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Opinions of Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Columnist: Awuni, Manasseh Azure

The System Called Biometric

By Manasseh Azure Awuni

Before I walked into the conference room of The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) that afternoon, I knew very little about the biometric system and its implications for Ghana’s 2012 elections. And though I learnt a lot that day, I am still not one of the self-proclaimed experts of the biometric voter registration system who shout themselves coarse everyday on our airwaves.
“I do not know where they have been practising their trade, nor for how long. I must say categorically that I am not one of them: so I speak as a layman who is forced by circumstances to try to find his way about the intricate web of biometric voter registration,” the Chairman of the Electoral Commission, Dr. Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, remarked before he went ahead to deliver his paper.
The biometric voter registration system is one of the most talked about issues in the Ghanaian media. But our media these days only confirm what Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, once said: “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing, but newspapers.”
In a country where no rain on Easter Friday is attributed to bad governance, it comes as no surprise that the prospects and challenges of the biometric voter registration system to be introduced in the 2012 election are seen through political binoculars. The IEA’s programme therefore provided an avenue for political parties, the EC, security agencies and other relevant interest groups of our democratic system to discuss challenges the way forward with regard to the biometric system. But as I sat through the discussion, I initially got more and more confused. The reality of the biometric voter registration and the much talked about verification systems proved very alien to the erroneous impression I had held about them. And I dare say that the unnecessary noise people make about the biometric system has more to do with sheer ignorance and malice than genuine fears of failure of the system.
According to Dr. Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, “Biometric technology is the use of computer methods to identify persons by means of their unique physical or behavioural features, such as face, iris, palm, finger, voice, and so on. …Biometric voter registration is the use of the civil type of biometric methods in the registration of voters. In this enterprise, biometric data is collected alongside the biographic data of applicants in a bid to prevent the multiple inclusion of the same person in the register database.”

Since Ghanaians agreed in 1992 to elect our leaders through the ballot box and not the barrel of the gun, the electioneering process has seen a lot of improvement, all geared towards transparency. The EC Chairman said the projected voter registration in 2012 would be the third time that the Commission would be undertaking a complete replacement of the voters register. The first was in October 1995, and the second in March 2004. Aside from the complete replacements, the Commission has revised or updated the voters register seven (7) times since 1996.
The 2012 voter registration will also be the third time that new technology is introduced. The first was in 1995, when optical mark recognition (OMR) forms and scanners were used. An OMR system of voter registration, according to Dr. Afari-Gyan, involves taking the necessary data of applicants onto computer readable forms, and then using scanning technology to read the data and compile the register. In the revision of the register in 2008, the Commission introduced workstations featuring digital cameras and optical character recognition (OCR) forms.

There have been veritable challenges to the implementation of the biometric system, including a legal action against the EC by an aggrieved bidder. Another problem was funding, but the EC Chairman said government had shown enough commitment to ensuring the success of the biometric system. What I consider the greatest threat is the level of deception, misconception and flawed interpretation of the biometric voter registration and verification systems. The biometric system has just a minute role to play in the peaceful outcome of election 2012.

If you rid it of all its technical jargons, the biometric voter registration system seeks to prevent people from double registration. It is one sure way of cleaning the voters register and ridding it of ghost names. The verification system, on the other hand, is not part of the registration process but is used during elections to detect the true identity of the voters. If applied properly, the biometric system will ensure that no one is able to register twice and votes twice.

The biometric system cannot stop the snatching of ballot boxes. The biometric system cannot prevent the stuffing of ballot boxes. It is not a panacea to election violence and intolerance. The biometric system cannot stop double voting if polling officials collude with fraudulent voters and party agents remain unvigilant. Whether the 2012 elections will be peaceful or not depends on how committed the political parties are to the core principle of transparency. We cannot go to sleep and expect the biometric system to produce a peaceful and credible election come 2012.

My experience from the last two parliamentary and presidential teaches me that there are many subtle ways of altering the true outcome of the results other than double registration and double voting, which takes foolhardy daredevils to indulge in.

After my final senior high school examination in 2004, I became a polling assistant at Aglakope, an island community in the Krachi West Constituency of the Volta Region. But what started as peaceful process on the election day nearly turned nasty. There were other smaller island communities that were supposed to vote at that polling station because Aglakope was the central location. Unfortunately, however, after an hour of voting, we run out of ballot papers. And that was the time when less than 10% of the people had voted. Some of the young men threatened that we would not leave the community alive if we didn’t give them the opportunity to vote. Our leader had to make another journey, which took him more than five hours, back to the Electoral Commission office in Kete-Krachi to bring ballot papers.

Before he arrived, however, most of the voters who had come from nearby communities had left. They said they had just returned from fishing and had to attend to their catch before it rotted in the fishing nets. Pieces of information I picked later gave me enough reason to suspect that the shortage was a well-orchestrated plan to disenfranchise the villagers, whose voting pattern was very predictable. And it worked.

In the 2008 election when I was correspondent for the GBC from the same constituency, the people of Fanteakura, another, island community did not vote in the second round of the election. The Constituency Chairman of one political party broke a ballot box and tore the ballot papers of those who had already voted. The district police commander and polling officials, who were witnesses to the act, said he had disagreed with the exact location of the polling station. Such incidents happen in many constituencies during elections and hundreds of voters can be disenfranchised in just one of such actions. This has more repercussion for the election than a few extremists who try to vote twice.

Another threat to the peaceful outcome of the 2012 election is the media. At the Sam Arthur Memorial lecture organised recently by the Ghana Institute of Journalism, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Accra, Most Rev. Charles Palmer-Buckle, was very hopeful that Ghana would once again acquit herself creditably in the 2012 election. But he believed the role of journalists will be crucial in the outcome. “The media practitioner in Ghana today must be a person who is guided by nobility and the quest for truth and virtue, particularly in the interest of the supreme good of the people to whom he/she has been sent,” he said. “The media person must be imbued with integrity of self and guided by that of others, as well as of the institutions and even the nation at large, if he/she is to safeguard and sustain her democratic growth.”

At the same lecture, the CEO of the Ghana Chamber of Mines, Rev. Dr. Joyce Aryee, made a very frightening statement that should be of great concern to all Ghanaians. “A country without a responsible media,” she noted, “is a country preparing for civil war.” Looking back at the role of some section of the media in the 2008 election, this statement does not need a doctoral thesis to prove.

When I visited the newsstand the morning after the IEA programme, I wondered if some of the journalists were reporting on the same event I witnessed. Some screaming and sensational headlines, which formed the basis for newspaper reviews on FM stations, had nothing to do with education the EC Chairman and other biometric experts had given at the programme.

The media are the greatest beneficiaries of Ghana’s democracy and the least they can do is to help sustain it. The 2012 election is not the end of the world. It should not be a do-or-die affair. The peace of the nation must remain supreme, and irrespective of our differences, we cannot sacrifice our peace for anything. I will repeat for the zillionth time that no matter the enmity between the lion and the antelope, neither of them should be foolish enough to set the forest that shelters them ablaze. Those who have ears…

Writer’s email: azureachebe2@yahoo.com