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HomeMalawiHuman RightsMaBLEM disowns Techno Brain on Malawi passport issuance' retention

MaBLEM disowns Techno Brain on Malawi passport issuance’ retention

LILONGWE-(MaraviPost)-The country’s civil rights group under the banner Black Economic Empowerment Movement (MaBLEM) has openly challenged retention of Techno Brain into Malawi passport issuance arguing that “suspects company handling of the system exposed it to hacking” immigration passport system”.

MaBLEM told the news conference on Wednesday, June 26, 2024 that Malawi government must unconditionally cancel all steps being taken to replace the current Passport Issuance company E-Tech Systems.

The grouping has therefore lauded E-Tech Systems for restoring immigration Passport Printing System within three weeks.

MaBLEM also applauded E-Tech, the local company for printing over 24, 000 passports within the shorted period when the company was issued a short term contract till August 2024.

MaBLEM said E-Tech Systems has proven be trusted and efficient company as local company to print passports.

Below is the full MaBLEM statement:

URGENT CALL TO GUARANTEE PEOPLES ACCESS TO PASSPORT SERVICES; IN SUPPORT OF INDEGENOUS SERVICE PROVIDERS

Concerned with public outcry on their failure to access passport services and disturbed with government’s confirmation that the passport printing services were hacked by unknown criminals who even demanded ransom to restore the facilities, the CSO led Black Economic Empowerment Movement – MaBLEM embarked on a discreet investigation to ascertain matters pertaining to the situation at the Department of Immigration, particularly focusing on the hacking. Our investigation has been comprehensive, involving the analysis of media reports, interviews with Immigration staff, government officials, and experts in the field. We have also tracked the experiences of individuals benefiting from the system and independently verified events before, during, and after the restoration of the Passport Printing System (PPS).

In line with our Investigation findings, we have since written Government through the Secretary for Home land security with copies to Treasury, OPC and Immigration department for their urgent actions and consideration of our recommendations which we would like to share with you.

THE HACKING

On January 19, 2024, the Malawi Passport System crashed, just a week after a visit from Techno Brain, the system’s supplier, to the servers of the Malawi Passport System. Following the crash, the Malawi Government assembled teams of experts in IT who attempted to restore the system for six weeks without success. Consequently, President Lazarus Chakwera publicly announced that the Passport System had been hacked and that the hackers were demanding a ransom.

It should be pointed out that Techno Brain had been Malawi’s long time service provider from 21 August 2018 to August 2021and government never renewed the same. Techno Brain was further engaged to provide E-Visa services which could also not be concluded by government resulting in legal battles. Despite the stand off and government demand for unpaid royalties from techno brain, it was established that Techno Brain still had access to the E-Visa system and previous passport system- hence government openly declared their presence illegal as they had not handed over the system inline with the Buy, Operate and Transfer (BOT) agreement.

SYSTEM RESTORATION EFFORTS

Upon this failure, government sourced support from outside government entities and individuals and several companies submitted project proposals to restore the system, including Techno Brain, whose bid totaled $1.5 million. Ironically, Techno Brain demanded an advance payment of $1 million to their Dubai-based account before commencing work. Among the foreign companies, the lowest bid was $1 million, with a commitment to restore the system within three months.

MaBLEM established that among locals, Abanthu Media Company promised to restore the system in six Weeks and was the lowest bidder. On the other hand E-Tech Systems, a Malawian company too, submitted a bid promising to restore the system within four weeks, with payment to be made only after the service was back online. The Government gave E-Tech a total of three weeks to bring the system back online or forfeit the contract. The local company successfully restored the system within the given timeframe, and by the end of the period, passport printing had resumed. At the time the system was restored, the Immigration Department had 165,000 passport booklets supplied by Techno Brain. Since the resumption of passport printing, these same booklets have been used for issuing passports. As we address the press today, E-Tech has succeeded to print and supply 24,000 Malawians with new passports.

MaBLEM has further established that as of today, 12 Government officials working with the office of the President and Cabinet had issues with their newly acquired passports while over 9 Malawians have travelled to Italy, Norway and Germany respectively despite them being given Disclaimers from the Norwegian Embassy office in Pretoria claiming the Passport Chips could not be read. We further understand that the Visa services at Norwegian Embassy in Pretoria is managed by Nationals from India – VFS Beyond these, all passport holders who have travelled to USA, India, UK, South Africa, Japan, South Korea among others have arrived safely and have confirmed to MaBLEM their safe trips.

CHALLENGES AND PROPAGANDA

Foreign competitors of E-Tech, having lost the contract to restore the passport system, have now launched a propaganda campaign against the company. Their goal is to prevent E-Tech from securing a full contract when the temporary one expires in August 2024. This propaganda includes sponsoring media statements that claim the printed passports are of poor quality and that the chips cannot be read.

One such piece of information has surfaced from the Visa Issuing section of the Norwegian Embassy in Pretoria. In addition to issuing visas to local Malawians, the embassy has been issuing warning letters to selected individuals, claiming that the chip in their passports is unreadable. However, none of the individuals who received these passports and visas from the same office and have traveled to Schengen Countries encountered any difficulties with their passports. Ironically, many of the individuals returned by the Visa Issuing Section (VSF) of the Norwegian embassy have been public officials, including an entourage scheduled to accompany the First Lady to Europe.

