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Opinions of Monday, 22 February 2016

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Is Charlotte Osei up to the task as Electoral Commissioner?

Mrs Charlotte Osei was appointed Chairperson of the Electoral Commission (EC) in late June 2015. As the first female Chairperson of the EC following the 2012 presidential petition at the Supreme Court, a lot was expected of her from Ghanaians in the areas of electoral reform, credible voters’ register, transparent electoral administration and particularly efficient and smooth organisation of the 2016 parliamentary presidential elections. For these and other reasons one would have expected that her decisions, actions and omissions would be above reproach. Unfortunately, so far, she is proving to be a disappointment. This article is a discussion on the six months tenure of Mrs Osei as Electoral Commissioner with reference to the recent confusion regarding the appointment of the National Election Steering Committee.

The first controversy Mr Osei was embroiled in was the breach of Article 44(4) of the 1992 Constitution which states, “the Chairman and the two Deputy Chairmen of the Commission shall not, while they hold office on the Commission, hold any other public office”. It was later reported that Mrs Osei was also a Board Member of Ghana Reinsurance Company Limited and only resigned at the end of December 2015. She tried to justify her decision not resign earlier by claiming that Board membership of the Ghana Reinsurance was not a public office because the salaries of officials of the company are not from the consolidated fund. She was wrong because public office includes those offices that are appointed directly by the Executive or through the agents of Executive such as the Public Service Commission. Ghana Reinsurance Company Limited began as a unit of the State Insurance Corporation in 1972, gained autonomy in 1984 and a company limited by guarantee with 100 percent Ghana government shares in 1995. Therefore, there is no doubt that the position of Ghana Reinsurance Board is a public office. As a lawyer, she ought to have known better rather than resort to technicalities. The constitution says, “any other” and not “other”.

Her next disappointment was the choice of language during her presentation at the two-day seminar on the Voters’ Register from October 29 to 30 October 2015 at Alisa Hotel in Accra. In her presentation, Mrs Osei referred to letters she had received from the opposition NPP on the need for a new voters’ register as “love letters”. Considering the national importance of this subject matter, to refer to the letters as she did was to trivialise the issue, was naive and unprofessional. In fact, it was disrespectful to NPP.

In fact, until Mrs Charlotte Osei appeared as guest on Newsfile in January 2016, some of us were sceptical about her approach. However, on the programme she was persuasive and a better communicator than expected. Not long after that excellent performance, she dropped another bombshell by claiming that the voters’ register in Asante region was over bloated by 200,000. Though she later clarified that the figure was a mistake and the actual figure was around 40,000, the damage had been done. This is because the Asante region is the stronghold of NPP and since NPP suspect her to be a sympathiser of the ruling NDC, one would have expected that she would be careful with her public utterances on matters involving the two main political parties. Of course, that might have been a genuine mistake but taken the huge disparities in the two figures, who can blame NPP to be suspicious?

The last straw is controversy over the creation of a National Election Steering Committee by the EC. It appears even key stakeholders including the political parties were not consulted. More worrying was the selection and makeup of the membership of the Committee. Two have been identified to be party politically active members of NDC and others are also regarded as being sympathetic to NDC. One could say that in the current duopolistic system in Ghana it is almost practically impossible to appoint individuals who are apolitical since everyone belongs or is sympathetic to either NDC or NPP. However, appointing individuals who are known to be party political from one side of the political divide onto such an important electoral committee, to say the least, is folly and a disaster in the making.

Another dispute has arisen between the EC and the National Peace Council over Peace Council’s representative on the National Election Steering Committee. According the Chairman of the Council, the Executive Secretary is not representing the Council whilst the EC claims it wrote to the Council for a representative and received a letter nominating the Executive Secretary. If the Chairman was unaware of the letter from the EC, it appears the Executive Secretary received EC’s letter and decided to nominate himself without the approval of the Council members. The EC cannot be blamed for this but could EC have avoided such confusion had it consulted its partners and stakeholders?

I must admit the creation and the appointment of the committee and its membership were collective decisions of the seven EC commissioners and not solely that of Mrs Charlotte Osei but as Chairperson, she takes ultimate responsibility for the successes and failures of the Commissioners. One would have expected that due to the political discourse in Ghana the EC would have been careful in the selection of the membership of this important committee to avoid this unnecessary negative attention and to gain the trust of the electorate, than be seen to be doing the bidding of the one political party.

One wonders whether heads of important organisations in Ghana such as the EC have no advisers. For example, the EC should have been advised to conduct conflict of interest test on all those nominated by the various bodies who were asked by the EC to send representatives. Moreover, why did EC fail to consult IPAG on the establishment of the Election Steering Committee? Did EC seek legal advice on the formation of the Committee, etc?

It is a fact that Mrs Charlotte Osei is just over six months into a retirement appointment and therefore she has a lot of time to learn from her mistakes. Sadly, time is not her side because the November 2016 elections are just eight months away and it’s the most important election in the Fourth Republic. To gain credibility as an independent and impartial arbiter, her actions and omissions must not only be above reproach but must also been to be above reproach. She has a lot to do to gain the trust and confidence of the electorate. To be successful, she will need the support of all key stakeholders. So far, she has not exhibited the skills through her actions to gain the confidence of even IPAG, let alone the electorate and the party political animals. The fact still remains that no Electoral Commissioner has been the toast of the main opposition party unless it wins a presidential election. However, Mrs Charlotte Osei appears to be giving the opposition the rope to hang her through these elementary mistakes. In the coming weeks and months, I hope she will prove all and sundry wrong that she more than capable of being an independent and impartial Electoral Commissioner.

Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK