How Jean Mensa can Help Ghana’s Democracy: Lessons from South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)

A cautionary tale from history

As history had taught us, the struggle for power can end with devastating consequences, if there is no trust, fairness, transparency and accountability. Sometimes, the consequences occur without warning; at other times, the warning bells ring loud and clear. Africa is replete with stories of such catastrophic endings as a result of power struggles.

We can mention the cases of Liberia, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Kenya and many other countries where hundreds and thousands of lives were lost over the quest for political power. When one side feels another side is abusing its power to the disadvantage of another group; or when the system is unfairly structured to favour one side over another; or as in the case of Ivory Coast, when a commissioner responsible for conducting impartial elections, is seen to be colluding with one side, then there is resistance which could ultimately lead to heart-breaking calamity.

How South Africa avoided conflict

History should, therefore, always guide our actions if we are to get it right. Coming from the back of the dehumanising apartheid and a barely hidden xenophobic tendency that is ready to erupt at the least opportunity, South Africa has had plenty of history of conflict to guide its march toward consolidating the democracy it began in 1994. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of South Africa had this history in mind when it conducted the country’s 2019 Presidential and Parliamentary elections.

It was the hottest contested election since the fall of apartheid, featuring hot-headed radical figures like Julius Malema of the Economic Fighters Front (EFF) and 47 other parties. Indeed, Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of South Africa, Glen Mashinini described the 2019 South African elections as “the most complex, highly contested and logistically demanding elections ever.”

How Jean Mensa Can Help Ghana’s Democracy: Lessons from South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)

The fact that at the end of the elections, as many as 14 parties won seats in Parliament tells you the extent of the division in South Africa – at least along political lines. Yes, as many as 48 political parties presented themselves as alternatives to govern South Africa.

One striking development – and this is where Ghana and the Jean Mensa led-EC ought to draw lessons from – was that in spite of their division, sampled views of voters showed that about 96% of voters saw the elections as free and fair. 3% were indifferent and only 1% thought it wasn’t free and fair.

It is instructive to note that at the end of the elections, almost all South Africans did not have a problem with their Electoral Commission. In simple terms, the opposition parties and the governing party were all satisfied with the Electoral Commission before, during and after the elections. Because of the Independent Electoral Commission’s transparent and honest conduct of the electoral process before, during and after the elections, nobody had any issue with the electoral commission of that country.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of South Africa made sure that they took on board the concerns of all the key stakeholders and that included the opposition parties.

Can the same be said of Ghana. Before, during and after Ghana’s election 2020, will all Ghanaians praise our EC? One side may lose a game of football but you know the contest was fair if no one remembered there was even a referee.

Sadly, for all the wrong reasons, the name of Ghana’s referee for the 2020 General elections, Madam Jean Mensa, is on the lips of everyone, not just the political parties.How Jean Mensa Can Help Ghana’s Democracy: Lessons from South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)

Claim that current voters register is no longer credible

It appears the Jean Mensa-led EC is the only group convinced that a new register and a new, untested electoral voting system is essential for the conduct of a credible 2020 General Elections, effectively snubbing fears that huge numbers of Ghana’s population could be disenfranchised when one considers that the NIA on which the EC is depending, with coronavirus not permitting, is yet to issue out cards to even 60% of the population.

What makes the Jean Mensa ECs claim that new register must by all means happen in spite of the poor timing, difficult to accept as sincere is that the EC had, only a few months back, used the same register and the same system to conduct Assembly elections which covered the entire country. They also used the same register and system to conduct a referendum on the creation of new regions, and used the same register at the constituency level to conduct a bye-election at Ayawaso West-Wuogon.

Indeed, should there be a bye-election tomorrow, the EC would no doubt comfortably use the existing register to conduct the exercise, and no Ghanaian would complain about it. In fact, the last three elections that Jean Mensa and her commission conducted, no Ghanaian complained about the electoral register or even the system. Not even the ruling NPP government had any problem with the register or the outcome of those elections. So, where is this dangerous intention to carry on with the experimental creation of a new register at this inopportune time, despite serious advice to stop from many interest groups, CSO organisations and traditional authorities and political parties, coming from?

Remember that in all these instances, the EC had declared that those elections were credible. How then can the EC, a year later, turn around and declare that the same register it used is no longer credible and cannot be used for the 2020 elections, is the question on the minds of most Ghanaians.

If the EC were truly interested in delivering a peaceful, free, fair and transparent election, shouldn’t they have piloted the use of a new register and a new electoral system with the three elections they have conducted, correct mistakes that may come up, before confidently applying their use in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections in 2020?

Ghana’s CSOs against the path being taken by EC

Despite all sound arguments from over twenty topmost civil society organisations including CDD, IDEG, IMANI, ASEPA, GII, MFWA and CODEO cautioning the EC to consider cleaning up the current biometric register and to use limited registration to cater for eligible voters whose names are not on the electoral roll, the EC is still insisting on compiling an entirely new register of up to 18 million Ghanaians in 40 days.

The CSO’s reasoning that the issue of cost, irregularities and lack of transparency in ECs procurement, the unprecedented lack of time, the lack of testing of the new system, a u-turn dependence on the Ghana Card that is still being issued to a waiting millions as eligibility document, and a raging coronavirus that is bound to slow the pace of registration of almost 18 million will leave a significant number of eligible voters disenfranchised, have fallen on deaf ears.

While it has been established that the deadly Covid-19 is a particular threat to the aged who have been protected in their homes, reducing the risk of contracting the deadly disease, Jean Mensa and the Akufo-Addo government backing her actions, are insisting all such vulnerable persons should come out, in spite of the avoidable dangers, to re-register.

In spite of all these, the EC simply refuses to pay heed to the concerns of members of the public.

