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Opinions of Monday, 24 August 2020

Columnist: Kofi Amenyo

Can Jean Mensa deliver free and fair elections?

Jean Mensa, the EC boss, stood her ground. The registration for a new voter’s list was brought to an end despite the numerous protests that surrounded the exercise. She stood her ground and like Thatcher, she is telling us all: the lady is not for turning…

Having bulldozed her way through the registration exercise, the question still remains: can Jean Mensa deliver fair elections?

In other democracies, this question will never be asked. This is because the fairness, or otherwise, of an election does not depend on the Electoral Commissioner. The electoral system is stronger than the individual heading the commission supervising it. The system is strong enough to be self-regulating.

Not so in a place like Ghana. We live in a country where we have inadequate statistics on almost everything. If we had a secure system of registration of things, we would never find ourselves in a situation where we would be wondering who is a Ghanaian eligible to vote and who is not.

Because of our inadequacies, many of the decisions that are made to fill in the gaps have been left to the referee - the chair of the EC. The 1992 Constitution gives too much power to the EC in these matters. This is dangerous in an electoral system with so many shortcomings. In a close election, her actions can decide which way the decision goes. In some cases in Africa, the pressure to return a particular result is so strong that the EC head runs away from the country before the results are announced.

The constitution enjoins the EC to deliver free and fair elections. It does not, specifically, say it should deliver violence-free elections. This may be difficult to achieve. Jean Mensa may not, for instance, be able to prevent all those people going about blatantly buying the people’s votes with money and material goods from doing so. But if she supervises elections in which she is not only fair to all parties, but is clearly seen to be so, it will result in violent-free elections. Right now, she may be trying hard to do the first but is she bending over to do the latter?

By what should we judge Jean Mensa? What should make us fear she may not deliver fair elections?

The first is her record as a conductor of elections. The EC under her care has conducted a number of “small” elections. These were not of much consequence to her credibility since they were small. Her biggest test was the conduct of the referenda in connection with the creation of new regions. Given the abysmal conduct of those plebiscites, Jean Mensa can be said to have been a big failure. There were many malpractices that she didn’t adequately address. It does not matter that the “Yes” sides could still have won without the vote stuffing. The important thing is to get the procedure right. She failed to ensure that. Now the stakes are higher – much higher.

Secondly, the manner by which she got the job seems a bit unfortunate. It was wrong for the NPP government to scheme for the removal of the old commissioner, Charlotte Osei, for reasons that did not directly have to do with her ability to deliver fair elections. She could have been sanctioned or reprimanded in some other way. Notwithstanding the President’s protestations of his hands being tied by the constitution, her removal was in bad faith.

This cast a dismal shadow over the one who took her place given that she was appointed by the one who sacked her predecessor. Jean Mensa will have to exert herself to prove that this shadow does not have a particular colour!

Thirdly her actions so far don’t suggest that she is capable of conducting fair elections. Like Thatcher, she does not seem to want to listen to anybody apart from herself – or some pay master.

Fourthly, the President’s own pronouncements are not helping her. He supports openly all the moves the EC makes. This raises suspicions that the government is behind these moves. In one of his Covid addresses to the nation, Akufo-Addo lambasted opponents of the EC’s policies and heaped praises on the EC and its officials.

This is ill-advised. Akufo-Addo is one of the sides in this football match. He sacked the old referee, appointed his own, and even before the final game is played, is pouring praises on the referee – his own appointee! If the EC is to be an independent body, then the government should not be seen to be publicly praising the body. If Akufo-Addo loses December’s elections, will he still be praising the EC and its chair?

Jean Mensa does not seem to be distancing herself from the President’s pronouncements in her favour. She is enjoying them.

Right now, Akufo-Addo is in the driving seat because he is calling the shots but Mahama’s chances are not nil. The electorate has their performances in office to judge them by rather than their hollow promises for an unknown future. And there is no viable third alternative in the offing. Even if he loses, Mahama could run him close. Anything less than his margin of victory in 2016 would be an indictment on Akufo-Addo’s performance in office! For the sake of our democracy it is important that whoever wins does so genuinely and not because the tally was tampered with.

It will be up to Jean Mensa to show to all Ghanaians that she is genuinely not in anybody’s corner. Nobody expects her to deliver perfect elections. Free and fair elections are not seen only on voting day. Even more important is the build-up to the day and the extent to which all the competitors feel they are on an equal playing field. Jean Mensa is responsible to see to it that this is so.

So far, Jean Mensa does not inspire confidence in everyone but she has the chance to redeem herself. She will need to gird up her loins tighter than she has done so far. Will she be able to use her Thatcherite characteristics to stamp her authority on free and fair elections?

Email of author: kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com