The truth about Malawi national ID project

Malawi is one of the few countries in the world where citizens do not have identity cards. In fact, Malawian citizens are never really registered. Only voters are, with voting cards issued for every election. But not all Malawians have the right to vote (minors for instance, do not) and many who do choose not to.

Population and housing census is done every ten years, with the next one coming in 2018. This implies, that the government and all development partners use semi-outdated population estimates for planning especially the closer they get to next the population census exercise.

How then can the authorities understand their people and their needs, if they don’t even know how many citizens there are at a given time and juncture, let alone their age, gender, formally employed/unemployed and other changing demographic aspects? Having access to such information would be an instant leap forward for the country, allowing a more efficient allocation of resources (medical, educational, humanitarian and otherwise). Conversely, the less information there is, as is the case today, the easier it is to control and manipulate the situation to one’s benefit.

In 1999, the Malawi Government finally decided to implement a project to issue identity cards to its citizens. At the time very few companies had the requisite knowledge and experience, and even fewer could give the guarantees necessary to carry out such an enormous task. The Malawi Government chose Secucom to carry out this project. Secucom accepted the project despite its inherent complexity, tough conditions on the ground and short timeframe. In late 1999 the contract was signed and the first equipment shipped to Malawi.

Malawi government embarked on a project to make national IDs for its citizens just after it had embraced multiparty democracy.
Malawi government embarked on a project to make national IDs for its citizens just after it had embraced multiparty democracy.

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, the contract was halted. Unfortunately, most Malawians believe that this was due to a dispute between the Malawian Government and Secucom, when in fact, that is not the case at all.

Further, the contract with the Swiss company is still very much valid and no other contract can be signed until the issue is resolved. We believe that the abrupt stoppage was not accidental, but due to the influence and work of a Fifth Power.

Let’s take a couple of lines to understand what we mean by this. In general, political scientists use the principle of separation of powers to model the governance of a state. They tend to distinguish at least three branches: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

As information has become more readily available and the world better connected, so has the influence of mass media grown, so much that some consider the media to be a fourth branch of power in its own right.

The above four are recognised centres of formal power. But it is known to most that there is in every country an informal realm of power. This can take different forms and will have various levels of influence on the other branches of power. It might be called “fifth power”, “shadow power”, “fifth estate”, perhaps even “fifth column”.

This fifth power, or whatever else one may want to call it, is an informal association of people, supported and sometimes managed by high-ranking  government officials, whose goal is to exert control over society, primarily by influencing political and economic decision-making on subjects as varied as  investments, budget, crime, legal, humanitarian and social infrastructure projects, etc. In most democratic societies, the Fifth Power’s influence is minimal.

But in some, it rules from the shadows and tends to override or sabotage the formal setup. Arguably, and to varied degrees, the Fifth Power exists in both advanced as well as emerging countries, democratic or undemocratic and irrespective of geo-political conditions. What is important is the question whether the Fifth Power compliments, or substitutes or accommodates or even competes against formal institutional setup.

Now that we have established what we mean by Fifth Power, let us get back to the National Identity Card project. Its tortured history is a clear manifestation of the local Fifth Power. The exact reasons behind the contract’s arbitrary suspension are hard to determine, but if we look more closely at what happened we may begin to understand.

The contract was stopped immediately after a meeting of Secucom employees and government officials. In that meeting, the company presented a detailed plan for the project’s implementation and formally delivered ten training stations for the National Registration Centre. Suddenly, a project that authorities had long had doubts about became very real – it became clear that it had met all the requirements to be successful. In fact, that meeting gave confidence to the Malawi authorities that Secucom would be able to complete the project in the contracted time.

It is important to mention that the Secucom plan would have directly created over 500 jobs across the country. Secucom also guaranteed that in the three years to follow, the project would bring highly trained specialists to Malawi to implement, supervise and train Malawians on the ground.

The most senior Malawian project managers would also undergo technical training in Switzerland in the areas of management and information technology, training which would allow for the operational knowledge of the system to remain in the hands of Malawian authorities beyond the project period. This would also facilitate knowledge transfer and project sustainability through the inbuilt capacity investment in local staff.

The training program alone would bring great benefits to Malawi, as by the end of 2001 the country would have gained a number of highly skilled and trained officials. Their newly acquired skills could be transferred to other areas and help the country’s growth and development.  We must consider that in 1999 there were no more than a handful of highly skilled information technology professionals in the whole of Malawi.

Given the above, is it not fair to conclude that some would have felt threatened by the increase in educated officials that could go on to oppose their informal power?

From the first signs that the project might be stopped and its actual stoppage, Secucom still delivered operational equipment (including office furniture, vehicles, 40% of the hardware, etc.) and, in conjunction with the authorities, designed and approved the identity card template, to the point where a large number of identity cards were pre-printed in order to start the card-issuing stage of the project. However, all that equipment mysteriously disappeared from the customs warehouse where it was being stored, leaving no official trace.

But who would have the power to move such a quantity of equipment worth around 8 Million US dollars? And could this have been yet another reason to stop the contract?

Secucom would also guarantee the security of the database. The database would be stored in secured servers placed at the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security. The users would have to go through a series of security checks to access this highly secure system. Physical access to the server room would be restricted to a small number of highly-ranked and carefully screened Malawian authorised officials.

