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Opinions of Sunday, 13 November 2011

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Is NDC Scared of Biometric Verification?

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK

Until recently, I did not know much about Biometric Technology but political argument over Biometric Verification of the impending Biometric Electoral Register in Ghana, in connection with preparations towards the 2012 General Elections (Presidential and Parliamentary) have enabled me to read a number of articles on Ghanaweb and other electronic media on the subject. I have also listened to debates by politicians and social commentators on the same and have taken time to do further reading to improve my understanding of Biometric Technology. L Coventry, A De Angeli and G Johnson of NCR-FSD Advanced Technology and Research in UK defined Biometrics Verification as the use of anatomical, physiological or behaviour characteristics to recognise or verify the claimed identity of a person. It requires the collection, processing and storage of details of person’s physical characteristics. Biometric technologies are used to confirm that the person is present rather than their token.

Since September 11 terrorist attacks on United States, the technology has become an integral part of the war on terror. For example, the German Federal Office for Information Security states that Biometric Verification provides a verification process for the claimed identity of a human being using unique characteristic/s of their body. According to them, one of the main functions of a biometric verification system is to verify or reject “the claimed identity” (the document) of “a claimed identity user” (the individual) using unique characteristics of the body such as iris-recognition, face-recognition, fingerprint-recognition, etc. The technology is increasingly being incorporated into travel documents such as passports and at almost all major airports and entry/security points to check and verify travel documents and the identities of those who carry them. From the above and all what I have read, I have come to the conclusion that Biometric Verification is one of the means by which a person can be uniquely identified by evaluating one or more of that person’s physiological characteristics.

Of late, the Biometric Verification is also gradually becoming a tool for conducting free, fair, transparent and democratic elections and a recipe for avoiding or reducing post election conflicts since the technology, if effectively used, can reduce fraud associated with election outcomes. The perennial problems associated with election fraud such as the difficulties with verification of voters, claims of bloated electoral register resulting in multiple voting, the rejection of election results and the ensuing conflicts in developing countries, especially in Africa could be a thing of the past through the use of Biometric Verification Technology. Though Ghana has gone through five general elections that have been acclaimed as generally free and fair since 1992, they were not devoid of accusations of fraud, vote rigging, multiple voting and others by the vanquished against the victor. I remember as a postgraduate student in 1993 coming across a number of academic papers on the 1992 general elections in the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies (London) whilst conducting literature review research for my dissertation. “The Stolen Verdict” (by the late Distinguished Professor Albert Adu Boahene who also happened to be the defeated Presidential candidate in that election) did not only catch my attention but was also a big diversion on what I went to the Library for (as I spent half of the day devouring it).

On average, defeated candidates and parties are the ones to cry foul and reject elections results but that has not always been the case, particularly, in Ghana. For example, in 2008 the ruling party (NPP) lost the Presidential elections by narrowest of margins to the opposition party (NDC) culminating in both winner and looser accusing each other of fraud. Either by luck or the determination of Ghanaians to live in peace, the country has successfully avoided post electoral conflicts that have blighted lives in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire. However, the challenges of the 2008 elections, the aftermath and recent unsavoury language by some politicians should make Ghanaians and all stakeholders concerned that post election peace should not be taken for granted in the 2012 Presidential elections. It is no secret that Ghana is divided and polarised between the two main political parties (NDC and NPP). The political divide is getting wider daily and approaching near danger levels as the NDC is preoccupied with retaining power whilst the NPP is obsessed with regaining power in 2012. In any developed democracies, the 2012 Presidential election would be very exciting to watch but with low understanding of democracy in Ghana such competitive election that any of the two parties is capable of wining could also spell doom for the country. Both parties are behaving as if the only acceptable free and fair election outcome is victory for them and defeat for their opponent. Without that, there would be chaos, trouble or even conflict in Ghana.

Against this background is the argument over the use of Biometric Registration Verification. From the benefits of Biometric Verification mentioned earlier and bearing in mind the developing political tensions between the two political parties, it is a tragedy, pathetic and incomprehensible that the Electoral Commission, NDC, NPP and other parties are squabbling over whether the country should used and or can afford the additional cost of $20 million Biometric Verification. The EC is allegedly claiming that the Verification is not a must and would not necessarily guarantee fraud free elections but instead, it is individuals and the political parties that indulge in electoral fraud. The NDC General Secretary is reported to have claimed that the $20 million verification cost is expensive, the technology relies on electricity and could disenfranchise some voters if power supply fails during election day and therefore verification will not be used for 2012 elections. The NPP on the other hand, is allegedly reported that they would boycott the elections without verification.

It appears that the Executive arm of government is bullying the Electoral Commission into submission on this important matter. The NDC General Secretary attends cabinet meetings and therefore a de facto member of the Executive. He is not part of the Electoral Commission but proclaims that verification would not be used for reasons he has alluded to. Under what constitutional authority did he make this proclamation? The decision on whether or not to use Biometric Verification solely rests with the Electoral Commission whilst the Executive can only decide whether the cost is affordable by the state after the Electoral Commission has made the request for funds for Biometric Verification. By his statement that verification would not be used, the NDC General Secretary has usurped the powers of the Electoral Commission. My question to NDC and the Electoral Commission is that, if they claim that $20 million is too expensive, do they know the price for post election conflict?

The Economist estimated in 2008 that the Kenyan post election conflict cost businesses alone £145 million. The total cost of refugees, about seven hundred thousand internally displaced people, over one thousand people killed, the thousands maimed; cost of peace keeping, destruction of property, disruption to life and many others, if quantified in monetary value would be in billions of US Dollars. Ghana should not consider only the $20 million cost of the Biometric Verification but also the price for post election conflict in Ghana. For the avoidance of any doubt, post election conflict would be very expensive to Ghana, Africa and the international community. Immediately, Ghana would suffer from what is known in Conflict and Peace Studies as the 4Ds: (Destruction, Disruption, Diversion and Dis-savings). Destruction to labour force through death and injury; to physical capital (infrastructure and property). Disruption to production and other socio-economic activities as people flee from conflict areas. Diversion of government spending from peace to military and para-military activities as well as individuals, especially foreigners and investors send money and resources abroad and people liquidate their assets quickly into cash and withdraw savings to flee from conflict. These are the immediate cost to Ghana in the vent of post election conflict. The medium and long-term impact on Ghana, the region and the international community are as follows: Risk of a failed state and the associate drug trade and terrorist bases; internally displaced people (IDPs), transfer of investment into other countries, redirection of new investment from Ghana, refugees into neighbouring countries, lost of trade, peace keeping, humanitarian aid and many others. If these are quantified they would cost Ghana alone billions of US dollars in a year, not counting the cost to other African countries and the international community such as the UN High Commission for Refugees and Peace Keeping and other international humanitarian organisations. It is a price to high to bear.

The $20 million cost of the Biometric Verification plus any additional cost of power provision (electricity, generators and fuel) would be insignificant compared to the cost of post election conflict emanating from disputed election results. There is no assurance that Biometric Verification would guarantee hundred percent fraud free elections but it would reduce the potential for fraud and avoid disputed election results. The President went to the UN General Assembly to assure the world that his government would ensure a free and fair elections in 2012, so why is his party unwilling to accept Biometric Verification as part of the electoral processes? What is NDC afraid of? Are they scared of Biometric Verification? For many Ghanaians, cost alone should not be sufficient grounds for NDC and the government not to use Verification to deliver on the President’s assurance to the UN. Democracy is never cheap and neither is dictatorship. Ghanaians deserve a free, fair and transparent elections that all and sundry can accept the outcome to avoid any disputes that could lead to post election conflict. If a nation that is now an oil producer and exporter cannot afford $20 million that would contribute to fraud free elections, then how can Ghana be an example of best practice in democracy in Africa?

And to NPP leading members, please stop creating the impression that without Biometric Verification, your party would lose the Presidential elections or NDC would win the elections through manipulation and fraudulent means. Both NDC and NPP are capable of manipulation and fraud in their strongholds as were alleged in 2008. Boycotting the elections simply because Biometric Verification was not used would be an excuse and self defeatist. Participating only to reject the outcome because Biometric Verification was not used or you did not win without credible evidence would also be an exercise in futility and an excuse to create chaos and potential post election conflict in Ghana would also unacceptable. For NPP leading members who are warning of war by your statements, I have a message for you. If you are not aware, I would like to bring to your attention that, the International Criminal Court in the Hague has a department that monitors events in potential conflict situations and areas, especially in election years. Statements such as “All die be die”, “Yen Akan fuo”, “the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire was led by Akans and Akans in Ghana are therefore capable of similar action”, “NPP will match NDC cutlass by cutlass, gun by gun”, etc are being recorded and attributed to individuals who made them. Should post elections conflict break out in Ghana in 2012, such war mongering and encouragement statements could be relied on to prosecute such politicians at the Hague.

Ghana, Africa and the international community needs peace and not conflict. Elections are competitions and not wars and that is what NDC and NPP should know. Elections are also similar to the finals of championship games such as the World Cup (football and rugby). The finals are always between two of the best teams and one must win and the other will be defeated. There is nothing wrong with both teams being very hopeful and sure of winning but that does not mean there would be two winners. On the other hand, there is everything wrong with any of the two teams claiming that they must win at all cost and if they do not win, hell will break loose. All political parties in Ghana should work with the Electoral Commission to resolve the argument over Biometric Verification amicably to ensure credible and peaceful elections that the outcome would be without doubt and acceptable to all parties.

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge