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Opinions of Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Columnist: Amonu, Kofi

The Idiocy Of ROPAL And Its Supporters

On Feb. 27, 2006, President Kufuor signed into law the Representation of the People Amendment Act (ROPAA), only a day after its passage by Parliament. ROPAL is the law that allows Ghanaians living abroad (GLAs) to vote abroad in Ghana's parliamentary and presidential elections. To me, this is such an appalling experiment that the drunkard who came up with the notion should have aborted the dream before waking up in the morning. In a previous writing I stated that I do not like ROPAL because, among other reasons, GLAs, do not reside in any Ghanaian constituency for which their votes would be counted and also they do not have representation in parliament. However, ROPAL is now law so I want to look at it in a different light. ROPAL is useless, controversial, and unachievable. It is difficult to carry out fairly, it yields nothing if it is successfully done, yet it may bring mayhem if it is not done fairly. There is already a voting system in Ghana that may only need fine-tuning so why do it at all if GLAs are not crying for it?

Before explaining my line of reasoning I want to make one point clear. I am not suggesting that every registered Ghanaian must be allowed to vote at all cost. Conducting elections is like taking a census; you can never get a 100% inclusion. The Electoral Commission's (EC) only responsibility is to make a reasonable effort to offer equal opportunity to all qualified, registered, willing, and able voters.

The theory of ROPAL is pointless and should have been considered dead on arrival in Parliament. In the fifties and even the early sixties life in Ghana was so good that some Ghanaians who went abroad on government funding demanded that their families were included or they would decline the offer but today life is so harsh that some Ghanaians travel on foot, crossing the blistering Sahara in attempt to get to Europe. For years the government has trained many professionals, some of whom leave to other countries immediately after graduating from school. I presume that today there is no major university or hospital in North America that does not employ at least one professional person of Ghanaian heritage. The prudent thing for the parents of runaway children to do is to improve conditions at home for their children to return but by ROPAL, the government is admitting that it is uncaring and it has no desire or capability to improve life at home in order to turn around or even slow down this mass flight. Instead, the government will close the eyes to this mass exodus now extend the ballot box to the 'runaways' wherever they may be in the world. ROPAL, to me, is a sign of defeat and acceptance of non-performance - something that the government should have prevented instead of pushing for. In a developed country it would be a shot in the foot for any politician who gave his support to such a Bill. Voting abroad only makes sense for a citizen who is abroad on government errand.

As the Constitution states, the EC, even though appointed by the president, 'shall not be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority' so the EC is the sole authority to say abandon, postpone, or go ahead to ROPAL. It is plain to see therefore that the Constitution grants huge powers to the EC with the hope that it will comprise of people who will make judgments in the best interest of the nation. On the contrary, the EC has already shown disillusionment by calling for Ghanaians in countries with less than 500 of their countrymen not to be allowed to vote - a move that disenfranchises some Ghanaians in contradiction to the tenets of ROPAL. This is like a student taking two pills simultaneously, one to make him stay awake all night and study for an exam, the other to make him sleep well enough to be fresh in the morning for the exam. I am hopeful that in due course the EC will realize the weight of the obstacles to effecting ROPAL in an equitable manner, as well as the serious ramifications of its failure and conclude that it is a worthless exercise.

At best, ROPAL is a controversial law. The Constitution neither restricts voting rights to Ghanaians living in Ghana, nor does it extend the jurisdiction of the (EC), or the government itself, beyond the boundaries of Ghana. Whereas it is a serious offense to disrupt elections in Ghana, in another country you may only be charged with the misdemeanor of stealing a box, if, for instance, you forcibly carry away the Ghana ballot box from the voting site. If you think that my case in point is far-fetched, be informed that in the US election of Asantehenes have often ended in fights with police involvement and some Ghanaians ending up in hospital. In a case like this the persons involved are charged with simple assault and not disturbing the election of an Asantehene. I will not be surprised if some countries have laws prohibiting foreign elections on their soil altogether.

ROPAL, citizenship, and elections are legal matters and should be treated stringently as such. The EC may elect to let GLAs vote by mail to cut costs and simplify the process but all voters must be registered (or identified) before voting. Registering Ghanaians abroad is a Herculean task by itself as it involves establishing the identities of registrants. How does the EC differentiate Ghanaians from non-Ghanaians abroad? A GLA is a Ghanaian, born and bred in Ghana who later migrated abroad. Notwithstanding, there is also a large contingent of first and second generation GLAs of voting age, some of whom have never even been to Ghana. Liberia, for instance, has a very large population of Fante-speaking descendants of fishing families who migrated from Komenda and Elmina. I suppose, if they opt to, they all have the right to vote under ROPAL. Of the GLAs who were born in Ghana, some have acquired citizenship of their countries of residence (not dual citizens) and are therefore not legally considered as Ghanaians. They need visas to enter Ghana and they expect that their governments will come to their rescue in Ghana should a need arise. Regardless of their appearance, dialects and Ghanaian accents they are not Ghanaians and must not be allowed to vote. If would-be ROPAL voters refuse to declare, it will be impossible for the EC to determine if the used-to-be Ghanaians are now Americans, British, Canadians, Danish, Ethiopians, French or Germans. I am optimistic that the EC will save itself from laughter by not asking foreign governments for the names of Ghanaians who have changed citizenship. Also, if it is not addressed, the numerous Ghanaian passports in the hands of foreigners abroad will create a doubt in the legitimacy of any government that gets into power by ROPAL votes. Consider that if a non-Ghanaian once obtains a genuine Ghanaian passport it is impossible to refuse him any of the accompanying rights.

