Nikuv in Hebrew means poking a hole or punching, as in a punched card, but no Zimbabwean knows what that word actually means in Hebrew. All they know is that an Israeli company with that name screwed them over in the latest elections.
The numerous flaws and irregularities of Zimbabwe’s electoral system must have remained invisible to Western media and foreign observers that pronounced the 2013 elections “free and fair.” Among these, one thing that has escaped international scrutiny is the controversial role of Nikuv, an Israeli IT company that does business in the country.
“You want to nikuv me right now, don’t you?” Obert Gutu asked me in his law office in Harare. Gutu is the spokesman for the largest Zimbabwean opposition party—Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). He gave countless interviews about the 2013 Zimbabwean elections and the speculation that Nikuv rigged the results for President Robert Mugabe and his party. He said he was going to help me investigate Nikuv’s true role in the elections and identify the people behind it. It was the first meeting I had scheduled upon my arrival in Harare.
Gutu told me about special ballots produced by Nikuv that can make ink travel. The rumor says ink disappears from the opposition party check box on the ballot and reappears on the ruling party’s check box. “That’s your suggestion?” I asked. “You seriously believe that?”
Plenty of people do. Right before the 2013 elections, Zimbabwean media were writing daily about the “shadowy” Israeli company. South African and British newspapers were picking up that story as well, running stories about alleged Mossad connections and former Israeli security officials arriving in Harare. In Pretoria, four days before the elections, activists organized a demonstration in front of the Israeli regional embassy.
But the seriousness with which Gutu talked about the magic ballots made me wonder. He was certain that Nikuv rigged the elections, he told me, but he didn’t know how to prove it. Even without evidence, or perhaps due to the lack thereof, the presence of a “shadowy” Israeli company, as described by the Zimbabwean media, had done plenty to intensify fears among Zimbabweans, who didn’t really trust the electoral process to begin with.
The frustration around the 2013 elections, in which Mugabe won in a landslide, is still very much alive in Zimbabwe. Over the summer of 2016, Zimbabweans took their opposition to the streets of Harare. In demonstrations for electoral reforms, police forces attacked protesters with tear gas and water cannons, and eventually, the Zimbabwe’s high court decided to uphold (and eventually back off) a police ban on protests in the capital on the grounds that it was “necessary to preserve peace.”
To understand the mood of the country in 2013, it’s crucial to look at the elections of 2008, when, for the first time in independent Zimbabwe, a Mugabe challenger—the opposition party MDC—overcame him in the first round. However, because the MDC did not win an absolute majority, electors prepared a second round. In the weeks leading to what was supposed to be a run-off, more than 100 people were killed, thousands were beaten, and tens of thousands had to leave their homes.
As the turbulence spread, the MDC party, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, gave up on a second round and signed an agreement with the ruling party creating a unity government that would craft a new constitution. This deal, first seen as somewhat of a victory to the opposition party, has proved to be bad for it. Mugabe remained in his seat, and the negotiations over the new constitution were controlled by the ruling party. Tsvangirai and his ministers were marginalized, and the MDC was weakened significantly.
With the 2013 elections approaching, Mugabe couldn’t afford another election cycle like the 2008’s—he had to win. And he did, by more than doubling his votes from 2008. And this is where an Israeli IT company fits into the story. This time around, Zimbabweans believed, ruling party Zanu-PF computerized its victory. Rumors had it that the mysterious Israeli company took care of that: Zimbabwean media often described Emmanuel Antebi, Nikuv’s founder, as having direct links to the Israeli Mossad.
Antebi and his deputy, some articles said, met with Mugabe the day before the election. A Zimbabwean journalist told me he saw Antebi leaving Mugabe’s office that day while he was waiting for a press conference. But he, like everyone else I asked, didn’t know how to reach Nikuv employees. I said that I would try.
To explore what Nikuv actually did, I needed to first understand Zimbabwe’s voter rolls. The rolls, which list the names of eligible voters, are the magnets for most of the country’s electoral problems. Nikuv operates the system that produces the voter rolls.
The voter roll acquired its mysterious reputation largely from the extreme difficulties people undergo to obtain or even see it. Despite many court challenges, the voter roll was a state secret until 2008, when it was finally made public by law. Yet access to the full electronic voter roll had proved to be next to impossible for civil-rights organizations, activists, and even ministers from the opposition party.
