The Belgian company Semlex and its managing director – Albert Karaziwan – have been the subject of a virulent media campaign of denigration and slander since April 2017.
What are the charges against the Belgian company and its director worth? Here are some elements of understanding to unravel the true from the fake.
SEMLEX, A WORLD LEADER IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF IDENTIFICATION SYSTEMS
Created in 1992 by Albert Karaziwan, Semlex is an independent Belgian group. The company has acquired recognized expertise in the development, integration, operational management and provision of identification systems used for a number of different identity documents. This includes everything from driving licenses to passports and identity cards. Semlex is particularly known for its biometrics technologies, which make it possible to create ultra-secure and virtually tamper-proof documents.
The use of secure documents and the identification of the population are two issues that are essential for the proper development of a country. In this context, Semlex works with many states through public-private partnership contracts to offer high-security software and documents. The company is present all over the world – particularly in Africa, where the rate of falsification of identity documents is among the highest in the world.
FAKE NEWS ABOUT SEMLEX SINCE APRIL 2017
Semlex has been a victim of a smear campaign and slander relayed by media for several months now. It all began in April 2017 with the British news agency Reuters releasing a prosecution investigation with the following title – The Expensive Biometric Passports of the DRC. It’s needless to say that the company has denied all accusations from the beginning.
This article deals with the public-private partnership contract between the Semlex group and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The group is accused of selling to the Congolese State a passport “among the most expensive in the world.” The article also questions the conditions for obtaining the contract. These accusations, which have still not been proven to date, have been taken up by numerous Belgian and international media outlets, triggering a major media-bashing campaign against Semlex and its managing director Albert Karaziwan. The scope of the “Semlex case” is surprising, knowing that the Belgian group has not yet been convicted by the courts.
The Semlex Group has firmly refuted these allegedly slanderous allegations in a press release dated April 27, 2017. These denials were not enough to silence the accusers. In December 2017, the Reuters agency reoffends the Belgian company by committing another biased article. This time, their target was the job done by Semlex in the Comoros. The article questions the conditions for granting Comorian passports. The content of this second article, written by the same journalist, a David Lewis, has also been widely reported by the media.
BACK TO THE TERMS OF THE SEMLEX – DRC CONTRACT
Let’s recall some contextual elements. In 2014, to fight against fraud and other forms of falsification of passports, the Democratic Republic of Congo sought a provider for the establishment of a system of identification at the national level and the creation of a new passport secure for the Congolese.
Several companies have responded and have been competing for the contract, including Gemalto, Zetes, Oberthur, and Semlex. After lengthy negotiations, Semlex wins the contract. The Belgian company is chosen by the DRC to set up a national database and organize the production of passports. On November 10, 2015, the new Congolese passport is presented to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kinshasa.
In January 2016, the Semlex Group publishes an official press release highlighting the peculiarities of this new electronic and biometric tamper-proof passport: “The company offers (…) to the DRC a complete solution, ranging from the training of local staff to project maintenance, including the creation of a national database. To facilitate citizens’ access to registration centers, 26 provincial centers will be created, and more than 60 embassies will be equipped with registration stations. “
Despite what some of the accusations in the media suggest, the clauses of the contract signed between the Belgian company and the DRC were decided in a legal and transparent manner and then endorsed by the national public procurement regulatory authority (ANRMP). Today, as recalled by Albert Karaziwan in an interview with Congo Panorama, Semlex has managed to “install the biometric system on time and Congolese now have access to a new secure and reliable passport”.
THE PARTICULARITIES OF THE CONTRACT RDC – SEMLEX
The contract between Semlex and the DRC is what is known as a BOT contract (“Build, Operate and Transfer”). The Semlex Group is one of the few companies in the industry to offer this type of original contract. It is worth remembering what a BOT contract is because it provides important insights into the charges on the price of the new Congolese passport.
In a BOT contract, the infrastructure and other costs needed to deploy the identification system are taken care of by the partner company – in this case, Semlex. In return, a fee is determined as a fixed percentage of the public price of passports for a specified period. When this period is over, the local infrastructures are then given a free of charge right to the client country. In its press release of December 27, 2017, Semlex highlights the benefits of this way of working, which “offers the partner country a financial model that’s entirely self-sufficient since it always collects a significant share of the price of issuing identity documents.
Furthermore, there is no need to pay anything else or invest upstream, not to mention that all local facilities are free of charge at the end of the contract. The BOT contract is the contractual form that best meets the Semlex group’s vision: to support its partners at all stages of the project, according to their financial needs, from design to implementation. It is therefore not a simple sales contract without follow-up.
In the case of the public-private partnership with the Republic of Congo, Semlex thus took charge of training local staff, creating the national database, and building 26 centers to collect fingerprints from the population. Or the development of premises at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the DRC.