(Please permit me drift a little just to illustrate the extent to which some countries go to determine citizenship. A pregnant South American lady was traveling from her homeland to the US when she gave birth in flight. The US immigration authorities are using the pilots' navigational data and the time of birth to determine if the baby was born over American territorial waters in order to grant it citizenship. Whereas in Ghana, people are saying that adults who were born in Ghana and are holding Ghanaian birth certificates and passports must be deported to Liberia because that is where their parents came from as victims of war.)

GLAs must be registered in order to vote because the EC has to know the counts to expect and quantity of voting material to provide before the day of voting. We have to avoid a situation where a boxer threw 40 punches in a round and 65 of them connected.

It is also of utmost importance that the EC ensures fairness in a voting system but Dr. Afari Gyan, the chairman of the EC, has suggested that workers of Ghana missions will be asked to monitor elections abroad. I hope that before long, he would be reminded that these are people who may lose their enviable jobs should another party come to power so they cannot be expected to dig their own graves. The EC must at all cost find independent people or representations of each party to man all polling stations around the world.

It is unfair that GLAs should bear the cost of overseas voting because in Ghana voters in distant constituents are not asked to bear the cost of making ballot boxes available to them. If GLAs owe the government, other ways must be formulated to demand payment but not tied to voting. Should GLAs be made to pay for ROPAL I would not be surprised to read that the three New York ROPAL litigants have filed another suit claming that a GLA vote should count more than a GLG vote. I question the claim by ROPAL supporters that Ghana's elections are paid for by foreign donors. Why then is Akuffo-Ado, the minister of Foreign Affair who is also contending for the presidency of Ghana urging the government to release fund to the EC to implement ROPAL?

The argument that other countries have successfully conducted external voting so we should do likewise does not hold. Senegal, Cape Verde, and Mexico are not countries for Ghana to try to be like. If this reasoning is sound, then I want to suggest that instead of just ROPAL, we adopt the whole American Constitution and free market system and apply them stringently to see if they will work for us as they have transformed Americans into space explorers in barely 300 years.

ROPAL is a classic case that exposes one of the flaws of democracy - the majority is not always right. Suppose the majority of people think that the world is flat because that is how they see it and the minority think that it is round because that is how they can prove it scientifically. On May 2-4, 2007, the Sweden-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) sponsored a conference in Accra to discuss external voting and learn from the experiences of other countries in implementing external voting. The theme of this organization is to 'promote SUSTAINABLE democracy worldwide' and the theme of the Accra conference was to ensure that the majority of qualified GLAs exercised their constitutional rights to vote. How can they help us to SUSTAIN our youthful democracy without looking at how the Bill came about and became law? Do they care that none of the parliamentarians from the NPP and NDC joined the other during the walkout over the Bill? Do they care about the demonstrations against ROPAL and how sharply they have divided our Parliament? Do they care that instead of considering the well-being of Ghana our parliamentarians are now acting like penguins - when a party leader jumps in the water all members follow him? Countrymen, IDEA is a funded organization that is using ROPAL (and the destiny of 20 million people) as a basis to defend its funding so all they care about is running the elections and not the possible aftermath.

Just a few days ago in Belgium, in an attempt to possibly influence the decision of the Electoral Commission, the President Kufour hinted that ROPAL might not be executable in the 2008 elections. Whatever he says now has no significance, what is significant is that he signed the Bill into Law. The circumstances that prevent us from implementing ROPAL today are not different from what they were one year ago when he appended his signature to the Bill within 24 hours of receiving it. As someone commented on Gweb, you cannot knowingly taste bad food and spit it out, if you know that its bad, just throw it away. As it stands now, should the EC decide to go ahead and execute ROPAL in 2008, the government MUST pay for it and face any conclusion. If ROPAL cannot be implemented it must be repealed because if remains in the books it may empower a future government to deliberately disregard a good law and site ROPAL as precedence.

I believe that there are enough people in Ghana to elect a government whose decisions directly affect the voters and that the current voting setup may only need minor changes. A haphazardly done ROPAL can bring discontent to many citizens and result in internal conflict. The civil wars in Liberia, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, (and even Biafra) have different causes but ultimately they were all about a faction of the population trying to control another. And elections are all about determining who get to control the other. Nobody should be so immature to think that war cannot happen in Ghana because some 25 years ago, Liberia would have come to mind as one the most peaceful countries in Africa. For the sake of discussion, here is just one pragmatic scenario that can be explosive - statistics show that the NDC won the home votes but with ROPAL votes in consideration the NPP retains power. The NDC has provable evidence that a significant number of ROPAL voters are legally not Ghanaians. Ghana now has two equal-sized groups, each thinking that it has the mandate of the people. The NDC is contemplating that before the 2012 elections there may be other laws that would completely annihilate its chances of ever regaining power so they must act now or disband the party.

Folks, it is not every country that can conduct external voting. For poor countries like Ghana, Nigeria, or India, that have experienced a constant stream of citizens migrating to all countries around the globe for many years, and many changing their nationality, counting outside votes may only be an illusion not worthy of discussion in Parliament. GLAs' remittances to Ghana do not have a thing to do with voting. No GLA will stop sending money home to his family because the government did not allow him to vote abroad. Remittances will continue to grow exponentially as more and more Ghanaians take residence outside. The time and effort that has been wasted on ROPAL could have been used to discuss ways to improve conditions at home for Ghanaians to return or to prevent them from leaving at all. From the commonsensical point of view, ROPAL must be repealed because it is too much time, effort, money, and risk for no gain. Just ask yourself, assuming that the 2004 elections included ROPAL votes and the NPP won irrefutably, what difference would it have made in our lives today?

I may be wrong, but I doubt it.

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