MaBLEM has observed that the Visa Issuing Section in Pretoria is the only one experiencing such issues, while those in Lusaka are not facing any problems. This raises concerns about potential collusion between the Visa Issuing Section and other competitors, especially considering that the VSF is staffed by individuals of Asian origin. Is this a case of political sabotage, targeting public officers to undermine confidence in Malawians’ ability to manage a passport printing system?

While MaBLEM has not definitively established the reasons for the crash due to the limitations of our investigation, beyond the ransom demand, there is ample circumstantial evidence suggesting sabotage for both financial gain and political motives. Before the crash, the supplier of the Passport Printing System had their contract canceled, and the government was in the process of identifying a new supplier. Recognizing the political significance of the passport, the hackers likely understood that tampering with the system could inflict political damage on the government, potentially compelling them to pay the ransom.

Currently, we are aware of attempts to reinstate Techno Brain with their associates GET as the sole provider of the Passport Printing System, with support from certain government officials who we will be subjecting to further investigation as they are bent on influencing the awarding of this contract back to  Techno Brain or its affiliated companies. It is baffling that, despite the need for a thorough investigation into the system crash, especially since it occurred just a week after the company’s technicians visited, some government officials still advocate for retaining the same company.

As per our sources at the Immigration, we have confirmed that over 24,000 passports have been successfully printed since the local company, E-Tech, restored the Passport Printing System. Out of these, less than 20 passports have been reported to have issues, and notably, all these reports originate from the Visa Issuing Section. It’s important to note that individuals have traveled extensively to destinations such as the USA, South America, Europe, China, Dubai, Japan and India using these passports without encountering any problems. We have evidence of issued visas backed by Testimonies of safe travel of Malawians using the same passports printed by Malawians. We are even further calling all other Malawians (who were not on our surveillance list) who have safely travelled using the newly printed passport to send us their Testimonies live through our facebook page to shame the devil.

Given the imminent need to select a company for passport printing beyond E-Tech Systems Tenure there is a noticeable increase in propaganda aimed at preventing a local company from securing the contract. However, it’s crucial to recognize that this local company provided the solution when Trusted Government officials were unable to for over six weeks. Moreover, they proposed and successfully implemented a reduction in printing costs from K90,000 to K50,000, despite initial skepticism from other parties. Now, with the system fully operational, and amidst allegations of bribery, certain individuals within the Immigration and Government are resorting to false reports in an attempt to favor foreign companies over the local one. We know all of the government officials who are doing this and we will start shaming them as we believe they are there to Sabotage the initiatives of our President Dr Lazarous Chakwera to put Indigenous Malawians first. Malawi is already experiencing Forex Shortages and we have other Malawians who are opting for foreign companies for the sake of their bellies.  We believe the intentions of these greedy Malawian is just to collapse this Government and we are asking why the passport services are not extending to other regions.

OUR CALLS

  • MaBLEM calls on government to investigate and release its own findings on the crashed system and be able to name and shame all those who demanded ransom from it
  • MaBLEM calls on government to unconditionally cancel all steps being taken to replace E-Tech but work to ensure that with the current provider, Government must develop a local system which can be supported and services with no serious hands from outsiders.
  • Government must ensure that E-Tech is allowed to provide the services including prioritising all applications that have been outstanding to clear aback log before efforts for new service providers can be considered.
  • Government must investigate all public officers who are advancing calls for a return to techno brain and other providers at the expense of ordinary service providers.
  • MaBLEM would like to call on Government to take serious steps to protect our fellow Malawian from these cartels whose sin was to help Suffering Malawians to get much needed help and their right to own a travel document at affordable rate and restore the service. We MaBLEM are of the view that the Malawian government Seeing the potential and the ability of a local indigenous Malawian company succeeding to deliver on this daunting task of restoring the Passport Printing System, should be given all the necessary support to ensure that this local indigenous Malawian be able to expand the delivery of Passport Printing services to other regions of the country.
  • MaBLEM acknowledges the court decision regarding the position of the dismissed Director General for Immigration, Brigadier Kalumo. Despite this, we would like to commend his unwavering stance, which played a crucial role in ensuring that Malawians and the President did not yield to ransom demands regarding the passport system. His steadfast leadership during that challenging period deserves recognition.
  • MaBLEM therefore calls on government and its officers to refrain from influencing decisions at Immigration Department and thwart all efforts to replace the bonafide and deserving immigration officers to run the entity without undue influence.

CONCLUSION

MaBLEM would like to make it clear that Malawians deserves better services and that public services should not be abused and used to syphon public resources.

As indicated above, we have communicated the same to government and we will continue pursuing this matter to ensure fairness and rights of Malawians are guaranteed.

Of greater importance is the need for Government and its officers to prioritize indigenous service providers so as to ensure our growth is internally motivated.

Issued this 26th day of June 2024, at LILONGWE

Robert Mkwezalamba                                                                                              Fryson Chodzi

CHAIRPERSON                                                                                                        CORDINATOR

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