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12.11.2005 Feature Article

Diaspora Vote: We came. We listened. We answered.

Diaspora Vote: We came. We listened. We answered.
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On Saturday October 21, 2005 a thirteen-member delegation of the Diaspora Vote Committee (DVC) arrived in Ghana from the US, Canada, Europe and Africa to present a face to the national debate on extending the voting franchise to Ghanaians living abroad. Judging from the quality and quantity of discussions that the five-day trip generated in Ghana print, radio and television ; we can confidently pronounce the mission a great success beyond imagination. A hotel worker put it thus:

“Brother, I have been listening to your group on the radio and we thank you for coming down.. Now we know that all we needed about this was education. Ghanaians abroad send so much money to hold this country together why can't they vote as the rest of us?”

A taxi driver added: “I have been listening all day and every passenger has been excited about the people who came from abroad to explain their position. I can tell you that a big majority agrees that Ghana will be much better off when the Diaspora people are made full partners of our democracy and development through the vote. I support and thank you because no one has been talking about this issue for a while in this country. The discussion had died before you came and everything else has been put into party politics terms instead of the real issues.” The delegation paid a courtesy call to the Vice President, Alhaji Aliu Mahama, who received a set of uniforms from the DVC on behalf of the national soccer team, the Black Stars. The President's Chief of Staff, Mr. Kwadwo Mpiani, was in attendance for the President who was traveling to the USA. The group visited Parliament, met with the Attorney General, the Electoral Commission and the National Identification Directorate. Two press conferences were held in Accra and Kumasi. There were appearances in all the media channels, TV, FM radio and print. Two public debates were held at the University of Ghana, Legon. The delegation comprised Ghanaians from various ethnic backgrounds and even though they held personal political sympathies, the focus was on Ghana and no one was allowed to identify with, praise or bash any Ghana political party. We were all committed to one cause- that Ghanaians abroad should be extended the right to vote in Ghana's elections from their countries of residence as Article 42 of Ghana's 1992 Constitution confers. In this we support the passage of the Representation of the People Amendment Bill (ROPAB) that is currently before Ghana's parliament as the means to accomplish this goal. The members of the delegation who carried themselves with dignity and represented our cherished position deserve our appreciation. They are: Alhaji Abass Adamu (NY- Computer Systems Analyst), Kwasi Afrifa (NY- Grant Administrator, Ford Foundation), Amo Adjepong (NY- President, Providence Center for Humanity International), MacDonald Agbenyo (Toronto, Canada- Project Manager and Businessman), Phebe Annan (NY- Executive Assistant), Mike Baffoe (Montreal, Canada- Publisher, Radio Host and Lecturer), Rebecca Bannor (Denmark- UN Journalist), Dr. Agyenim Boateng (Kentucky- Assistant Attorney General, State of Kentucky), Kofi A. Boateng (NY- Chief Operating Officer, The Africa-America Institute and leader of the delegation), Prof. Kwame Frimpong (Botswana- Professor of Law, University of Botswana), Nana Gyebi (United Kingdom- Businessman in Information Technology), Kwabena Manu (NY – Union Representative, Westchester County) and Jermaine Nkrumah (Texas- Businessman and Chairman of African Organizations in Houston – also initiator of DVC).

What follows are the common questions that we confronted and the responses we gave. We do this to extend the discussion to the broader Ghanaian populace both in and outside Ghana. For the sake of maintaining the non-partisan nature of DVC, we do not list the names or affiliations of those who appeared to persistently oppose the position of the DVC. The delegation did not shy from any name or entrenched position and the FM stations enjoyed animated discussions. We believe that in the end, there were significant changed minds. On rare occasions, the DVC was denounced and that was also taken well as a sign of healthy democracy.

1. This is not a priority of Ghana. Ghana has so many problems. We should not take our money to fund Ghanaians living abroad to vote from where they live outside Ghana. We do not know the cost and do not have the money.

This objection has many parts and we shall respond to them accordingly. First is the issue of priority. Certainly there are always competing demands for limited resources and choices have to be made. This dilemma will always face humankind living in both rich and poor countries. The real question is who makes the decision about what will be done now and what will wait? We dare say that it is the people of the country and they do this through their law-making representatives in a democracy. The decision- makers are in turn elected by and responsible to the electorate. If we can agree on this, then it will follow that the right to vote by the citizens assumes a supreme priority that cannot be wished away. Not to compare Ghana to Iraq but worth noting is that this primary principle of choice and priority made the people of Iraq risk their lives amidst bombs to vote on their constitution barely two months ago. Therefore yes, anything that has to do with deciding the modus of elections as contemplated by the Representation of the People Amendment Bill is a priority. It is the number one priority in a democracy.

May we correct one misstatement that is implied in the expression: “our money?” How do you count a nation's money? If that includes inflows from all sources then certainly, the several billions of dollars that is generally accepted to come to Ghana from the remittances of Ghanaians living outside the country each year cannot be so easily forgotten when we count “our money.” “Our money” includes our money, i.e. - remittances from abroad. We shall say more on this later.

On cost, please remember that there are two processes that we should be careful not to conflate. After the Parliament passes ROPAB, then and only then can the Electoral Commission have the mandate to start a process of determining cost and even proposing ways to fund it. In this let us remember a few facts. Ghana's elections are not wholly funded from internal resources. Over 40% is funded by other democracies. Secondly, once the way is clear, there are many ways to extract various fees from Ghanaians living abroad. An obvious one will be fees from dual citizenship applications that should increase dramatically when people see an immediate benefit. Above all, several countries have done what Ghana is struggling to do and not one country has ever stopped because cost was prohibitive, and that includes Burkina Faso, Mali, Rwanda, Botswana, South Africa and Niger. No one has come forward with a budget nor sought assistance anywhere to fund the implementation of extending the vote to Ghanaians living abroad. What are we then fighting about? $150,000? $1.5 million? When we know the budget from the Electoral Commission then we should trust ourselves to take the right steps to fund it.

2. We shall have problems identifying who is a Ghanaian citizen. The DVC resists the temptation to provide a list of how Ghanaians outside should be identified since that will also be part of the Electoral Commission's job and these will be spelled out in the Regulations that will follow the passage of ROPAB. In this we should not mistrust or downplay the experience of Ghana's Electoral Commission. The EC has supervised elections in Ghana for Malians, Nigerians (Niger) and Bukinabes living in Ghana. So far, there have been no reports of chaos, complaints about cost or problems with identification. How were these accomplished? Could we trust to ask our own Electoral Commission? There is an Akan proverb that says: “bisa bisa fuo nyera kwan” (when you ask, you do not get lost). Jesus added, “Seek and you will find”. We should not be too proud or too taken by fear to ask others who have trod the path we groan to tread. An argument is made that it is easier to identify Ghanaians in Ghana because someone can always come forward to provide family history in the event of a challenge. While we are tempted to say that the same thing can be done with Ghanaians living abroad, we urge our nation to move forward from the biblical era when census could be taken only when one traveled by donkey or walked to his/her place of birth. Surely Ghana as a nation has issues to resolve such as providing its citizens with identification cards and non-compromised passports. None of these though, do away with extending the right to vote; rather they should accelerate modern solutions. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

3. The people of the Diaspora do not pay tax into the common fund so why should we allow them to vote? May we emphasize that the proof of payment of taxes is not a condition to vote in Ghana therefore this should be of no relevance to the passage of ROPAB. However for the sake of clearing the fog we offer the following: What is a tax but a means for a nation to generate revenue to pay its expenses? Therefore the tax comes either directly as from income tax or indirectly as in various fees such as import duties, air travel fees, Value Added Tax, National Health Insurance levy, etc. On the surface, it is easy to dismiss the Ghana Diaspora as not paying tax because by definition they do not live year-round or work fulltime in Ghana. But that is only superficial. Let us follow the path of a dollar from the Diaspora. This dollar is sent to a relative to build a house. The relative hires an architect who hires a builder who hires laborers etc. Several materials are purchased on contract and let us not forget the registration fees. This is what economists call the multiplier effect of one dollar. Do you see how this one-dollar from the Diaspora will generate several direct income taxes to the so-called Common Fund? There are several indirect taxes to the common fund when various fees and duties are tacked on at astronomical levels when the car, furniture, etc are shipped in by the Diaspora. Many taxes are streaming to the Government through this multiplier effect. Who dares say that the Ghana Diaspora pay no taxes? “Poto gu mu ne hwie gumu ne nyinaa nko kwansen koro mu?” (Whether you blend or pour, don't all the ingredients end up in the same pot?). With respect to remittances from the Ghana Diaspora, we are not talking about one dollar but $1.4 billion in 2002 and nearly $3billion in 2005. Just how, may we ask, has Ghana managed to stabilize its cedi that in turn promotes investment and economic planning? You are right- from the foreign exchange inflows from the Diaspora billions of dollars.

