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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ghana’s Democracy Is Not There Yet, E-Voting May Get Us There

Press Statement by the Danquah Institute

"It's not he who casts the votes that matters -- but he who counts the votes." -Joseph Stalin

President Obama’s visit to Ghana earlier this year, gave us all as Ghanaians deep pride in our country and in our international reputation. That our small West African nation was chosen as the first in the whole continent to be so honoured since Obama took power was the result of an achievement we have built as a whole people since 1992 in not only the reborn of democracy but successfully warring off the infant mortality that has put paid to too many of our continental contemporaries.

We are right to feel proud of this achievement and the rest of the world is right to pay tribute to it. The world does recognise that the importance of our successful multi-party democracy reaches far beyond the 23 million people within our borders. It has profound significance for other African nations whose nascent democracies might yet falter and fall. Here, we have succeeded in holding five consecutive elections in the Fourth Republic and we have succeeded in changing the reigns of power from one political party to another twice now.

But whilst we might be ahead of the pack, whilst we might lead the continent in the march towards democracy as we did 52 years ago, we still have a long road ahead of us and the future of our democracy is by no means certain.

Those of us present in Ghana, those of us involved in last December’s election, those of us who were glued to our radio stations by fear, those of us privy to the goings-on in and around the Electoral Commission, the political parties and in trouble-spots across the regions, we cannot forget how excruciatingly close Ghana came to the kind of election break-down and violence we saw in Kenya and Zimbabwe. And nor should we.

Today is exactly one year since Ghanaians went to the polls to vote on both presidential and parliamentary candidates. In looking back, we must also look ahead and provide the attention, do what is required and seek the support we need to ensure that our 2012 elections do not again bring us so perilously close to the brink of violence. Those of us at the Danquah Institute fear that without significant improvements to the credibility of Ghana’s electoral process, December 2012 could potentially turn Ghana into a war zone.

With the well-founded concerns about the reliability of our electoral register last year, combined with attempts by certain forces to cast doubts about the fairness of the polls before they had even closed, and fears about the alleged involvement of the security forces in efforts to ready the country to reject a verdict deemed unacceptable, Ghana’s election was not quite the golden example it has been hailed as (or that we wish it had been).

The main political opposition party (led by Prof. John Evans Atta Mills) was so ruthlessly efficient in developing in the minds of their hardcore supporters and also in that of some security personnel that the Electoral Commission and the ruling party were conspiring to rig the election results.

Ghana’s 2008 presidential election held the potential to deliver violence instead of peace, anarchy instead of order, regression instead of progression. A military takeover could not even have been ruled out, a point people privy to national security intelligence reports would find difficult to challenge.

There is no guarantee that the main opposition party today will not for 2012 assume the kind of dangerously militant posture and speak the kind of language that got Ghana so close to a Kenya. We cannot rule out the possibility of today’s main opposition party assuming an even more militant posture in 2012 than what struck awe and fear in many Ghanaians and international diplomats and observers last December. So, what happens if unlike 2008, the Opposition does not get its electoral way after the 2012 results are announced? What if incumbency triumphs and prevails?

To avoid this in 2012 we need to work much harder to build public faith and confidence in the nuts and bolts of our election machinery that, if properly organised, can ensure no room for inflammatory accusations of bias or tampering. We need to deny the rig-sayers the oxygen of legitimacy, with which to breathe fear, anger, hatred and venom into the lungs of the Ghanaian electorate. We should take note that the human instruments of large scale violence are not just lawless hooligans and mercenaries.

In 2008, the rig-sayers were helped by the admission on the part of the Electoral Commissioner that the voter register was massively bloated. South Africa, with a population of 47 million people, counted a voter population of some 18 million. Ghana, with a population of less than 23 million people, said it had a voter population of some 10 million. Not only does a bloated register give political parties the opportunity to rig elections, they also give rig-sayers the legitimacy to say to their supporters and sympathisers that they have been cheated and that they should stand up and resist – whether the claim is true or false. This is what characterised last year’s general elections in Ghana and Ghana, we dare say, was probably only saved by the fact that the results were called for the main opposition party and not for the incumbent government. How then do we secure the legitimacy of not only the electoral process in Ghana but also the victory of an incumbent government?

This is of particular importance in countries like ours where a virtual two-party system can produce victories based on razor-thin majorities, where a relatively small amount of rigging has the potential to dramatically change the result. Ghana is far from securing its current position as a model democracy for the majority of the continent. We need to do so and that process must begin now.

We have chosen this day to announce to the country that on February 8-9, 2010 the Danquah Institute in collaboration with other civil society groups and political parties will host a seminar on ‘The Viability of E-Voting for Ghana 2012.’

There is a growing popular view that if we had e-voting in Ghana in 2012, not only would we assure our continued position as a beacon of democracy and hope for the continent, but we would also lead the way yet again in demonstrating a method and a means by which to overcome one of the major hurdles facing young democracies in Africa – manipulation of the votes and accompanying mistrust of the result.

The sum total of international research shows that e-voting offers potential for voting and election management that is an improvement over ballot paper voting or non-biometric voter registration. For Ghana, that technological leap could be the defence weapon against the explosion of electoral violence in the future, which could ultimately deal a fatal blow to the entire democratic experiment here in Ghana and with continental consequences.

On Tuesday, 12 May, a forum was organised by the Electoral Commission in collaboration with KAB Governance Consult and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), under the theme “Safeguarding the Integrity of the Ballot Project”. What could only be described as a historical commitment was made that day. At the gathering, Ghana’s main political parties endorsed the adoption of a Biometric Voter Register as the best way to guarantee a credible database of eligible voters. In a communiqué, all the seven political parties (including NDC, NPP, CPP, PNC and DFP) in attendance, in their endorsement stated: “This is very necessary to deal authoritatively with practices of multiple voting and impersonation that tend to undermine public confidence in declared election results.”

There is a very strong case for biometric-based credentialing solution for Ghana’s Voter Registration Project. Not long after the 2008 elections, the Danquah Institute started to advocate for the consideration of e-voting. Shortly afterwards, the Chairman of Ghana’s Electoral Commission, Dr. Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, stated that the EC was looking to adopt a biometric system of registering voters prior to the next polls, but will stop short of implementing electronic voting for election day.

Dr Afari-Gyan stated in response to a question by the Executive Director of the Danquah Institute: “The Commission is considering biometric registration of voters but as for biometric voting, I don't think the country is ready for it. If we do, I believe some people will start asking whether the Castle has not programmed the machines with some figures to their advantage.”

Again, on Wednesday, 18 March, 2009, Dr. Afari-Gyan announced on radio that a completely new voter registration exercise will take place to compile a new credible database for the 2012 general elections. The exercise will employ the best of technologies, including the use of biometric registration to beat fraudsters who attempt to exploit the voting exercise to their advantage.

During a workshop organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in October for some selected civil society organisations, leaders of political parties, religious leaders, journalists and development partners on the theme, “The survival of multi-party democracy and politics of accommodation and tolerance”, a Deputy Chairman of the Electoral Commission (EC), Mr David Adenze Kanga, expressed, what we see as a very worrying scepticism about the viability of Ghana adopting a biometric voter registration system and an electronic voting system.

The Daily Graphic of Thursday, 15 October read: “Regarding the biometric system of registration and voting, Mr Kanga said the country should tread cautiously concerning voting, in order not to throw off the transparency tenets in the present voting system.”

He explained that “with the electronic voting, the electorate would be given receipts from the machine indicating that they had voted and after the process the machine would indicate how many votes each candidate received. With this process against the backdrop of the fact that the Ghanaian electorate was accustomed to the counting of ballots in their presence, the ordinary voter would not appreciate how the machine arrived at the final figures for each candidate.”

We cannot, as a nation, dismiss without the benefit of a full domestic interrogation the viability of electronic voting. Just as allegations such as the EC conspiring with the incumbent government in 2008 to rig the elections did not perturb the Commission, so should we not allow predictable allegations such as “the Castle programming the machines” to stop us from considering the suitability of that option. Ghana has developed a matured tradition of post-elections self-assessment, which often leads to the introduction of enhanced security features to the electoral system, for example, transparent ballot boxes in 1996, and photo voter IDs in 2000. Surely, this is not the time to sidestep that tradition.

Though, there is talk of biometric voter registration or electronic voting as possibly the way forward, this prospect is being allowed to be easily shot down by the cynics because we are yet to devote enough intellectual resources to interrogate seriously this modern system of voting and its viability in Ghana. The fundamental question to be addressed before 2012 is how do we protect the integrity of the elections from the point of voter registration to the moment of winner certification? Linked to this is the question, what are the factors that influence public confidence in elections?

In 2008, both the rulling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and main opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC), at the time, accused each other of encouraging non-citizens, ghost names, as well as underage Ghanaians to register ahead of the elections. Speculations about and evidence of a bloated voter register went very far to undermine the credibility of the December vote. The possibility of a bloated register also fed steroids to the macho men of electoral fraud and violence, since a bloated voter register allows the opportunity to add up numbers and intimidate your opponents, ironically even as a defence strategy against an assumed threat of fraud against the intimidator’s political party.

In the words of Dr. Afari Gyan concerning Ghana’s 2008 voters’ register:
“If our population is indeed 22 million, then perhaps 13 million people on our register would be statistically unacceptable by world standards. If that is the case, then it may mean that there is something wrong with our register.”

Political parties exploited public admission and knowledge of a bloated voter register to feed their fears and trumpet allegations that there was a plot by a particular party or between an opposing party and electoral officers to rig the December polls. This gained legitimacy in the minds of several Ghanaians, including, perhaps, most dangerously some members in the security agencies. Thus, the ‘battlefield’ for a possible rejection of the results had been provided. We cannot as a nation continue with the undemocratic phenomenon where the balance of victory in our elections will be determined by how well a political party thinks it can manipulate results in its electoral strongholds.

The EC is yet to explain to Ghanaians how come after four previous presidential elections, 2008 registered the highest number of spoilt ballots (in both percentages and actual numbers), when the same system was used last year. With an election that less than 40,000 votes decided who swore the presidential oath on January 7, having over 200,000 spoilt ballots deserves more than a cursory comment. There is no such thing anywhere in the world as perfect election arrangement, but it has been shown elsewhere that electronic voting stops ballot box stuffing, ballot box theft and destruction, multiple voting, reduces spoilt ballots to zero, and saves the EC in printing, storage, staff costs, etc. Some jurisdictions have even maintained paper ballot in addition to electronic voting to serve as a counter-check in case of a dispute, thereby responding adequately to the very concerns raised by Mr. Kanga above. It is worth examining all the various options of e-voting, their security and usability features and their cost-benefit dimensions in order to make a responsible and informed decision on the way forward for Ghana’s electoral process.

In Ghana’s volatile and charged partisan political environment, it is extremely important that we have a trusted election process, where elections will be regarded as reasonably fair, even by the losing side. If India, with more illiterates than the entire population of Ghana, with 714 million registered voters, 828,000 polling stations, and many polling stations in areas with no electricity, could deploy one million battery-powered Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) for an election with more than 100 political parties and not register any notable voice of protest, then Ghana would do herself a great disservice by refusing to examine constructively the viability of an electronic electoral process.

The spectre of hundreds of very angry young men wielding cutlasses at the vicinity of the EC headquarters last December should at least remind us of how close Ghana got to become another Kenya instead of the black star of hope that it is today that Africa can indeed hold ‘normal’ general elections. The platform on which Ghana has been receiving global applause for its performance at the theatre of elections is fragile. We need not allow our weaknesses to be deafened by the din of global praise. We must get to work now and tighten the nuts and bolts of our electoral process. E-voting may well turn out to be the best way to securing the future of Africa’s fledgling democracies and, if so, Ghana should not miss this self-serving opportunity to blaze once again the continental trail. Democracy must succeed in Ghana and biometric registration and e-voting may well provide us with the warranty for democracy’s enduring success.

Thank you

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