Friday, October 17, 2008

Opposition stops ballot papers 'theft'

Opposition stops ballot papers 'theft'
By Noel Sichalwe, Brighton Phiri and Masuzyo Chakwe
Friday October 17, 2008 [04:00]

Alert opposition PF and UPND cadres on Wednesday caught a driver from Kalabo District Council John Zaza loading unverified ballot papers in a government vehicle at Lusaka International Airport for dispatch to Kalabo in a scheme linked to election rigging.

And PF and UPND yesterday backed out of their earlier agreement with Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) for the commission to distribute extra ballot papers to polling stations across the country. This was after ECZ failed to provide a satisfactory explanation regarding Zaza's alleged attempt to ferry unverified ballot papers to Kalabo.

Meanwhile, a truck suspected to be carrying materials for ECZ yesterday arrived in Lusaka.
Zaza was caught loading the unverified ballot papers during the verification process in full view of armed uniformed police officers, electoral agents, stakeholders and ECZ officials.

Zaza, who was driving a maroon Land Cruiser registration number GRZ 841CA, had parked inside the main hall where the verification process was taking place. He started loading printers, toners and voters' registers that were supposed to be delivered prior to the dispatch of ballot papers.

In the process of Zaza loading the items from the table, which was about five meters from the vehicle, he also picked the unverified ballot boxes for loading. However, he was quickly spotted and one of the polling agents queried why he was loading the ballot boxes in his vehicle.

The PF and UPND cadres questioned why Zaza picked ballot boxes from the table where MMD representatives from Kalabo sat. They said this was a systematic way by the ruling MMD to rig elections.
The cadres contended that if Zaza claimed to have made a mistake in loading the ballot boxes, he could have picked ballot papers for another province rather than picking those for his district.

However, Zaza expressed ignorance that what he was loading were ballot boxes. This attracted attention from everyone in the verification room. The verification process was brought to a standstill as political agents started to manhandle Zaza while hurling insults on him as others tried to physically beat him up.

Police mounted a human shield around Zaza to protect him from any harm although some irate cadres tried to penetrate to beat him. The cadres alleged that Zaza had made an earlier trip with similar items though he denied having taken the ballot boxes.

In an interview after being caught, Zaza explained that his boss whom he identified as Kambole Kambole who is Kalabo deputy council secretary, told him to load the items in the vehicle that were suppose to be delivered to the district.

"He told me to get the toners and load them in the vehicle. Now when loading those toners, I thought that even these boxes contained toners. So when I had loaded some of these boxes, I was about to get some more and that's when somebody said I should not get those boxes. Some people are saying I wanted to steal but I just made a mistake. It's not that I wanted to steal, it's only that I thought they were toners as well. I only made a mistake and I did not want to steal," Zaza said.

Kambole, who was suspected to be from the Office of the President, said Zaza only made a mistake and did not mean to steal ballot boxes to rig elections.

Kambole said ballot paper boxes were ready to be verified to ensure that there was no foul play in the entire episode.

ECZ representative Priscilla Isaacs said Zaza loaded ballot boxes by mistake because he could not do so without permission.

Isaacs explained that ECZ's procedure was that they sent voters' registers to the districts before voting day to ensure that everything was set and that ballot papers were dispatched later.

Isaacs then ordered political agents and police officers to check the ballot papers and ensure that everything was in order. She said the only way to verify was by checking what was loaded in the vehicle and whether anything had gone missing.

PF vice-president Guy Scott, secretary general Edward Mumbi and party spokesperson Given Lubinda arrived at the scene while UPND secretary general Tiens Kahenya arrived later.

At this point, Zaza offloaded all the items from his vehicle and the party electoral agents started comparing serial numbers for the five boxes that were loaded with the serial numbers that were listed in their handouts.

After an extensive comparison, it was discovered that Zaza had loaded 16 ballot papers for Lokona polling station, six ballot papers for Munyonga polling station and five ballot papers for Lyahonga polling station, all from Kalabo Central Constituency.

Among the loaded items were certificates for those that were trained as election monitors, voters' register, printer and toner.

Further inspections on the vehicle revealed that it did not have chassis and engine numbers and it appeared to be a brand new vehicle that was recently bought from Durban with port discharge numbers.

The vehicle did not even have a licence or any documentation to prove that it belonged to the government apart from the number plate, which appeared to have been placed for convenience purposes.

Later, the cadres also found bags of electoral material in a separate warehouse and they suspected the bags contained ballot boxes until they were opened. However, the bags contained stationery.

The mood at the verification venue was highly charged and everyone was overly alert in trying to identify anyone that attempted to manipulate the ballot papers.