A nation needs revenue to meet its planned expenditures on behalf of its population. The direct remittances to the families of the Diaspora to pay school fees, housing, food and health-care are the monies that the Government does not have to spend. Are you not richer if someone else takes care of your responsibilities? You begin to see why remittances from the Diaspora are so important that the Government factors them into its budget and as we speak it is growing to surpass revenue from cocoa. It gets even better; Ghana pays no interest or principal on these monies. It is free and growing significantly. Where would Ghana be without these remittances and why do we put hurdles instead of encouraging them? As we say, “ Nea oope adee ako Kotoko no, yennye no aboro” (you do not scorn the one working hard for your sustenance).

4. If they want to vote why can't they travel to Ghana to vote- after all they are not disenfranchised? The answer to this question begins to get us into the legalities that underlie the need for ROPAB. Very quickly, Ghana's Constitution in Article 42, gives all Ghanaians aged 18 and above and of sound mind, the right to register for the purpose of voting in elections and referenda. There are no additional qualifications. The actual operation of this Constitutional dispensation is found in another document called PNDC Law 284. Both came about in 1992. The Electoral Commission manages the elections of Ghana via this PNDCL 284 entitled - Representation of the People Law, 1992. The link between the Constitution and PNDCL 284 is that the Constitution of Ghana, in citing the laws of the country says that it includes “the existing law.” Here is where the problem begins. First section 7 (1) (c) of PNDCL 284 says that a Ghanaian qualifies to vote if “he is a resident of the polling Division” Section 7 (4) of the same document, states:

“a person shall not be deemed to be a resident in a polling division if he has been absent from his place of abode for a continuous period of six months...”

What is the practical operation of this PNDC Law 284 that is the current law of the land with respect to elections? It means that in order for someone who generally lives in say Denmark to register at Ghanakrom, that poor fellow has to abandon work and come to live in Ghanakrom for six months. We ask how many Ghanaians living abroad can afford to do this when they also must work to send in their remittances. We dare say that just this section alone is worth amending PNDCL 284 because it has led to a situation where for four elections, thousands of people, if not millions of Ghanaians have violated the law without knowing it. This includes members of Parliament, ladies and gentlemen. We could, on this principle alone, question the legality of Ghana's past four elections. Does PNDCL 284 need to be amended to forestall a future constitutional and election crisis? You bet it does.

The problem of the impracticality of section 7 of PNDCL 284 gets compounded within the same PNDCL 284 in an attempt to address this problem. Section 8 (1) acknowledges the hardship that a strict interpretation will visit upon Ghanaians living abroad. Unfortunately, rather than solve the problem for all Ghanaian citizens as the 1992 Constitution explicitly contemplates, section 8 (1) of PNDCL 284 grants an exemption to the residency requirement to a very limited group of Ghanaians resident abroad. These are those employed in Ghana's embassies, international organizations and students on Ghana government scholarship. Why should this limited exemption exist without addressing the problem that PNDL 284 has created for all citizens of Ghana who, just like the ambassadors, cannot vacate their work for six months and who number many hundreds of thousands more? Our fellow countrymen, this is where we deem the existing law to be discriminatory. This is the second reason to amend PNDCL 284 through the introduction and passage of the REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE AMENDMENT -2005. It is a simple case of correcting what is wrong and what came into being by decree promulgated by a non-elected government. It is simply DOING the RIGHT THING.

5. This will bring chaos because there are so many Ghanaians scattered all over the world. The Electoral Commission has enough problems managing elections in Ghana, how are they going to monitor elections around the entire planet? Talk and threat of chaos are uninformed and nothing more than peddling emotionalism. The Lord has visited humankind with many ways to stay in touch with each other without physically moving. Let us not as a nation pledge to stay in darkness. Let us break the shackles of fear. Let us once again trust our Electoral Commission to learn from the many countries that have and do overseas voting. We are not setting a record of first here, Ghana. The HOW will come when the WHAT is answered. For the WHAT, the 13- member of the DVC visited Ghana to humanize the discussion. We may be in the Diaspora today, but tomorrow, we could change places. Such is the effect of globalization from which Ghana cannot escape. If Senegal, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Rwanda and Niger can do it without chaos being visited upon their countries solely on account of their Diaspora vote, surely, the land of the black star, could and should do no less.

