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13.02.2006 Feature Article

Why ROPAB Must Pass

Why ROPAB Must Pass
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– Views From A Domestic Diasporean Valid as the arguments for the amendment of the ROPAB have been, the debate on whether or not we should allow diasporeans to vote must be viewed from another angle – that of the domestic diasporeans. For those wondering what this all means, let me walk you through my situation.

I am a double domestic diasporean (3D). Here is why. I am a native of the Upper West region, specifically originating from, bred and schooled in the Lawra-Nandom constituency, at least for my primary school days. However, since leaving university, I have lived and spent all my working life to date in Tamale in the Northern Region. Therefore, I am part of the 51% of the Upper Westerners, and among the more than 30% of the natives of the Lawra-Nandom constituency who regularly live outside their places of birth. By virtue of sections 7 (1) (c) and 7 (4) of PNDCL 284 I am, technically, unqualified to register and vote in my home constituency even though I technically live in Ghana and would very much wish to have a say in who represents me in parliament or the District Assembly. So to all intents and purposes, I, and people like me, of whom there must be thousands, if not millions across the country, constitute the first category of domestic diasporeans. And by virtue of the sections of the PNDCL 284 cited above, I and all my fellow domestic diasporeans of the first order, are technically denied our right to vote where we want to vote.

I know someone is going to shout that “but you can go home and register or register and transfer your vote”. But let me remind such persons that by virtue of the same articles cited above, it is illegal for me to reside in Tamale all year round and show up to register within the few days window that the voters register is opened, simply because I would not have been resident in my home constituency continuously for six months as the law requires. Similarly, it would be illegal for me to register in Tamale and then transfer my vote home in the few weeks leading up to elections and then follow up on election day to vote.

If my interpretation of the law on both counts is right, doesn't it mean the Electoral Commission has been in breach of the law when it regularly accepted such transfers over the years? If that were correct, would most of the members of our parliament not be committing electoral crimes when they live in Accra, go home to register and/or transfer their votes home to enable them vote for themselves? And if, again, I am correct in my interpretation, are we then not making ourselves a nation of hypocrites when we willingly create situations that force our citizens and the very institutions that are supposed to protect our democracy to indulge in criminal activities by pretending that there is nothing wrong with a law that essentially says we cannot register and transfer our votes to a place where we have not been living for six continuous months? Would that not be corruption of the people, by the people for the people?

But let me turn to the second angle of my domestic diasporean jeopardy. By the nature of my job, I travel considerably across Africa and beyond (I am currently writing this piece from the USA). I have other colleagues in my workplace who literally live their lives out of their suitcases between hotels, conference rooms, and airports in the same way as I do. I have no doubts that there are thousands, if not millions of fellow citizens who have their beds and wardrobes in Ghana, but who also spend their lives criss-crossing the world in the same way for official businesses, either within the employ of the state, international organizations, or as private business women and men.

This second class of domestic diasporeans (of which I am one), who are never “resident in their place of abode “continuously for six months”, are honest, hardworking and tax paying Ghanaians. In deed, if the payment of taxes were to be a criterion for a right to vote, as I have heard others argue, most of these people certainly pay more direct and indirect taxes to the state than the thousands of others in government employment or private business who stay at home all year round. If representing the state's interests, as people in our embassies do, gives one the right to live outside the country and yet be able to vote, I can bet that many of my colleague domestic diasporeans, by their work are very important and “silent” ambassadors for Ghana. So, why should we, the domestic diasporeans, just like our external confreres and sisters be denied the right to vote?

But never mind. My point is that inasmuch as I support the granting of the right to vote to the external and domestic diasporeans, I think the argument for the ROPAB finds very strong support not only because it gives some people the right to vote when, and where they want to, but because this bill provides a momentous opportunity for us, as a country, to chalk another first in making radical changes, not only to our electoral systems, but to the way we do business in this country. For instance, having patiently scrutinized the arguments for and against the ROPAB, I find it extremely strange that in this year and age when technology has made it possible for Rural Banks in remote areas of our country to offer instant money transfer services form any part of the world, we are still thinking that it is necessary to stick to the Caesarian principle of some two thousand and six years ago when people were made to literally walk on foot or ride on donkey backs from wherever they were back to their home villages to be counted (remember the Christmas story?). I am completely baffled at the thought that rather than focusing our energies on finding out how best we can harness existing technologies to make the amended law work when passed, we are still indulging in the chronic African disease of always finding negative excuses not to do anything that can make life better for us.

In deed, the administrative arguments that have been used by those opposed to the amendment of the law have also made it look as if the current electoral system is perfect and would not need the help of the ROPAB to undergo some radical reforms that would make it truly serve the interest of the people. At the risk of going personal (on myself), let me share my personal experiences and frustrations with the current set up to show why this system needs a ROPAB, even if it was not for the purposes of granting the external diasporeans their rightful right to vote.

Episode 1: When the voters register was opened in 1992 for people to verify that their names were on the list (but not to register - remember it was compiled for the first district assembly elections and no new register was recompiled for the 1992 elections), I checked at my polling station and assured myself that my name was indeed inscribed in displayed voters' register at the Dawnayilli electoral area (if you have a sense of the geography of Tamale). I was living on the St. Charles campus by then. But come voting day, I could not trace my name on the list – it had vanished. I went from polling station to another with my voter I.D Card securely in my hands, but could not find my name anywhere. So, simply because I could not find my name on the register, I was denied the right to vote, even though I was clinching to my voter I.D card.

Episode 2: In 1996, I had moved to the Tamasco campus. This time again, I made sure my name was on the new voters register for that area. Come voting day at the Tamasco Assembly Hall, I saw wonders. There were two queues for voting – one each on the north and south sides of the hall. On arrival, I joined the nearest queue, but a friend told me to go and check from the two sides to determine where my name appeared before joining the queue to vote. I did that and luckily, I was back to where my friend was – the queue leading to the polling station on verandah on the north side of the hall.

