in most parts of the country" -- only in the afternoon in some states. Voting was to have started at 10am last Saturday.

The National Democratic Institute, whose international observer mission included South African Constitutional Court Judge Yvonne Mokgoro, called the elections a "step backward". The institute added: "A major problem … was that polling stations in many states opened hours late, closed early or failed to open at all. This represented a fundamental barrier to popular political participation."

The Nigerian Joint Action Forum, a coalition of civil society bodies, demanded a rerun of the elections, saying that certain states dispatched election materials at about 6pm when voting should have finished an hour earlier.

The Guardian reported that in opposition strongholds in northern and eastern Nigeria, "a shortage of ballot papers left many people unable to vote".

One local newspaper said the electoral commission admitted only 40% of presidential ballots had been distributed in Yobe state on polling day, with the rest arriving at the end of the day. The newspaper cited the example of two local areas where presidential ballot papers were in very short supply, while there were enough or nearly enough National Assembly ballots.

The newspaper added: "It was the same story in many other parts of the state where voters who came out in large numbers to vote in the presidential elections returned home, as there were no adequate ballot papers at about 6.30pm."

Additional reporting by Nic Dawes

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