6. Isn't the NPP government funding the Diaspora Vote Committee and is the DVC itself unrepresentative of all Ghanaians living abroad? The October 2005 trip by the DVC was in no way financed by any political party or government of Ghana. We came on an education mission to reflect the views of the Ghana Diaspora on an important national initiative and part the fog surrounding the debate. The funds came from a philanthropic organization in the US that believes in the cultivation of the Diaspora of nations as a potent force of a new internationalism and development. We are grateful to the Institute of International Education for bringing Ghana into this orbit. In deed we were careful to ensure that the delegation reflected the variety of Ghana's ethnicity and political persuasions. There is no hidden agenda. The DVC came together in July 2005 largely through a network built through the Internet. It is open to all and only committed to one cause. While we take note that a running poll by the Ghanaweb shows that 70% believe that “Ghanaians abroad should be given the right to vote from abroad”, the DVC does not put itself out as representing all Ghanaians living outside Ghana. Our position is with the clear majority of 70% on the issue of extending the franchise to Ghanaians living abroad.

7. What benefit will come to Ghana from allowing the Diaspora to vote? We must emphasize that no one is required to prove their value to a nation before they are allowed to cast a vote. The right to vote as granted to all Ghanaian citizens has only two requirements that the applicant registering to vote be eighteen or older and secondly be of sound mind- nothing more. The Ghana Diaspora shall not assume a burden that is not placed on other citizens of Ghana. If one must insist on an answer to this question just for its own sake, then we can state positively that the act of registering and voting in any election forces the participant to pay attention to the issues. Thus the Ghana Diaspora will have a higher level of awareness and who knows, their monies and talents may follow their new levels of interest in Ghana. We conclude that anyone can count the number of seeds in an orange but even the wisest person cannot count how many oranges will come from one seed.

8. Does the Diaspora want to vote in Presidential or Parliamentary elections? It would be impossible to send 230 ballot boxes representing Ghana's current constituencies to all the remote corners of the world. Article 42 of the Constitution says that Ghanaian citizens shall register as voters for the purposes of “public elections and referenda. “ It is our hope that all the elections anticipated by the Constitution will be extended to the Diaspora. We are not unmindful of the steps that may have to be climbed to get to the point of involving the Diaspora in both presidential and parliamentary elections. Once again, we note that other nations have done this and we can learn from them. In Senegal and Rwanda, their Diaspora initially voted in only Presidential elections. Senegal is planning to extend parliamentary vote to their Diaspora in the second round. Other nations constitute the Diaspora as one constituency for their own parliamentary seats(s). Lessons abound that Ghana can learn from. No one anticipates sending 230 ballot boxes around the world. Multi-step implementation is a viable solution. There is no record of any nation doing it this way and Ghana will not be the first. For most countries, the embassies have served as the polling stations with observations by all stakeholders; others have created additional polling stations to accommodate geographic dispersion and concentration. In all cases, their Diaspora have had to travel to cast their votes at the designated polling centers just as people do in Ghana.

9. The Diaspora will unduly influence elections in Ghana and decide something different from the wish of the people of Ghana. The short answer to this is that the only common denominator of the Ghana Diaspora is that we all live outside Ghana's borders. After that we are each different just as folks living in Ghana. We hardly speak the same Ghanaian language let alone eat the same food, think the same or have the same views on Ghana's politics and path to socio-economic development. Once again we can learn from other nations before us. Nowhere have there been unintended outcomes solely on account of their Diaspora vote. Let us open a dialogue. Let us discuss but let us not sell and buy fear because FEAR is only False Evidence Appearing Real.

10. So what is next for the DVC? The right to vote is an inalienable right and the opinion of Justice Bamford Addo of Ghana is an appropriate way to underscore this fundamental aspect of nationhood:

“We in this country have adopted a democratic form of Government, as well as other political rights including the right to vote. This right ought to be exercised in a free and fair manner as provided for under various Articles of the Constitution and other laws. Therefore any act which seeks to deprive, undermine, prevent or hinder the people, or any section thereof from voting and thereby participating in the political life of the community is wrong and illegal, it is a major deprivation of their right to vote, which is contrary to our constitution and undermine the whole concept of a democratic government”.( Emphasis added).

Ghanaians living both at home and abroad have a duty to monitor the extension of this right of all its citizens and to cherish its implementation with integrity and fairness at all times. The DVC will continue to do its part and this could have several avenues such as cooperating with the Electoral Commission and the National Identification Directorate to help them achieve their goals. The real work will begin after ROPAB has been passed by Parliament as we hope that it will. The Electoral Commission will have to write the Regulations for implementation and certainly Ghanaians living abroad will need to be informed and organized to exercise their newly conferred responsibility to register as voters. These are areas of immense challenges that the DVC will look to offer assistance. May we emphasize that in all of these, the DVC will strictly remain non-partisan and non-ethnic in make-up, spirit and in action. It is not an exclusive club. All are welcome.

Interested in joining the DVC? Please contact Mr. Kofi A. Boateng at [email protected]