Mumbi said if the vehicle was not spotted by his vigilant members, it could have been driven to Shang'ombo.

Mumbi doubted whether or not ballot boxes were safe in ECZ's hands.
"I would like ECZ to come out in public through the media and inform the nation of what has transpired today so that they can start rebuilding their image," Mumbi said. "What has happened today in front of all uniformed policemen is that there was a vehicle which is not even verified and checking the vehicle, it has no chassis number, it has no engine number and it has got a brand new GRZ number plate with prints of a vehicle that has just been imported from Durban. So who was in Durban buying vehicles? We don't know because it has no details but what we have noticed is that on the screen, there are those port discharge numbers."

He said the vehicle would be detained at the airport and that ballot boxes would be handed to ECZ.

"If ECZ doesn't know who is picking ballot papers, then the election is not safe," Mumbi said. "So we find it very strange and very disappointing that the Commission which just this morning was trying to assure us that they would look after this election and conduct it in a very free and fair atmosphere to behave like this."

Kahenya said the issue was not a simple matter and there was need to understand it. He expressed disappointment with what had happened and demanded that Zaza and Kambole be detained by the police.

And yesterday after an ECZ closed-door meeting with the stakeholders over the matter, Mumbi said PF had decided to pull out of the "gentleman's agreement" with ECZ because they could no longer trust the Commission.

"We can't trust ECZ. We have since told ECZ that our gentleman's agreement is null and void due to the gravity of the anomaly that occurred at the airport," he said.

Mumbi said PF demanded for a comprehensive report over the matter before they could agree that extra ballot papers be distributed across the country.

"Since, we can't trust ECZ, we are going to court to seek judicial review over the matter," Mumbi said.

Kahenya said UPND was not satisfied with the explanation by ECZ and that they were greatly concerned with the manner in which ECZ trivialised electoral anomalies.

"We have asked ECZ chairperson justice Florence Mumba, whom we are told is in Kasama, to come back and convene a stakeholders' meeting over the issue," Kahenya said. "We have cancelled the earlier agreement with ECZ because of the gravity of their trivialising the electoral anomalies."

MMD presidential candidate Rupiah Banda's representative Akashambatwa Mbikusita-Lewanika said the meeting heard complaints and questions arising out of suspicions over the Zaza incident.

"The meeting received verbal responses to a variety of concerns and complaints, in both moderate and intemperate fashion, that were raised by representatives of presidential candidates, over this incidence and others," he said.

Aka said after much question and answer deliberations, he proposed, and that it was unanimously agreed, that the meeting be adjourned and reconstituted at a later date, when justice Mumba would be present. He further proposed that ECZ should present a comprehensive written report on the incident, including information on what happened and what follow up corrective and assurance measures have been undertaken or proposed to be undertaken. Aka said such a report should reassure stakeholders of the ECZ's competence, commitment and credibility in superintending over the whole electoral process.

Aka said Vice-President Banda was pleased that ECZ had been convening inter-party forums to address electoral complaints and questions.

On the foreign truck carrying ECZ election materials, Given Lubinda disclosed that the opposition raised the issue during the meeting to seek an explanation on the truck.

He said ECZ explained that the truck in question was carrying election booths for the forthcoming presidential elections.
"ECZ clarified that the truck was loaded with election booths and that it was going to offload at the airport where our election agents will monitor," Lubinda said.

The truck registration number B6010ANV, which had two containers, caused anxiety among Lusaka residents as word went round that a truck carrying ECZ materials was parked along Kafue Road near Afif Electricals.

Asked about the goods in the containers, one of the foreign drivers who only identified himself as Nyati said they were carrying goods for ECZ and were taking them to an office.

Another driver, a Zambian, said there were ballot papers in the containers.
Nyati explained that the goods were from South Africa even though the truck belonged to a company in Botswana called Road Freighters.
A foreign passenger wondered why they were being asked so many questions.

"Where are you from and why are you asking so many questions? Why are you taking pictures of the truck?" he asked before they drove away.
The truck proceeded towards Kafue roundabout before driving along Independence Avenue.

After realising that their truck was being followed by journalists, the drivers stopped along Chikwa Road for a few minutes before proceeding towards Haile Selassie Road where it again stopped in front of the Patents and Companies Registration Office for a few minutes.

The truck then drove towards Ndeke House where the Ministry of Health is situated and parked for a few minutes.
One of the security men at the gate was heard saying that they were asking if the truck could be parked at the Zambia Air Force (ZAF) headquarters.

After some minutes, the truck drove towards the ZAF headquarters but the officers denied the driver entry.

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