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Opinions of Monday, 29 August 2011

Columnist: Diedong, Richard Dombo

Ghana’s Biometric Registration: Some Troubling Questions

The decision to introduce a system of biometric registration as a prelude to implementing biometric voting in future elections in Ghana, is laudable and welcomed by all the political parties. However, intentions apart, the type of equipment chosen, its overall capabilities, and the manner of introducing the system is as important as the idea itself. To that end, this article seeks to pose searching questions with the view to agitating the awareness of stakeholders and the nation at large, and act as a prompt to the governing authorities not to take anything for granted in this important endeavor. Although Ghana’s 2008 elections were cleared by foreign monitoring agencies as free and fair, there were none-the-less claims and counter claims of numerous electoral malpractices in particular sections of the country notably the Volta and the Ashanti Region, depending on your political persuasion. It was therefore a timely suggestion to introduce biometrics into our electoral system. With this, the omens were good that Ghana was poised to further advance her democracy Tangible steps towards this realization started when an advert appeared in the UKTI [United Kingdom Trade Institute] news letter, as follows: “Wednesday, 16 Feb 2011 Ghana - Biometric Technology for Voter Register Opportunity to supply and install biometric technology to replace existing voter register in Ghana. Tender deadline: 09/03/2011” Other tangible steps in the biometric endeavor include the government allocating GHC50 million initially, and ultimately $85million for the biometric registration exercise. In as much as there are these outwardly stated intentions to introduce a biometric system into Ghana’s electoral system and consequently ensure a fraud free set of future elections, regrettably there are equally disturbing questions that need answering; issues that need resolving.

Searching Questions: i] At the time of deciding to write this piece over a week ago, the Electoral Commission had not yet convened an IPAC meeting, as called for by the NPP and PNC to resolve budding issues, forestall any suspicions and mistrust of the process and generally reach a consensus by all stakeholders. Why this unwarranted delay in convening an IPAC meeting then, one may ask? Is there a credible connection between David Kanga’s role as Deputy Chairman of the Electoral Commission responsible for Electoral Operations and his perceived sympathies towards the ruling NDC?

The IPAC finally convened, but, as predicted – the very reason why Kanga should have convened IPAC earlier - issues arose whereby an injunction has been taken out by one of the parties against the process. The result of all this is that the opening of the register is indeterminably delayed until the injunction issues and possibly newer ones arise, and are resolved. With 2012 not a distant future from now, it begs the question whether the registration exercise once opened, will reach the entire country before closing, analyzing, resolving anomalies, before implementation on Election Day. ii] How was the decision reached on the preferred bidder to supply the biometric equipment? Was the short listing process truly open and transparent without ‘brown envelope’, 10% kick backs taking precedence over quality, coming into play? How else then do we hear of an injunction by aggrieved parties against winning bidder? iii] Of the types of biometric equipment available on the market, what informed government’s choice of the type chosen for Ghana? Indeed, was it the EC’s or the government’s prerogative in this choice? iv] Is the registration process starting from scratch, or is it utilizing available databases such as those held at the Passport, DVLA, NHIS offices? If not, why not? I would have thought that cost and time imperatives would have dictated the utilization of existing databases; v] Has the preferred equipment been stress tested elswhere for accuracy, that is, minimizing false acceptance and ensuring it would be robust and fit for purpose? vi] Will the EC and the government confirm or deny that the equipment chosen does not have a verification capability which would essentially make a farce of the entire endeavor? This question is critical because the purpose of a biometric register is to lock out duplicity, impersonation and multiple voting potential for those so desirous. It cannot be overemphasized that if the government in collaboration with the EC controversially go ahead with half measures, by introducing biometric equipment without verification capability to prevent multiple voting then, as the Flagbearer of the NPP, Nana Akufo Addo recently stated and backed by the NPP Chairman, Jake Obetsebi Lamptey, the object would be missed and the investment money ought to be better utilized elsewhere! This will be the case were it true that the preferred bidder’s equipment does not have a verification capability. What would be the point in having a biometric register which on Election Day cannot confirm a name on the register with the person presenting himself at a polling station as the named person to vote? Of what use is the new system then? How can the government justify using the country’s scarce foreign exchange in this wasteful manner? Hard up Ghanaians deserve better!

