In February 2012, Dr. Kojo Afari-Gyan, Electoral Commissioner of Ghana, announced the timetable for the much-anticipated biometric voter registration exercise ahead of the country’s 2012 general election. If all goes well, the registration exercise will be held between March 24 and May 5, 2012 with the aim to compile a new ‘credible’ voters list ahead of the country’s sixth general election after its transitional elections in 1992. Like in any election, the compilation of a clean voters list is a first critical step to conducting a genuine democratic election. Ghana’s EC has been praised in repeatedly increasing the quality of elections in the country, and given this reputation perhaps we shouldn’t be worried, however, recent events suggest the need for us to stay alert ahead of the inevitably competitive elections later this year.
In 2008, allegations of a bloated voter register and the logistical and administrative bottlenecks that characterized the conduct of the revision exercise, as well as the crudely organized 2010 District Assembly Elections have brought the Ghana EC’s reputation into question lately. Going into the 2012 general elections, the success of the EC in conducting the voter 2012 registration exercise would earmark a crucial first step towards rekindling trust in its competence and assuring Ghanaians that it could once again conduct a ‘free and fair’ election. In the coming weeks, as the EC prepare (through its scheduled pilot registration exercises) to undertake the first biometric registration, the EC must marshal its reputable technocratic experience to ensure that Ghana is placed on a sound footing for the 2012 elections.
In 2008, Ghana went to the presidential polls with a ‘compromised’ voters’ list. It all started with disputes over alleged inflation of the summary figures of the 2006 voters list that was due for revision ahead of the 2008 elections. The then opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), raised this allegation generating immense doubt about the credibility of the list. In a press conference following the heated exchanges amongst political parties and some EC officials in the media, the EC finally announced that the mistakes identified on the summary figures were due to a technical hitch and assured that the list was intact. Subsequently, the revision exercise itself suffered severe challenges. The EC could not start the exercise as scheduled due to supposed delays in procuring equipment, release of funds from the government, and hiring of qualified temporary staff. Consequently, the voter registration finally began on 31st July 2008, with only one day’s advance notice.
When it came to implementation of the exercise, although each of the approximately 4,800 electoral areas in the country was expected to have a registration workstation, only about 2,500 workstations were available. Moreover, these items were received late at the district level and consequently at the registration centers for the exercise. Furthermore, consequent to the delays the local official barely had time to draw the appropriate schedules, and thus no advance information was available centrally on where the mobile registration workstations would be located on which dates. The Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO) for example reported that in at least one region, the distribution of equipment and materials among the numerous districts was haphazard and did not follow any formula that considered the size of the districts. As in previous voter registration exercises, newspaper reports suggested that the political parties actively bussed people to registration centers and aided the registration of minors in their strongholds.
At the end of the 11-day voter registration time period, long queues remained at the various registrations center; a great number of prospective voters had been unsuccessful in placing their names of the voters list. Consequently, the EC extended registration by two days to enable all qualified voters to register. After the exercise the EC exhibited the provisional voters list to help identify and expunge unqualified persons from the list. Accordingly to the EC, approximately 0.4% of new registrations were challenged in 2008, which is 10 times the rate of challenges against new registrations in 2004, and this provisional list was cut down to a final list of approximately 12.5 million voters. In spite of the attempts to clean the voter list of unqualified voters, the EC reported that 2008 revised list was inflated by about a million. This raised much concern for an election that was later won by less than 50,000 votes. No voters’ list is clean. Yet if elections are highly competitive, and political actors lack trust in the voters list, narrow winning margins could serve as a springboard to violent contestation. Bogus voters registration processes and questionable voters list undermined democratic processes in Senegal in 1993 and recently presaged the electoral debacle in neighboring Cote D’Ivoire’s 2010 presidential polls.
In Ghana, the organization of subsequent elections after 2008 suffered similar challenges. For example, in 2010 the District Assembly Elections were postponed several times (owing partly to the failure of the EC to secure early passage of a legal instrument that was to aid the re-demarcation electoral areas) and subsequently the staggering of the elections coupled with opaque and inadequate voter education, raised heavy eyebrows from the political parties and other stakeholders on the competence of the EC in conducting the 2012 election. The EC thus must use the impending registration exercise to rekindle and boost the nations confidence in its competence.
The above account suggests that Ghana’s elections have not been entirely clean and still face both technical and logistical challenges. In 2008 the CODEO and other observer groups (including EU-Delegation) reported on the logistical challenges that nearly marred the exercise in some registration centers and illegal payments of prospective voters to get their names on the list. Moreover, systematic studies the 2008 voters’ revision exercise suggests that despite the vigilance of the EC and election monitors, political parties maneuvered their way around unsuspecting electoral officers to inflate the register to their electoral advantage. Some of the recommendations made by the observer groups are being implemented by the EC ahead of the 2012 polls. Significant among these has been the implementation of a biometric voters’ registration system.
As the EC prepares for the registration exercise special attention should be paid to providing adequate registration materials to all registration centers to avoid mistrust in its judgments and allegations of purposeful disenfranchise to sections of the population. Special attention should also be paid to the needs of Persons with Disability and other vulnerable groups. Voter education should be extensive, and straight-forward. Adequate arrangements should also be made to adequately register qualified prisoners as approved by the courts. The EC should also come out clearly on progress towards the registration of Ghanaians in the diaspora.
If Ghana’s 2012 election is to be a success, other stakeholders must also play their part in ensuring a credible registration exercise and events preceding the election. The Police Service (and the security service) must ensure a peaceful atmosphere throughout the process and the strict and impartial application of the law. Political parties should continue to engage collaboratively with the ECs technical committee and resolve issues amicably. Political parties must desist from attempts to subvert the process by illegally ferrying people across constituencies and aiding the registrations of minors. The Government should keep its side of the bargain by releasing allocated funds to election related bodies in a timely manner to facilitate the process. The National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) should undertake extensive civic education to encourage participation in the exercise. Finally, civil society group should monitor the process and audit the final voters list to boost voters’ confidence in the credibility of process and list ahead of the 2012 elections.
So far, the EC’s pilot exercise seems to be on schedule and has been a tremendous success. The momentum should be sustained and maintained to boost the confidence of Ghanaians in the EC to conduct a credible and peaceful 2012 elections. Ghana cannot fail the continent in its march towards democratic consolidation and it starts with getting the voters’ list right.