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    “Don’t believe in hacking narrative, its MCP IT gurus putting Malawians at ransom on Passport crisis”

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    The Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives (CDEDI) has told Malawians not to believe in President Lazarus Chakwera’s narrative that hackers are demanding a ransom to recover the passport printing system at the Immigration Department.

    CDEDI has rather disclosed that the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) IT team is the reason the system has failed after trying to bypass the system’s developer, Techno Brain.

    In its findings, CDEDI observed that the MCP IT team is failing to recover the system while running away from paying rights to the owners.

    According to CDEDI findings results made available to Malawi Voice on Friday, February 23, 2024, signed by its Executive Director Sylvester Namiwa, President Chakwera lied to the nation about the system hacking arguing that he wanted to cover up the failed MCP IT team.

    “The Techno Brain team said all it needed was a mandate to start working to recover the system, but the MCP ICT team acted wiser and convinced the government that they did not need Techno Brain’s assistance, hence the government has not granted Techno Brain a mandate to recover the system.

    “The growing public rage and the ever-inquisitive citizens forced the MCP ICT gurus who were still trying to apply the try-and-error tactics to recover the system, to use the agenda-setting theory to churn the hacking narrative, which is senseless and dangerous,” reads in part CDEDI findings.

    The report adds, “Unfortunately, President Chakwera has been caught lying under oath! Forget about the report, here is why Malawians should be living in fear. By publicly informing the nation that the Immigration system has been hacked, the President has played in the hands of professional hackers”.

    HERE IS THE FULL CDEDI FINDINGS:

    STATUS OF PASSPORT PRINTING

    As a mouth-piece of the voiceless citizenry, and in the exercise of its governance watchdog role, the Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives (CDEDI) zeroed in on the current passport crisis in the country and hereby shares its key findings as follows:

    To start with, it is important to say that President Lazarus Chakwera has not only lied to the world but, also, proved himself to be a security threat to the nation by hoodwinking Malawians into believing that the country’s passport printing system has been hacked and that the hackers are demanding a ransom.

    In other words, we have reasons to believe that the President disguised Techno Brain as a hacker, and further disguised the GIT’s maintenance contract fee as ransom to earn himself and his administration
    public sympathy.

    Background

    Malawians may wish to know that on March 22, 2019, the Malawi Government engaged Techno Brain on a Build, Operate, and Transfer (BOT) basis where the company used its money to build the system for printing passports on the understanding that it would recover its money through passport fees and later hand over the operations of the system to the Malawi Government after three years.

    Important to note here is that passports are not printed using Other Recurrent Transaction (ORT) but the money that people pay when they apply for passports.

    At the expiry of the BOT contract, Techno Brain handed over everything to the Malawi Government. However, for purposes of the smooth running of the system, Techno Brain recommended a Dubai-based company, known as GIT, as a maintenance consultant. This was done given the need to replace the system’s parts, including servicing.

    The above is now the genesis of the current crisis.

    Some well-known Malawi Congress Party-connected ICT gurus, including officials from e-Government,
    Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) and National Registration Bureau (NRB), against technical advice from the internal ICT team at the Immigration Department, bypassed Techno Brain and GIT and tampered with the system to run away from paying licence fees.

    Investigations show that the system was tampered with through the Lilongwe saver office at Malawi Postal Corporation Training Centre, along the Paul Kagame Road where the Department of Immigration and Citizen Services headquarters is earmarked to be located.

    When their attempts proved futile, they invited a Techno Brain team which came for assessment, hence the public notice by the Department of Immigration titled ‘MAINTENACE OF PASSPORT ISSUANCE SYSTEM’ dated January 28, 2024.

    According to the assessment report, the Techno Brain team recommended to the government that they needed eight days to bring back the system and printing could resume in Lilongwe and Blantyre. To be followed by Mzuzu and Mangochi.

    The Techno Brain team said all it needed was a mandate to start working to recover the system, but the MCP ICT team acted wiser and convinced the government that they did not need Techno Brain’s assistance, hence the government has not granted Techno Brain a mandate to recover the system.

    THE HACKING NARRATIVE

    The growing public rage and the ever-inquisitive citizens forced the MCP ICT gurus who were still trying to apply the try-and-error tactics to recover the system, to use the agenda-setting theory to churn the hacking narrative, which is senseless and dangerous.

    Unfortunately, President Chakwera has been caught lying under oath! Forget about the report, here is why Malawians should be living in fear:

    By publicly informing the nation that the Immigration system has been hacked, the President has played in the hands of professional hackers.

    The President has just told the world: “Here we are, a helpless and vulnerable nation whose systems are susceptible to hacking!” But the hacking narrative also begs some serious questions:

    The mode of communication with the hackers to demand the so-called ransom, assuming it is in person, why not unleash State apparatus to apprehend the messenger if they are within the country? If they are elsewhere in the world, why can’t the government seek assistance from the governments of those countries to apprehend them? Assuming they are communicating via WhatsApp calls or e-mails, is it that difficult to use modern technology to trace them?