vii] The Ashanti Region is suggested as the sample region for the biometric registration exercise. What informed the decision of the EC/government in making this choice? This decision smacks of political expediency on the one hand, and flies in the face of sampling logic on the other. First of all with the political expediency, it is as clear as daylight that an NDC administration choosing an NPP stronghold as a sample area needs no genius to decipher why. As with the fiasco of the 2010 population census, there also was the 2000 National Photo Identification exercise which also had the Ashanti region as the sample area. Guess what? The exercise ended with the Ashanti Region, meaning that whereas voters in that region voted with IDs, the Volta region, for example, voted without photo identification. If this is anything to go by, one could be excused in being skeptical that the Ashanti Region has again been chosen by another NDC administration as a sample area for the biometric registration exercise. Considering the intended merits of biometrics – to prevent fraudulent voting practices – if the stronghold of the NDC, the Volta Region, is not covered by the registration before time runs out for the 2012 elections, effectively, the administration would be open to justified criticisms of emasculating the NPP whilst benefiting from possible fraudulent votes in the Volta Region. Any fair minded government would be at pains to avoid this occurrence so as to appear honorable, and I pray our vaunted ‘asomdwe hene’ President Mills would intervene against this.

On the issue of the sample area itself, it is illogical and for that matter lends credence to the previous point, to choose the largest region – Ashanti – for sampling. The Wikipedia defines a sample size as: “Sample size determination is the act of choosing the number of observations to include in a statistical sample. The sample size is an important feature of any empirical study in which the goal is to make inferences about a population from a sample. In practice, the sample size used in a study is determined based on the expense of data collection, and the need to have sufficient statistical power.” In essence therefore, other than for the political reason aforementioned, cost and time imperatives dictate that a smaller [Upper West] to medium size [Volta] region ought to be considered rather than the largest region. This would ensure a speedier completion and quicker examination of the sample results prior to wider implementation. The thrust of my argument is that for both political transparency, as well as time and cost implications, the Ashanti region ought not to be the sample region for the biometric registration. Could the government, the EC, IEA, and IPAC please heed the call to ensure this foray into the next level of our democratic development, is cost effective, transparent, universally acceptable and ultimately worthwhile. I stress that the country goes for the full biometric package, or else leave the status quo alone. An idiom is apt here: ‘A thing worth doing is worth doing well’, and the epicurean view also comes to mind: ‘drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring; half a knowledge is a dangerous thing’! I also call upon these same bodies and agencies to seriously consider the questions and suggestions raised by the think tank group IMANI on the issue of the infrastructure, test regime and other security measures relating to biometrics.

As a footnote, is there more than a hint of assured knowledge of underhanded maneuverings in President Mills’ confident prediction that 2012 is a forgone conclusion, and so adios until 2017 when he would ‘peacefully handover’? Is there an implied threat that 2012 would not witness an above board election where peace can be taken for granted? Well, the realist in me believes that such a confident prediction in the face of dire national conditions which would normally portend an insecure future for government, can only mean the resolved determination to win at all costs, fair or foul!

My call also goes to all Ghanaians to be alert to anything that can result in a recurrence of a ‘stolen verdict’ situation as witnessed in 1996. Your activism or apathy, will determine whether or not you get a government you may or may not have consciously and freely voted for. A flawed biometric registration system without a verification potential, coupled with the EC office inhabited by a not so neutral 2-IC, is a recipe for this outcome and must be resisted.

Long live Ghana

Long live our Democracy

By Richard Dombo Diedong LL.B (Hons)