Concerns about the accuracy of Zimbabwe’s voter roll have been around before the 2013 election. In 2011, the South African Institute of Race Relations found 132,540 people older than 90 on the roll, an absurdly high number, demographically speaking, in a country of 16 million where the life expectancy at birth is 52. Two months before the 2013 election, authorities agreed to release a draft version of the roll. An audit by the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU), an independent nongovernmental organization based in Harare, found more than 1 million voters on the roll who were either deceased or had left the country.
Phillis Nyamombe was an election agent in the 2013 Zimbabwean elections in Nyariya, a village in the eastern province of Manicaland. She was a local representative of MDC party, and her job was ensure things proceeded in an orderly manner at the polling station. She talked to me in the back room of a crowded bar, filled with men, where people couldn’t hear us. She said she was threatened by Zanu-PF supporters prior to the election but stood firm. On the day of the election, she said, she encountered other problems. She said she “noticed some deceased people’s names that were still appearing on the voter roll.” Nyamombe recognized names of people she knew from the village who had been long dead, even before 1980.
The RAU report also found many constituencies had more registered voters than inhabitants. There was also clear bias in favor of rural constituencies, known to be dominated by Zanu-PF supporters. In rural areas, there was 91.9 percent voter registration, compared with only 78.3 percent in urban constituencies. Voters who had the means to investigate their disappearance from the voter roll found that their names had been mysteriously moved to other constituencies, sometimes in regions they had never visited.
Nyamombe said she witnessed people who came to the polling station at the local Zambe Primary School and couldn’t find their name on the lists. She gave me a list of names.
One of these people was Catherine, a woman in her late 50s. Catherine told me she had been voting for the opposition party in the same polling station in her village since it was established in 1999. But in 2013, she was told her name wasn’t on the list. Her name was supposed to be moved or removed from that list only upon her request, and she says she never asked for that change. She was told to go to another polling station. But it was too far. Catherine’s health is shaky, there are no vehicles in Nyariya, and walking 5 kilometers in the Zimbabwean summer was too much. She went home. When I was able later on to get a copy of the voter roll for that whole region, I looked for her name. It wasn’t anywhere in the province.
Despite the many reported cases of people who disappeared from the roll, there was a massive increase in the number of voters registered overall. Without access to an electronic copy, the Zimbabwe Election Resource Center manually counted the names on the final roll on the eve of the 2013 election. It found that in 2008 there were some 5.7 million voters registered, and in 2013 there were almost 6.3 million. The increase in numbers was even more surprising in the voting itself: In 2008, about 2.5 million people voted, and in 2013, some 3.5 million did. That’s an increase of 1 million votes and over 37 percent of the vote. Mugabe’s tally increased from about 1 million to some 2.1 million.
As an Israeli, everywhere I went Zimbabweans asked me why Israel was supporting Mugabe, assuming that the State of Israel was behind his victory. While the diplomatic relationship between Israel and Zimbabwe began only in 1992, Israeli private companies had been operating there before. In the 1980s, a company owned by kibbutz Beit Alpha provided newly inaugurated President Mugabe with vehicles to disperse demonstrations against his rule. Alon Liel, former director-general of the foreign ministry of Israel and the first Israeli ambassador to Zimbabwe, brought this up when I asked him what he knew about Nikuv. He told me about Israel’s foreign-ministry opposition to kibbutz Beit Alpha providing the vehicles, a fight that made it all the way to the Israeli high court. The foreign ministry’s claim was that these vehicles should be considered weapons. Israel’s foreign ministry lost the case in court; the judges ruled they wouldn’t want to compromise the company’s standing contracts and hurt the business.
Africa-studies scholars in Israel characterize the 1990s as a (neo) liberalizing decade in Israeli-African relations. If throughout the 1950s and the ’60s Israel had extensive foreign involvement in most of the sub-Saharan African countries—which included building African kibbutzim, bringing thousands of African leaders and students to Israel for training, and sending Israeli experts to advise on security, agriculture, and medicine—the 1967 and 1973 wars largely shut the door on official relations with African countries (except for apartheid South Africa). The vacuum in official Israel-Africa relations—combined with the completion of the decolonization process of almost all African countries by 1990—was filled by private Israeli companies and investors creating unregulated, unsupervised business relations that often entailed direct involvement in military and governmental affairs. Israel’s foreign ministry representatives were basically required to support businesses blindly.
“From the late 1980s, we already understood what kind of regime we’re dealing with,” Liel said. “But once there’s an ambassador in place, he’s obligated to help the Israeli companies there. That what’s customary in diplomacy these days.”