    Further questions to the above would be; as a nation, have we failed to trace the hackers due to a lack of expertise? If that is the case, are we safe as a country? If it is out of lack of interest, why is the government not interested in flushing out the hackers in the first place?

    The other question would be: Is President Chakwera telling Malawians that as huge and important as the Passport Issuance System is, it doesn’t have backup servers elsewhere?

    For starters, any computer-based system, no matter how small it might be, has a virtual backup system, and this was one of Techno Brain’s expected deliverables. To hear that the system was crushed and loss of data occurred is a huge mockery, especially for the kind of operations we are talking about.

    Malawians may recall that between 2018 and 2019 one of the commercial banks in the country had its system hacked, but it was up and running within an hour because they had servers in Lilongwe, Mzuzu, and the country they had procured the system. Servers are important because no matter how watertight a system can be, it is prone to hacking for, among others, the following reasons:

    Malice, Theft and or ransom, Frustration from the super users, Natural disasters, and calamities

    Now the critical question President Chakwera should answer is: Out of the 20 million plus Malawians, did we not have skilled ICT personnel who could advise on the need for the Immigration Department to have redundant servers in place?

    This is why we at CDEDI, on behalf of Malawians, conclude that the President lied before the House of Records the day he appeared in Parliament and, among other questions, was asked to explain the passport crisis.

    WHERE ARE WE NOW?

    Malawi is at a crossroads, the MCP ICT team is holding the country at ransom. But empty threats from the President won’t work. The system has been ours since it was handed over to the government, but the government is trying to dodge user licence fees to GIT.

    The government is now accusing GIT of demanding user fees, which President Chakwera has described as ransom after some so-called local ICT experts tampered with the system to bypass both GIT and Techno Brain.

    The noble thing to do is for the Tonse Alliance administration to swallow its pride and let Techno Brain do the needful that will allow Malawians to acquire passports as and when they need them.

    OTHER IMPORTANT INFORMATION

    Malawians may wish to know that all this is stemming from an election campaign promise to make a passport affordable, at K14,000, down from the current K93,000.

    As this campaign promise was being made, passport printing, according to the initial contract of 800,000 books, was pegged at $76 each translating into US$60.8 million about MK108 billion.

    Malawians may remember that the cost of $76 per passport was used to cost the project with deliverables. Techno Brain was requested through the office of the Attorney General to inform the country of the cost of a single booklet, but they declined.

    It simply meant that if the passport fee was to be reduced as promised, the government should have subsidized the fee.

    The three-year e-Passport project had deliverables attached to it as follows:

    Digitalization of the registry.

     2. Digitalization and networking of all embassies to cut costs for sending documents through DHL, and fraud where passports were manipulated,

    3.Printing facilities at Chileka and Kamuzu International Airports.

    4. Disaster recovery site,

    5. Airport forensic laboratories,

    6.Training of personnel,

     7. Study tours,

    8.Provision of five Toyota Hilux Twin cabs,

    9. Upgrade the current passport system,

    10. Provision of additional printers,

    11.Stock management system,

    12. Provision of CCTV cameras,

    13. Enhance access control of building and printing rooms,

     14. Protective gear for printing rooms

    As it stands, the Immigration Department Director General (DG) General Charles Kalumo owes Malawians an explanation or two, as to whether all the deliverables were met. If not, he needs to explain why that is the case after the full payment of contract money was paid.

    OUR STAND

    President Chakwera is shielding the trio that is holding this country at ransom, by allowing them to feed the nation lies that they will be able to run the system, by bypassing GIT and Techno Brain, at the expense of people requiring to travel for medical attention, business, and school.

    The system requires a disaster recovery site, which was among Techno Brain’s deliverables as per the provision of the expired contract.

    The three weeks the President has promised to have the system up and running is a clear indication that he trusts the so-called ICT gurus that have failed for the past four weeks, and we fear that this will be a fruitless effort, likely to end in tears for us.

    The said 21 days is too long a wait when Techno Brain had suggested eight working days, especially given that some people have waited for their passports for ages.

    WAY FORWARD

    Malawians have a right to know who did what; therefore, CDEDI implores the relevant committee in the August House to immediately call for a live public inquiry over the matter, where Techno Brain would also be heard.

    By public convenience, the government should immediately recall able hands that have full knowledge and skills of the said ‘hacked system’ but were unceremoniously interdicted, posted, and/or transferred, to go back and solve this national crisis, and save the country from the embarrassment government has pushed it into.

    Meanwhile, the seven (7) working days’ ultimatum stands! CDEDI will mobilise Malawians to conduct peaceful demonstrations, protesting the 21 days and forcing a public inquiry on the same.

    By Sylvester Namiwa,

    CDEDI EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

     

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