After an hour of waiting and chatting in the queue, it dawned on us that the queue I was on was extremely slow in its movement, while the other one was very fast. People who came one full hour after I had been in the queue and found their names on the register on the south side of the hall voted and went home, while those of use on the north side still stood there in the sun. When I queried why this should be so, I was told the voters list on the south side was arranged alphabetically while the one on the north side was not. Therefore, it was more difficult to locate the names of voters on the north side, hence the slow pace. When I asked whether it was not the same computer that printed the two lists and why couldn't they have arranged both alphabetically, no one could give me an answer.

I was still waiting in the queue, three hours after I had joined, when a smartly dressed and exuberate man in his fifties walked up to our queue (being the longest, we were the first anyone would reach) and asked us where was the queue for the NDC. A colleague of mine patiently, but perhaps innocently also, explained to him that on voting day, there is no queue for parties. Everyone is on the same list. The gentleman insisted that he had been told there was a queue for the NDC. We advised him to go and check from the list and join either queue as we had all done. He did, and within 30 minutes he came back, smiling and told us he had voted and was going home. True, he had the ink marks on his fingers. But how come, we wondered. Could he have been right?

Fast forward to 2004. I had determined this time to go the “Joseph and Mary way” – go home to my constituency and be counted there. So I went and registered at home in the Lawra Nandom constituency (did I break a law with the support of the Electoral Commission?). Unfortunately, my wife, another domestic diasporean, could not make the journey home because she was in Accra. She did register there with the plan to transfer her vote home at the appropriate time – this time it was the Electoral Commission breaking the law, no? Well, she went through the processes of vote transfers like many other domestic diasporeans all over the country did. But come election day when we made the second “Joseph and Mary” trip home, she and hundreds of others from among the 50%+ domestic diasporeans of the constituency who had come home to exercise their rights as citizens could not find their names on the transfer list. Therefore, they were denied the right to vote.

Why these details? I narrate my experiences to make the point that even if the DVC and others living outside the country were not claiming their right to vote, those of us living in Ghana (albeit partially) should have had the common sense by now that the current law does not serve our interests and should be amended, even if the only purposes is to remove the anomalies that would make us more honest and transparent to ourselves in the way we organize and conduct our elections. If the current law is forcing honest citizens to unknowingly indulge in criminal activities with the connivance of the very institution that was created to ensure free and fair elections, then the law does not deserve to be on our statute books.

Second, does it truly make any sense for those of us at home to stop our work, spend money and time to travel for several days to our constituencies to register and/or to vote? Has anyone ever counted the cost to national productivity when under the pretext of voting, hundreds of people have to criss-cross the country with all the attendant risks of accidents and lost of productivity?

That brings me to the administrative arguments those opposed to the passage of the bill have put forward. I hear all the arguments about challenges, possibilities of fraud and rigging etc, which have been put forward. But sincerely, do we really need any rocket science to address these imagery problems? If it is possible for people living in Ghana to regularly access their bank accounts abroad for transactions at minimal risks of fraud, shouldn't it be possible for us to harness the same technologies for an electoral process? Ok, someone is going to talk about cost. But consider this. We are talking about getting citizenship identity cards for everyone, right? At the same time, we are talking about regularly updating the voters' register, and we have been spending huge sums of money issuing voters' identity cards that lose their worth before the next elections.

Consider this. Would it not be cheaper and more efficient for us if we pooled the resources and purposes and issued everyone one an electronic citizenship identity card contains all the information needed to serve several purposes, including the possibilities of being used as a voter identity card, a driver's, a Social Security Card, a health insurance card, etc? Could we not work with banks, universities, SSNIT and other agencies that already have large databases of on our citizens to evolve a system that ensures that we eliminate duplications and fraud? Wouldn't the passport office benefit from participating in such a program which will enable it eliminate multiple passport issuances to the same persons, and thereby set up and constantly clean up the diasporean voters' register?

And if only we did a good job with that (the science and materials are there for us to do a good and affordable job if we want to), why then wouldn't it be possible for me, a domestic diasporean, sit in Tamale and vote for the candidate of my choice in my home constituency, instead of bumping myself up on the road, burning fuel, time and money for three days at least to participate in an exercise that only takes a few minutes? And if I were out of the country, why wouldn't it be possible for me, as well as, my external diasporean confreres and sisters to walk into a Ghanaian embassy, High Commission or a consulate in Harrare, Dakar, Haiti, Vanautu or Washington D.C on election day, swipe my identity card to establish my nationality, age and right to vote, and then caste my vote as I choose, without fear of impersonation or rigging?

Why is it ever so easy for we Africans to imagine up problems and difficulties and equally ever so difficult to think up solutions to our problems? I think those who oppose the bill could and should do us, as a nation a favour. Instead of dreaming up problems and drumming up threats of chaos (there shall be none, by the way), they would do themselves and Ghana a lot of good if they spent their time generating and debating ideas that would make the amended law serve all Ghanaians living and working everywhere (AGLAWE – sounds like a good name for a political party?). Otherwise, they will leave the scene of life as dissatisfied and discredited politicians who lost the opportunity to serve their country as real statesmen and women. If they are not up to the brainy task of generating the necessary alternatives, they should spare us the useless threats. They should have known by now threats of violence did not deter Ghanaians from the vote in 1978 (remember Unigov with its rancour and bitterness chorus); neither did it do the trick in 1992, 1996, and 2000. Finally, they must remember that only the no brainers find threats and/or the actual use of violence a worthy weapon. Hippolyt A. S. Pul – domestic diasporean. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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