While many Israeli companies operating in African countries, such as Solel Boneh and Hezi Bezalel‘s Efforte Group, have gained higher profiles and been well-documented in the national news, the coverage of Israeli presence in Zimbabwe is poor and rarely includes comment from Israeli companies’ people, who prefer to stay out of the spotlight. My own attempts to find Nikuv’s people in Zimbabwe were met with shreds of often-contradictory answers. There was a widespread rumor that Nikuv employees are housed by the government in a well-guarded military base. Some people denied Nikuv’s existence, including MP Didymus Mutasa, formerly Mugabe’s close confidant.
Mutasa was a founding member of Zanu-PF and served as minister of state for presidential affairs beginning in 2009 under Mugabe. He held this insider post until 2014, when he was abruptly dismissed with other Zanu-PF senior ministers who were accused of plotting against the president. In the months following his dismissal in 2014, people expected him to talk, and an oppositional media website headline even read: “Mutasa Is Ready to Spill the Beans on Election Fraud.” He was in charge of national security in 2013, which made the election part of his portfolio.
My meeting with Mutasa was planned carefully—he was alleged to have been under heavy surveillance due to his plans to start a new party with two other Zanu-PF high-profile defectors, to challenge Mugabe in the 2018 elections. I was warned that a meeting with him could lead to my arrest. After going through a security screening, I finally got a chance to talk to him at his home in Chishawasha Hills. But when I told him I wanted to discuss Nikuv, he insisted that I was the one who needed to provide him with answers.
“I’m asking you, first of all, whether there are Nikuv people working here in Zimbabwe,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied, stunned.
“How could that be when I was Minister of National Security all along, and I didn’t know that? I wasn’t given that information,” he said.
The defense minister, former state security and central intelligence organization’s deputy director-general were all allegedly present in the widely quoted story about the meeting between Nikuv founder Emmanuel Antebi and Robert Mugabe the day before the election. While Mutasa said he heard the chatter about an “Israeli secret organization” working in the country, he told me that he never took it seriously because he didn’t know Zimbabwe had “this kind of relationship with Israel.” He said he didn’t know anything else about Nikuv, not even anything about it function as a company that does civil registration.
“I’m sorry you are chasing a wild goose,” he said, and with that, he concluded the interview.
“I have read about this meeting, yes. I have also seen the photo of Antebi they put in the paper,” Ron Asher, Africa manager of Nikuv, told me two weeks later. He also denied that Entebi ever stepped foot in Mugabe’s office. Who was that in the photo, then? “I don’t know. Someone who has a Jewish look, as they say. This guy looked 40 or 50 years old. Emmanuel Antebi—if you’ll see him—he’s a 76-year-old man with Parkinson’s.”
A photo of a younger Emmanuel Antebi with president Mugabe hangs in Nikuv’s office in the quiet Harare suburb of Avondale. The office is a house to the company’s security guard, and it’s also where the roughly 20 employees and their families gather for social activities, such as the Shabbat dinner I was invited to. According to Asher, this photo records the only time Mugabe and Antebi ever met—in a ceremony to launch the new Zimbabwean ID cards in 2004.
Antebi, who resides in Israel, was one of the many Israelis who discovered the African markets in the 1990s. He had relationships with top politicians and businessmen in Zimbabwe, and he started Nikuv in 1994 as one of the subsidiaries of the Formula Group, a large software group in Israel. Nikuv is active in other countries in the region, such as Botswana, Madagascar, Zambia, and Lesotho (where it was recently convicted in an Israeli court for bribing an official). But its headquarters, as well as the main activities, are in Zimbabwe.
While other companies in the group owned by Antebi specialize in various services such as security, agriculture, irrigation systems, and energy, Nikuv’s expertise is in civil-registry systems. It was contracted to deal with civil registration that included the election, i.e., the voter roll. While Asher is not willing to discuss its contracts, in 2013, the Zimbabwe Independent reported Nikuv was paid $10.5 million in the span of the few months leading to the election.
Asher or other Nikuv representatives almost never give interviews, and their own voice was barely heard throughout the saga. A few years after the election, Asher explained he felt the need to tell their side of the story, as Nikuv employees and their families feel they have been treated unjustly.
