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Opinions of Saturday, 18 January 2020

Columnist: Prof.Baffour Agyeman-Duah

Let us calmly resolve the voter registration impasse


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A fierce debate rages over the decision by the Electoral Commission to compile a new biometric voters’ register for the December 2020 elections.

Expectedly, the debate has taken partisan paths with the ruling party backing the decision and the opposition vehemently opposing. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it typifies and entrenches the ugly political culture of the opposition contesting every initiative endorsed by the ruling party and vice versa. Recall that in a similar exercise towards the 2016 elections the ruling party, now in opposition, backed the EC, while the opposition, now in power, opposed.

A “tit-for-tat” politics can neither be healthy nor productive.

Presently, it is crucial for calm to prevail and ways found to still and contain the storm before it blows into our faces. Presumably, both proponents and opponents of the EC decision have the best interest of the nation at heart. They all will like to see a credible election that will sustain the relative peace we enjoy. Sustainable peace remains the bulwark of our democracy and development. It will be in no one’s interest, therefore, to create conditions that undermine our democratic peace.

That is why the raging debate should be conducted with a sense of decorum and circumspection. Already, unguarded statements by politicians and extremists have led inglorious self-proclaimed prophets to foretell a gloomy electoral season, including the assassination of the EC Chairperson. Vilification and demonization of public officials do not resolve conflicts; constructive and civilized engagements do. Those seeking to lead the country have the greatest responsibility to exemplify matured leadership.

By the way, not all the arguments for or against a new registration hold water. For instance, those wanting the upcoming population census to provide data for voter registration could be disingenuous, knowing that registrations do not depend on census results necessarily. The census enables the EC to demarcate electoral areas. Even so, Government statistician Samuel Annim has already poured cold water on the timeliness of the census due to “some field challenges.” Thus, instead of March as planned, “a delay of a month or two” is possible, he says.

Those making a linkage between NIA database and voter registration are equally disingenuous or plain ignorant. Though a good idea, it is yet to be agreed to and adopted by stakeholders and technological infrastructure is not even built for such a linkage. Meanwhile, the ongoing national ID exercise has captured only 6.5 million citizens, a number way below the estimated 16 million eligible voters and, even then, the law that limits voter registration to those 18 and above will exclude many of those on the NIA list.

Also in contention is the cost of the registration exercise. Meanwhile, our Parliament has debated and approved for the Ministry of Finance to disburse the amount required for the EC to do the job. I wish Parliament had voted down the 400 or 800 million cedi request and directed the amount to refurbish the road to my village.

But in the collective wisdom of our representatives the voter registration is a priority, not my village road. Unfortunately, my parochial wish cannot override the collective wisdom of our lawmakers.

The concern about time not being on the side of the EC to do all it has to do makes a compelling case. With barely eleven months to go, time, indeed, is priceless for both the EC and political parties who may have a tall agenda for readying themselves for the contest. For the smoothness of the electoral process, the complementarity of agendas of the parties and EC is always encouraged. However, the pursuit of purely parochial interests of parties should not obstruct the public agenda as set by the EC.

A typical example is the practice of parties spending time to mobilize and bus their members to register. Citizens should rather be educated to embrace registration as a civic responsibility and not a party liability.

Citizens expressing opinion and suggesting policy alternatives is a democratic imperative. But responsible citizenship requires all to be constructive in seeking consensus towards a national goal. Where this cannot be achieved we adopt the civilized approach of resorting to the Courts for adjudication.

In the present case, neither side can compel the EC to do its bidding. The EC has the constitutional mandate to make independent decisions, though common sense also dictates that exercising the mandate successfully requires the support and cooperation of stakeholders.

What is needed immediately, therefore, is for the EC to embark on constructive engagements with all the principal stakeholders. Certainly not wanting to be the spoilers, opponents would likely welcome such an opportunity; happily some key contestants have already indicated their readiness. All sides should be magnanimous towards a consensus that saves all faces. The supreme interest of Ghana requires all to be high-minded and avoid nitpicking.

The EC should open up, and once consensus on the way forward is reached, a ratification of clear timelines for key actions for the season should be adopted. Henceforth, attention should focus on implementing the EC agenda. Enhanced systems of transparency, including monitoring, should be introduced to calm nerves and arrest the fear, rightfully or not, of possible manipulation of the process.

The next objective for the EC and stakeholders should be to explore the introduction of a permanent system of continuous voter registration. This enables qualified citizens to walk – at their leisure, anytime in the year – to designated centers to register or update their data.

Such a system is easily available and it will curtail the seasonal national trauma over voter registration which always puts us on the tinderbox to threaten our peace.

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