Cards Jean Mensa issued in 2018 for referendum and in 2019 for Assembly elections to be scrapped

The plan for the EC to compile an entirely new voter’s register in 2020 looks to have been poorly thought through. Indeed, one wonders why would the Jean Mensah-led EC be causing financial loss to the state by spending millions of cedis of tax-payers money to register new eligible voters only to discard them and ask the over one million new registrants to re-register on an entirely new voter register?

Earlier in the year, when the question “will the EC discard all previous data was posed”, the EC had responded that: “No, the EC will use the existing data of voters into the new voters register.” They went on to explain that, “existing voters would not be required to go through the same process as new voters… their details will be retrieved from the existing database and their biometrics captured, that is, new facial image and ten fingerprints.”

Strangely, the EC without consulting Ghanaians have gone against their assurance to use the existing electoral data and has announced that it will begin a new registration of almost 18 million eligible Ghanaians instead of the transfer of data and the limited registration for new voters. The EC still insists it will go ahead in spite of loud calls that it desists because millions stand the risk of being disenfranchised.

An Independent EC is still accountable to the people – Jean Mensah

We may recall that in spite of her predecessor, the previous Electoral Commission, recording some 92% success rate in the limited voters registration exercise they conducted that year, Madam Jean Mensa had called for the exercise to be extended by two more weeks to ensure no eligible voter is left behind. She had stated:

“While the independence of the EC should be protected and respected, the EC should also be accountable to the will of Ghanaians and should take all steps to ensure the conduct of free, fair, peaceful and transparent elections.” Jean Mensa, Executive Director, IEA

To Jean Mensa, independence does not bar one from listening and being accountable to the people. Indeed, the EC chair Jean Mensa, had on Tuesday, March 5, 2019 at the inauguration of the EC’s Audit team had declared:

“We are committed to shedding light and building transparency into all our operations and to activities right from the preparation of workplans and budgets to our procurement activities and through to our activities organised before, during and after our elections. We are determined therefore to remove the cloak and shrouds of secrecy that have characterized our operations and beam the torchlight on all our activities.”

Expressions like  “shedding light” and “building transparency into all our operations and to activities … before, during and after our elections”, “remove the cloak and shrouds of secrecy” and “beam the torchlight on all our activities” are exactly what the parties are asking for; they are what the National House of Chiefs on behalf of the people of Ghana are demanding. Sadly, in place of an open engagement was a public snub.

In Ghana, Chiefs are the custodians of the lands and they are duly recognised by the constitution. They are therefore key stakeholders in every aspect of our national life. And yet, it was the highest body of Nananom, the National House of Chiefs, that the Jean Mensa-led EC refused to honour their invitation to provide them updates on preparedness toward December 7 and to explain the need for a new register.

“With the requests, we made to them on the 5th of February, they said they didn’t have any time to meet us so the standing committee requested a registrar to go to them so that they will come early in this month so we can assemble to meet them, as of today, we have not heard from them” the chiefs lamented.

So, what happened to Jean Mensa’s own advice that an Independent Electoral Commission is still accountable to Ghanaians? Could it be forgetfulness, or perhaps a deliberate ploy to achieve an ulterior objective? Should Ghanaians be concerned about the ECs intransigence, or should they ignore the clear signs of waiting disaster simmering on a daily basis?

Fortunately, more voices of reason have continued to prevail on the EC to build consensus with all the stakeholders to ensure peace. Notable among them is the founder of the Perez Chapel International who has cautioned the EC not to snub the parties but bring everybody on board in their consultations. According to the renowned man of God, they are “stakeholders that can either allow us to have this peacefully or not.”


Let peace prevail; let’s not risk disenfranchising millions of eligible voters at this time

Yes, peace is what this country has been known for and what it should continue to be known for after the elections of December 7, 2020.

The unfortunate price of conflict is that oftentimes it affects the innocent more than the instigators. Taking Liberia, for instance, most of the prime actors of that dastardly civil war that ravaged the country are alive. Today, Charles Taylor may not be a free man, but he is safely tucked away at the Hague in the Netherlands. The partner he married (now divorced) is the current Vice President of the Liberia. Prince Johnson, the catalyst for the Liberian Civil War, contested the last Liberian elections aiming to lead that country as President.

But who are the people who lost? Innocent young men and women, children and the aged were brutally murdered. Many others had their limbs chopped off rendering them maimed for life. Their only crime was that they trusted the system to protect them. Their mistake was that they were only minding their own business and going about their daily lives as normal people.

EC can still deliver a people’s election, not an ECs election

But it is not too late for us to get back on track and go the South Africa way – the way our CSOs, our Nananom, and even key NPP figures like Lawyer Akoto Ampaw have advocated. Jean Mensa and her team of commissioners only need to retrace their steps to their own pledge and promise of integrity, and begin to build consensus with all stakeholders, so that they are all carried along.

The main bone of contention is that a significant number of Ghana’s eligible voting population stand to be disenfranchised and the fear is that this could lead to preventable civil strife. How about the EC doing a new register in 2021 when tensions would have calm down and when Ghanaians would have had a better way of handling the coronavirus pandemic? The NPP won the 2016 election with a margin of about 1 million votes on this same register so they won’t have a problem contesting the 2020 elections with the same register that won them power. The NDC that lost seems content with the same register that caused their painful defeat.

It is not too late. We owe to Ghanaians to deliver an election that will be the people’s election, just like it is here in South Africa, and not the ECs election. At the end of it all, may we not remember the referee’s role but rather how we became more united in the course of delivering an election that is acceptable to all sides as free, fair and transparent.

By Jonathan Opoku Prempeh — A Ghanaian resident in South Africa




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