Asher himself was recruited to Nikuv in 2010 from Matrix, a large Israeli IT company, and relocated to Zimbabwe with his family. He was warned that Nikuv’s name was already mentioned in the 2008 election and that when elections occurred again in 2013 he might experience some backlash. “It’s something I heard and was at the back of my mind, but I didn’t really pay attention,” he said. “As someone who’s in the IT and the business worlds for years, I wasn’t taking it seriously.”
What happened next shocked him. When more and more media outlets said Nikuv was determining the next Zimbabwean president, he wasn’t sure what to do. “It got to the absurd situation that we were accused to have billions of watermarks that can change the election results, things that rise to the level of black magic, and how can you even start to explain?” he remembered. “The thing is with the media is that you repeat something enough times and then—go prove you don’t have a sister.”
Asher said he and his colleagues received threats to burn down their houses and families. The measures they took in response only fed the suspicions. Around the time of the election, Nikuv closed its offices, and employees who didn’t have to be in the country were transferred to South Africa. Nikuv employees who stayed in the country were instructed to stay in their houses.
“It was written about me, personally, that I’m the regional manager of the Mossad,” he said, “so it was quite ironic that during the elections I actually had armed bodyguards.”
One of the major difficulties for Asher at that point was to stand by the decision not to respond. “It reached a point of a clear defamation,” he explained. “And I have to say that we had already gone through all the internal legal steps to sue, but we realized that we would be making a very big mistake. That we’re just going to create more headlines and more press but, more importantly, we realized that if we start suing we’ll become a player in the political game, and that’s the thing we tried to avoid all along.”
But is it actually possible for Nikuv to not be part of the political game? Most of Nikuv employees are definitely clueless about Zimbabwean politics. (When I mentioned MDC to a few of them, they asked what it was.) But they do work with an authority that is part of a de facto one-party state.
The office Nikuv employees refer to as the “client” is the registrar general of Zimbabwe, which is responsible for all civil-registration matters. Heading the office is 72-year-old Tobaiwa Mudede, who has been in charge of all elections since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. Mudede is openly a Zanu-PF party member and a Mugabe loyalist.
One of the many people who are suspicious of the registrar general because of his allegiance and past behavior is Rugare Gumbo, a former spokesperson for Zanu-PF. “In the past, the registrar general was the one who really was running the show, and he was quite partisan. He always said that he was a member of Zanu-PF, which is unfortunate,” he said. Gumbo later became the spokesperson for the much-talked-about “People First” party, which is leading the demand for electoral reforms these days.
In many other countries, the executive powers are clearly regulated in its dealings with election management.An election commission reports directly to parliament, gets its funding from the treasury, and proposes changes to the electoral law on its own. But that’s not the case in Zimbabwe, even if the constitution now says otherwise. “The electoral commission to some extent is manipulated because people who are there are Zanu-PF,” Gumbo said. “It’s very, very partisan.”
But even with its client being denounced across the board, Asher insisted that Nikuv is in the clear, being that it only provides the system to the registrar. “I always say that accusing us in election forgery is like accusing Microsoft when people use Explorer for sexual harassment. People would use the system the way they want to use the system, but from here and to blame the system’s manufacturer—the distance is very far. It’s like blaming Subaru for accidents on the road. It’s totally surreal.”
Asher argued that once Nikuv provided the system to the registrar, it ended contact with the agency. However, other sources have pointed out that a Nikuv employee does sit at the registrar’s office and has access to the voter roll.
One person who’s been thinking about this issue a lot is the director of the Election Resource Center, Tawanda Chimhini. “When you look at elections, perceptions are important because people must believe in the system,” Chimhini told me. He has led the most extensive research done on the 2013 elections and found various irregularities but believes it all comes down to transparency. “In terms of people who have been working on the voter roll, there is a company that is working there which is not publicly doing their work. The perceptions are just going to grow, and like I said, the elections are usually about perceptions, but it’s a confidence issue. People participate in things that they have confidence in.”
In a country where media and civil-rights organizations are censored or highly limited in their ability to criticize the government, attacking an outside firm or a country seems like a convenient and reasonable solution. And the Zimbabwean government, which largely operates on spreading fear, didn’t seem to be bothered by that. In fact, it might even have been quite pleased.
“Is it possible that this was your actual role in the elections?” I asked one of Nikuv’s employees, who insisted it had done nothing wrong, “to absorb all the fire that was supposed to be directed toward the government? And at the same time scare people even more, being Israelis?”
He remained quiet for a minute, then replied, “Maybe. It’s possible.”