THE CENTRAL QUESTION OF THE CONGOLESE PASSPORTS PRICE
The main accusation made by the Reuters news agency about Semlex is about the price of passports. This price would be exorbitant and unjustified according to author David Lewis. This price, which created the controversy, amounts to 185 dollars (the equivalent of 164 €). $ 65 goes directly back into the coffers of the Congolese state. The remainder, 120 dollars, corresponds to the amount of the royalty paid by the Congolese State, as it was fixed in the BOT contract on a voluntary and legal basis.
The price of the passport, which may seem high at first, can be explained by the very special nature of the contract that has been signed between the two parties. The DRC, in a way, reimburses the significant amounts invested by Semlex for the implementation of infrastructure and throughout the operational support.
Moreover, in its communiqué dated December 27, 2018, Semlex recalled that “the price practiced by the DRC is lower than the cost of a passport, without the same level of security, in many countries, especially African.” Indeed, as the Jeune Afrique newspaper explains, the Congolese passport is not the most expensive in the world, nor even the most expensive in Africa. According to the weekly, the most expensive African passport is that of Chad (228 euros).
It should also be remembered that not all passports have the same level of security. A biometric passport necessarily costs more to produce than an electronic passport – which affects the price of the document. It is important to compare what is comparable.
There is legitimately enough to wonder about what pushes the media to focus on the Congolese passport so much that, to take only this example in Africa, the Chadian passport, which is not biometric, costs more than 40% more expensive. Let’s also talk about the Belgian passport, the most expensive in Europe according to LeVif. Indeed, in Belgium, a simple passport can cost up to 114 euros (the price can vary greatly from one municipality to another), and an emergency passport can reach the sum of 270 euros. In Belgium, annual passport production is, however, 450,000 per year, compared with 120,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition, the current Belgian passport does not include biometric security or citizen enlistment infrastructure.
Figure 1 the chadian passport, the most expensive in Africa
Concerning the call for bids for the Congolese passport, Zetes (Semlex Belgian counterpart) has proposed, according to Reuters, passports at € 28.50 each. This attractive offer would have been proposed in 2014 to the Congolese State. Problem: no document confirms the reality of this offer. In fact, the famous British agency has been unable to provide the slightest start of proof – which is surprising from an agency that normally has access to public offers. In the end, many gray areas surround this case. This should invite more caution in the media treatment and Semlex and his director Albert Karaziwan.
Figure 2 the Belgian passport, the most expensive in Europe
WHY SUCH A BASHING CAMPAIGN?
To understand the reasons for Semlex’s bashing, it is probably necessary to go back to April 2017. In the interview he gave to Congo Panorama, Albert Karaziwan explains that he collaborated for a while with an intermediary in the context of project management. It was in 2016. This intermediary, according to Albert Karaziwan, was “a person who had assisted in steering the project and who pretended to be a state consultant while the state (Congolese, Ndlr) thought he was our agent … “
This man with unclear intentions would have claimed exorbitant fees while no contract tied him with the group Semlex. Faced with the company’s refusal to yield to what it considered to be an attempt to extort funds, the individual decided in early 2017 to file a criminal complaint in Belgium. The complaint fell into the water in the absence of serious elements (in its statement of December 27, 2017, Semlex claims to have complained against the man). Following this failure, the man allegedly threatened Albert Karaziwan with sullying Semlex’s reputation in the media. That did not disappoint since a few months later was published the Reuters investigation.
Is there a link between the threats made by this enigmatic character and the very violent campaign that broke out in April 2017? Who is behind the rumors conveyed by Reuters? What credibility to give to the journalist in charge of the investigation? Many questions remain unanswered. For some, Zetes, one of Semlex’s main competitors in Africa, is no stranger to this business. The “Journal of Biometrics” recalls the special relationship between David Lewis and Zetes. Other sources, meanwhile, point to the relationship between the firm Zetes and Belgian politicians.
According to Semlex, “this bashing campaign is to argue that the success of SEMLEX EUROPE, which has become a major player in the market, cannot supposedly be normal, especially since large operators are failing where it succeeds so that SEMLEX EUROPE should be suspected of acting dishonestly! “
Who is right? Is there any neutral and trustful source in this matter? It is difficult now to disentangle the true from the false in this complex case and surrounded by shadows. Therefore, journalists would be well advised to let justice do its job, rather than relaying to a length of articles the hasty and uncertain judgments formulated by Mr. Lewis.
Author: Meet Morakhiya is a content strategist, expert freelance writer, and online entrepreneur. He graduated from Ahmedabad University with a degree of Bachelor of computer application. He enjoys sharing information, inspiring people, and writing pretty much everything that helps small businesses, build brand awareness, engage their target audience and generate more leads. He is an intern at AndroidHeadlines and a Benzinga contributor. For more info you can drop him an email.