Empowering the Diaspora
Giving Ghanaians abroad the privilege to vote in their own backyard THE GOVERNMENT HAS laid a bill before Parliament to enable Ghanaians living abroad to register to vote at future elections. Unfortunately, public comment and debate on the matter is being led by emotion and ill-informed opinion rather than the legality of the bill before the House and the practicality of implementing the law if and when it is passed. In 1995, I raised the issue of the voting rights of Ghanaians living abroad in a series of published articles that were intended to set out the core issues for informed debate and discussion which would lead to consensus action on the matter. Ten years on, and with a bill actually before Parliament, I thought it may be helpful to add to the current discussion on the matter by rehashing what I consider to be the main issues and the key options for giving practical meaning to empowering our kith and kin in the Diaspora THE CONTEXT FOR OUR PUBLIC DEBATE The Global Picture The opportunity for citizens living abroad to vote in their national elections has been the practice for many countries in the world, including several in Africa. So it is a touch ironical that we, who wear our badge of ' First to become independent in Black Africa' with so much gusto, should now be taking the steps to do that which citizens of many of our sister countries have taken for granted for so long. Thus, if we really need to find out how others have been able to make their kith and kin in the Diaspora feel that they still belong fully to the land of their birth, it should not be too difficult to find out how it is done and what must be avoided.
The Political Context
Giving the annual State of the Nation address to Parliament at the beginning of 1996, President Jerry John Rawlings promised that his government was going to take the necessary steps to have eligible Ghanaians living abroad to be registered to vote in the 1996 elections. That commitment by the former President must push us to resist the unfortunate tendency to view all maters of national debate from the jaundiced lens of partisan politics. Clearly, there is consensus within the country's political leadership on the legitimacy and desirability of making it possible for Ghanaians living abroad to take part in our Presidential and Parliamentary elections. Therefore we must all resist the obvious and move this debate and discussion away from the cynical axiom of the business of the Opposition in Parliament being simply to oppose every action of Government and offer no alternatives. If the good intent of the NDC of 1996 failed to materialise, this is the time to affirm their continued commitment to the principle by lending its full weight to bi-partisan review and passage of the bill now before Parliament. The Right to Vote Article 42 of the 1992 Constitution states that “Every Citizen of Ghana of eighteen years of age or above and of sound mind has the right to vote and is entitled to be registered for the purposes of public elections and referenda”. This means that the right to vote is the same for every citizen of Ghana, whether they actually reside in the country or not. However, the exercise of this constitutional right to vote is contingent on all citizens getting their names on the Voters Register, as compiled from time to time by the Electoral Commission under the powers conferred on it by Article 45 (a) which sets out the first function of the EC as: “to compile the register of voters and revise it at such periods as may be determined by law”
The confusion about the voting rights of Ghanaians abroad has something to do with the law which governed the conduct of the first elections of the 4th Republic of Ghana in 1992, namely PNDC Law 284, which stipulated that the voters register in place at the time of the election would be used for the elections. That register, first compiled in 1987, and subsequently revised in 1991, specifically excluded Ghanaians living outside the country, with the exception of those working in Ghanaian embassies, international organisations, or serving in UN Peace Keeping operations from registering to vote in public elections in Ghana.
As the Constitution of the 4th Republic did not come into force till 7 January, 1993, there is no doubt that Ghanaians living abroad were not entitled to register to vote in the 1992 elections nor any other public elections before then. Now that the Constitution is in force, I am not so sure that the right of Ghanaians living abroad is in the discretionary authority of any institution, be it Government, Parliament or the Judiciary. The Key Issues Yes, the Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to vote. However, that right can only be exercised when Ghanaians abroad can put their names on Voters Register. Being able to do so requires that we address and overcome a number of very practical issues which revolve around the very practical issues of establishing and authenticating 1) The Ghanaian Living Abroad; and, 2) The Resources needed to put bona fide Ghanaians living abroad onto the Voters Register.
Therefore our primary concerns for the current debate must focus on overcoming the constraints that have denied most Ghanaians living abroad from being able to exercise their constitutional right to vote up until now. I believe the key issues that should inform our discussion and debate on the current bill can be encapsulated in finding answers to the following basic questions: (1) Who is a Ghanaian living abroad?; (2) Does the right to vote mean the right to be registered in your foreign domicile?; (3) Who should undertake the registration of Ghanaians abroad?; and, (4) Who should pay for Ghanaians abroad to be registered? Who is a Ghanaian living abroad? The prerequisite for ensuring the integrity and general public support for the Government's intent is to ensure that there are strict and unambiguous provisions which enable us to establish the bona fides and citizenship credentials of Ghanaians living abroad beyond any doubt. In this respect, I think it would be reasonable to assume that every citizen of Ghana living abroad who was born in Ghana before commuting to their present location must have a passport or equivalent legal documents issued by the Government of Ghana that confirms their entitlement to Ghanaian citizenship. The right to continue to enjoy Ghanaian citizenship is guaranteed by in Article 6(1) of the Constitution which states: “Every person who on coming into force of this Constitution, is a citizen of Ghana by law shall continue to be a citizen of Ghana”.