Perhaps the Fifth Power had no interest in allowing the authorities access to such important information, access from which it itself would be excluded?

Further, Secucom’s offer had some characteristics that were pretty unique at the time. Secucom chose to include photos into the system in such a way that pictures would be taken digitally on the day and directly printed on to the cards. Although this would increase the cost of each individual card it would also enhance quality and security.

The local infrastructure and tight schedule (only 3 years) also forced Secucom to create a mobile system that could be run out of 4×4 vehicles, hence ensuring the project could reach the whole of Malawi. This decision precluded the creation of an extremely profitable side business that might otherwise have been created around this project. Taking and printing photos could cost up to 4 dollars, which could have generate revenues of around 20 Million USD in the first three years alone.

Another profitable venture might have been to provide copies of the needed forms, as well as assistance in filling them out. This could cost up to 2 USD per form and easily as much as 5 USD for the service. This could easily add up to many more a million. But Secucom created a program with in mind the government’s requirement that issuing ID card be absolutely free to citizens.

Could then the project have been stopped because it would have prevented these shady businesses and thwarted whoever might have benefited from them?

But even more broadly, the absence of a clear registration of citizens holds many an advantage for the resourceful and unscrupulous. For one, it lets flourish the business of falsifying documents, the issuing of forged passports, a trade also worth millions. Such identity manipulation can in an extreme situations enable the movement of criminals and terrorists, as they could easily obtain a Malawian passport and thus gain a new identity. This can in turn have serious international consequences.

Another operation that would have to end with the advent of ID cards would be the issuing of voting cards every election season. This of course is just as profitable as it is unsettling, as control over the voting machinery means not just cash-flows, but great political power (and in fact, if one so desired, the ability to sway elections).


In some ways, one might say that the complex story of the Secucom contract has been one of a battle between the democratic forces in the country and the monster we have so far referred to as “fifth power”.

But at this stage, the reader might still be sceptical. Why…, may be the question, has no one in so many years spoken of this political animal? Actually, some have. Back in 2000, as Secucom’s lawsuit against the Malawi Government was unfolding, the High Court Judge, D.S.L. Kumange, stated openly in his ruling dated the 28th of July 2000, that a number of people in the country (he did not name any), hiding in their cosy offices had such unlimited power that it enabled them to influence the outcome of any public process within the country.

Silently in the background, these players influence decision-making, and conduct illegal activities with no one to keep them in check. Judge Kumange emphasized “transparency and accountability” in the actions of the authorities and institutions that decide “wherever wrongdoing has been established against an individual or company body or office.” He noted that in a democratic society, power should not rest in the hands of a shadow power, or the “Octopus” as he called it.

Not only did Judge Kumange bravely mention the role of the Malawi Octopus in stalling Secucom’s contract, he openly stressed his concern for the future of the company, and even for the safety of its employees. “It is an Octopus, he noted, with its tentacles spread out ready to pulverise some person or persons in this deal.”

Sadly, the late Judge Kumange no longer presides over the case, and in fact neither does his successor. Only the Octopus, rearing its ugly head from the comfort of its powerful office, is still sitting in its cosy chair. And rest assured it will stick to its position with the full strength of its tentacles. Meanwhile, the total debt of the Government of Malawi to Secucom (including interest) is rapidly approaching the astronomical figure of $100 million!

The above figure is calculated based on the High Court of Malawi ruling of civil case 2999 of 2001 dated from the 25th February of 2002 where it clearly states the amount Secucom should be paid starting from the 8th June 2001 and the interest rate that it would carry from that date on until full payment was done. It even clarified the amount to be paid to the solicitors.

Several times now, the Malawi Government and Secucom have reached agreements that were fair and beneficial to both parties. Each of these involved figures much lower than that just described. In December 2011, a new verbal understanding was reached between the parties: Secucom would receive fair compensation for the damages and even agreed to complete the project. In this way, there would, in fact, be a benefit to the people of Malawi, and not just time and money wasted. Further, Secucom would incorporate the latest technology into the new equipment and the ID cards themselves.

Secucom sees Malawi as a country with great potential for development and is willing to invest in other sectors of the Malawi economy. Secucom certainly views Malawi as a promising long term investment. Moreover, we have witnessed significant structural changes in the country and believe these might pave the way to a better future.

These latest developments in Malawi have given Secucom some hope for the future – we can now see a light at the end of a long and dark tunnel. The company is ready to cooperate with the Malawian authorities, but let it be clear that it will work only with those who represent the will of the people of Malawi, not those who lurk in the shadows seeking to subvert it.

As goes a chinese proverb: “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”That is what we aimed to do here, to shine a light into the darkness and expose those who have for so long worked only for their own benefit and to detriment of all, their tentacles wrapped around Malawi and choking it.

It is our conviction that many Malawians are aware of and are fed up with this Octopus and its ugly head. It is now the time for this to be exposed. What we ask from the readers is to expose any situations of your knowledge of its involvement in civil unrest, political intrigues, and any aspects under which this Octopus has proved to be a costly liability to the Malawi government, etc. Feel free to send or share such information to the following email address [email protected]. The personal details of who sent us the information will never be disclosed unless you state to the contrary on your email.

It is also of great interest to us just as we believe to all Malawian, to put a name on this head and we would like you, the reader to help us on this quest.

We do believe in a better future for all……..

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