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14.11.2008 Feature Article

Towards A Violence-Free Election

Just over three weeks from the date of this publication, on December 7, 2008, Ghanaians will go to the polls to elect a new President and a new Parliament.

Many Ghanaians are apprehensive that the forthcoming elections will not be violence-free.

Following the successful election in the United States of America, which, for the first time, saw the election of the first African-American to the highest office of the President of the United States of America, the eyes of the world will be firmly turned and focused on the elections in this country; whether our own elections will follow the American example or go the way many elections in Africa have gone in recent months.

The outcome of the elections on December 7 will depend on several factors, some of which I shall discuss in this article.

While our recent experiences with the registration of the new voters by the Electoral Commission (EC), have been an issue of the bloated registers in certain areas of the country and the political warfare between the two major political parties (the NDC and the NPP) give cause for concern; we can draw some consolation from our ability in organising three successful elections in the past, although these elections were not entirely violence-free.

It is, therefore, possible for us to pull off a successful election on December 7, although a certain degree of localised violence is always likely to take place. It is important, however, that any ugly scenes that may crop up are quickly dealt with and contained without allowing them to get out of hand.

To achieve a successful, violence-free election, a great deal of work has to be done by all stakeholders, namely, the EC, all the political parties and the general voting population.

As far as the political parties are concerned, our new political leadership must bear in mind that Ghana is not for sale to the highest bidder.

 

The practice of our politicians going round the country to pay monies to prospective voters in order to influence them to vote in a particular direction must stop.

One reason why we have so much violence in African politics is that our politicians see politics as a route to making money.

 

Once they attain political power, they use their power and influence, not to the benefit of the electorate, but rather to amass wealth to the disadvantage of the broad masses of the people.

Using money to influence votes is totally unacceptable, but even more revolting is the attempt by some politicians to influence electoral officials to be biased in their favour in the conduct of elections.

 

It is actions such as these by political parties against their opponents that provoke violent reaction from those who feel cheated.

The way electoral disputes are handled by the courts in this country also does not help matters, as it takes an awful long time to settle electoral disputes.

 

 It is for these reasons that people sometimes take the law into their own hands.

The incidence of rigging the elections can be greatly minimised if political parties take seriously their responsibility for protecting the integrity of the electoral process.

Prospective Members of Parliament (MPs) should be serious about their selection of their party agents to ensure those selected are of the right calibre to protect their interests at the polling stations.

If the polling agents get proper training and do their work conscientiously, electoral malpractices, which occur mainly at the polling stations, will be reduced to the barest minimum or even completely eradicated.

With all the problems of double registration, bloated register, etc., it is possible to secure a truly free, fair and transparent election only if political parties take their responsibilities seriously and protect their interests.

Among all the stakeholders, the EC perhaps, bears the greatest responsibility in ensuring a truly free, fair and transparent election.

In the United States elections barely a week ago, Senator McCain quickly conceded defeat to Senator Obama, not only because Senator Obama's victory was comprehensive and overwhelming, but more important, Senator McCain believed in the sanctity of the United States electoral process and had no reason to doubt Senator Obama's victory.

On the contrary, in the 2000 election in the same country, Vice-President Al Gore did not easily concede defeat, because he had every reason to believe that the voting in the key state of Florida was anything but free and fair.

Similarly here in Ghana, when political parties believe that the process has been truly free, fair and transparent, they will have no excuse to cause any mayhem.

 

 It is, therefore, vitally important that EC officials comport themselves and carry out their responsibilities beyond reproach and above any iota of suspicion.

The voting period

 

Some few months ago, the deputy chairperson of the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) raised the issue of the voting period and suggested that the voting should start from 6 a.m. and end at 4.00pm.

 

This suggestion carried a great deal of merit, but sadly, it did not receive much serious attention.

 

The EC must take a second look at the voting period, with a view to changing the closing time from the 5.00am.

 

Of course, any voter in the queue to vote at 4.00pm will be allowed to cast their vote.

In 1996, when I stood for Parliament in the Effutu Constituency, I visited a polling station where votes were still being counted well past 6.00 p.m. in complete darkness and under very poor lighting arrangement.

 

It was difficult to see how the counting was being done under those circumstances. In situations such as this, rigging becomes a real possibility.

At the end of voting at 5.00pm, it takes some time to sort out the ballot papers, count and record them for the party agents to initial them.

 

In many of our rural areas where there is no electricity, the counting process sometimes take place in complete darkness, without proper lighting.

 

It is during this period that tempers flare up and all kinds of shady things happen.

If it is not possible to start the voting at 6.00 a.m. for logistics and other administrative reasons, it will still be possible to start voting at 7.00 a.m. and end at 4.00 p.m. to allow sufficient time to complete the counting before it gets completely dark.

In the previous elections, many ballot papers were rejected on the grounds that the thumb print exhibited by the voter appeared elsewhere other than on the candidate intended for, because the voter folded the ballot paper horizontally rather than vertically after thumb-printing when the ink was still fresh.

To avoid recurrence of this phenomenon, I suggest that the electoral official, whose responsibility it is to give out the ballot paper, folds it rather vertically along the middle before giving it to the voter to thumb print it.

This will ensure that the voter folds the ballot paper the same way it is given to him or her before dropping it into the ballot box.

Use of Military Police and other security personnel

Under normal circumstances, there would have been no need, like in many advanced democracies, to use troops or police officers during elections.

 

However, we live in abnormal times in Africa, where elections often degenerate into violence and chaos with tragic consequences.

 It is, therefore, inevitable that security personnel would be involved in maintaining law and order during elections.

It is my view, however, that military personnel should not be directly involved in the maintenance of law and order at polling stations.

Traditionally, this function has been performed by unarmed police and other security personnel.

The military should be held in reserve areas where some civil unrest is anticipated, out of sight of polling stations, but on immediate notice to intervene to restore law and order where this becomes necessary.

This is the best way to use the military in situations such as this but not as police officers with or without arms.

In conclusion, I would like to point out that mere prayers for peace, as has been clamoured by many well-meaning Ghanaians, will not achieve the desired results until and unless practical steps such as what I have suggested in this article and others are considered to restore public confidence and trust in the EC and the electoral process in general.

To achieve a violence-free election, a lot of work has to be done between now and the December 7 elections by all stakeholders.

By Brig. Gen J. Nunoo-Mensah

J. Nunoo-Mensah
J. Nunoo-Mensah , © 2008

This author has authored 1 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: JNunooMensah

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