It is also reasonable to expect that the children of Ghanaian living abroad, who qualify to be citizens of Ghana under the Constitution, and are desirous of doing so, would have taken the necessary steps to register their citizenship in their country of domicile or the nearest Ghana mission. The right of Ghanaians in the Diaspora to extended our citizenship to their to their progeny is guaranteed by Article 6(2) which states that: “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, a person born in or outside of Ghana after the coming into force of this Constitution, shall become a citizen of Ghana at the date of his birth if either his parents or grandparents is or was a citizen of Ghana”
I would therefore suggest that the possession of a valid Ghanaian passport living abroad who have valid passports, travel certificates or such other officially recognised documentation, establishing the right to Ghanaian citizenship, should be required as proof of eligibility for Ghanaians living abroad who wish to be registered to vote in our national elections.
However, in order to make sure that we limit possible abuse and reduce administrative problems of implementation, I would further suggest that the opportunity to register is limited to Ghanaians living abroad who have taken the time and trouble to register their details with Ghana's diplomatic missions in their countries of domicile or equivalent designated points at the coming into force of the law currently before Parliament. I think it is fair and reasonable to suggest that any Ghanaian living abroad who is not already in possession of a passport or other documents of citizenship cannot really be interested in how the country gets along, or who governs it. Registering & Voting Abroad. Nothing under the present laws of Ghana prevent Ghanaians living abroad from coming back here, at their own expense, to put their names on to the Voters register. Indeed, several thousands of Ghanaians have been doing so since the 1992 Constitution came into effect. So in that respect, one can argue that since the Constitution does not specify in-situ residency in Ghana or elsewhere as a requirement of eligibility to vote, the present situation of not registering Ghanaians abroad in their countries of domicile cannot be considered a denial of their Constitutional rights.
Therefore, in as much as Ghanaians in the Diaspora have a right to vote, they do not and cannot insist that they have a constitutionally-guaranteed RIGHT to demand or insist that they must be registered to vote where they live or anywhere else outside Ghana. By the same token, Ghanaians living abroad cannot interpret their right to vote as meaning a right to vote in Ghanaian elections in their countries of domicile or anywhere else outside of Ghana.
It is therefore essential to appreciate that the proper intent of the Bill currently before Parliament, which is to make it possible for Ghanaians living abroad to be able to put their names on the electoral roll and also be able to exercise their right to vote in our public elections without having to come back to Ghana to do so. For the avoidance of doubt, I must repeat that the Bill is not intended, nor must it purport, to give Ghanaians abroad the right to vote. They already have that right under our Constitution which is the supreme law of the land. Who and How to conduct the exercise I believe that the registration of Ghanaians living abroad, as well as the conduct of elections outside of this country, must be undertaken by the Electoral Commissioner and no one else, period, even if the physical locations of the exercises are the offices of Ghana's missions.
The Constitution has taken the very wise step of shielding the Electoral Commission from any interference by any external persons or bodies in the conduct of its work.
Article 46, states:”Except as provided in this Constitution or in any other law not inconsistent with this Constitution, in the performance of its functions, the Electoral Commission shall not be subject to the direction of any person or authority”. The only legal direction of another person or authority is in the appointment of the Commission, which is the President's prerogative, acting in consultation with the Council of State.
Since Ghana does not have official missions in every country where our kith and kin abroad are living at the moment, nor will it be possible to establish registration centres in every city/town in those countries where we have missions, it will be necessary to restrict the conduct of voter registration and elections to the offices of Ghana's diplomatic missions abroad which are in operation at the time. The Electoral Commission must publish a public notice laying out a timetable for when registration would take place in the various places.
If we want to ensure transparency, fairness and integrity of the exercise, especially to ensure that the exercise enjoys the full confidence of the Political Parties, we can extend the current practice of allowing each party to nominate representatives, at their own cost, to observe the various exercises at the designated centres. I would counsel strongly against the use of officials of Ghana's missions abroad, especially heads of missions, both political and diplomatic, in the exercise. Sure, they can facilitate the work of the Electoral Commission staff, but must do so on a strictly 'When asked” basis.
On the due date, those who wish to register must turn up at their nearest registration centre, armed with their passports and requisite fee to be registered to vote in a constituency where they were born, as set out in their passports, or if they are foreign-born citizens, at the constituency of one of their parents. Who should pay for the Privilege? It is important for Ghanaians living abroad to understand and appreciate that what is being done for them is the granting of a 'Privilege of Convenience' by their kith and kin at home. As already stated, the fact of the matter is that they cannot insist that they have a right to vote in Ghanaian elections from the comfort of their external domiciles. The truth is that, as with the exercise of all privileges, the ability and willingness to give is determined by two principal factors, namely: (1) The willingness of the giver to grant the privileges; and (2) the ability to ensure that the recipient can receive and indeed enjoy all of the privileges.
The Bill before Parliament has confirmed the Government's willingness to extend the Privileges of Convenience” to our kith and kin in the Diaspora. However, this is markedly different from having the ability to deliver. Indeed, many people who do not want Ghanaians abroad to enjoy their right to register