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Ghana: Rising tensions

As Ghana’s general elections approach in December, the Electoral Commission has announced plans to scrap the voters’ register and compile a new one amid the coronavirus outbreak, and at a huge cost to the nation, all just months before the campaign season begins. As if that was not risky enough, it has now transpired that the EC’s originally stated reasons for doing so, that the current biometric system is now outdated, turns out to have been untrue, thus raising the political temperature in the nation. Paul Amponsah reports.

Some members of the opposition parties and civil-society groups demonstrate in Accra against plans by the Electoral Commission to compile a new voters’ register for the upcoming elections in December this year.

The clouds of suspicion surrounding Ghana’s Electoral Commission (EC), headed by Jean Adukwei Mensa, will not clear any time soon. The National Democratic Congress (NDC) party, several smaller opposition parties, and as many as 18 civil-society organizations are questioning the credibility of the EC’s decision to compile a new voters’ register for the upcoming December presidential and parliamentary elections.

The EC announced on January 22 that it would begin work on the new voters’ register before the elections. The plan’s critics argue that there is nothing really wrong with the current voters’ register, and that compiling a new one is part of a grand scheme by Mensa and the EC to get President Nana Akufo-Addo and the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) re-elected, by suppressing the number of voters in NDC strongholds such as the Volta Region, and augmenting the numbers in NPP strongholds such as the Ashanti Region.

That is exactly what the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights for 2018 predicted, after President Akufo-Addo orchestrated the removal of the then EC chairperson, Charlotte Kesson-Smith Osei, that June, on the grounds of financial wrongdoing. Osei had been appointed in 2015 by former President John Dramani Mahama, who Akufo-Addo defeated in the December 2016 election. Akufo-Addo replaced her with Mensa, a strong NPP sympathizer, who took office on August 1, 2018.

Ghana’s security forces on alert as people take to the streets to protest the decision by the Electoral Commission to change the voters’ register just ahead of the next elections.

“The June ouster of the Electoral Commission chairperson and the president’s subsequent stacking of the Electoral Commission with persons considered to be biased in favor of the ruling party,” the State Department report said, “raised questions about whether the body [the EC] might be used to stifle voter registration among the opposition’s base.”

Opponents of the new voters’ register say that is exactly what is happening. Mensa’s method, they say, is to replace the biometric system – which was installed in 2012, and upgraded in 2016 and 2018 – with a new system that will cost US$150 million. The system uses unique physical characteristics of voters such as their fingerprints to verify their identify and their eligibility to vote, and also eliminates identity theft, and multiple voting.

“Ghana is a country where the government doesn’t have money to pay teachers but has money to replace a credible voters’ register with a new dubious one to rig elections,” says a protester who was among several thousands who hit the streets to protest the plan.

Rigging the EC with Mensa

Many say that Mensa is afraid that if the opposition NDC wins the elections, she will be sacked under controversial circumstances, as her predecessor was by President Akufo-Addo – so she wants to see him re-elected by any means necessary. In the process, she is dragging the whole national election-management institution into her plan, one that is likely to put the NDC and its presidential candidate, John Mahama, at a huge disadvantage.

Akufo-Addo and the NPP have thrown their full backing behind Mensa and the EC to organize a new voters’ registration drive.

The NPP made the voters’ register a central theme of its 2016 campaign. It claimed that the register, then only four years old, was bloated with not only “ghost names” of ineligible, dead, or fictitious voters, but with the names of thousands of alleged non-Ghanaians (mainly Ewe-speaking Togolese) who had allegedly crossed the border to register as Ghanaian voters.

Akufo-Addo, then the main opposition leader, made the allegedly inflated voter lists into a personal crusade. “The present voters’ register that we have in Ghana is bloated and anomalous, and there is an urgent need to make sure we get a new voters’ register before the next election,” he told supporters in the U.K. in 2014, without providing any evidence.

He made the same allegations in October 2015 when addressing the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “No one should take democracy for granted,” he said. “Democracy must be protected at all times, and right now it is under threat in Ghana. The biggest threat facing Ghana’s democracy is our fraudulent voters’ register. It contains millions of extra names. The register is bloated – it is estimated that upwards of two million of the registered voters are bogus. It is packed with ineligible underage voters, and foreign and fake identities. If we are calling ourselves a democracy, this is unacceptable. This is a real problem, the kind that cannot be brushed under the carpet as it provides the vehicle for manipulation and fraud.”

“We disagree with any assertion that the register as we have it at the moment is bloated,” Christian Owusu Parry, then the EC’s director of public affairs, responded. “It is not in any way bloated. If anybody suggests that the register as we have it is bloated, then I am surprised because it is not supported by the statistical figures that we have.”

Jean Adukwei Mensa, the chairperson of Ghana’s Electoral Commission, is a sympathizer of the ruling New Patriotic Party and a strong ally of President Nana Akufo-Addo. Can she be trusted to organize credible elections in December?

The next elections, in December 2016, relied on the much-maligned 2012 register – and Akufo-Addo defeated Mahama, the incumbent, by almost 1 million votes. The NPP won a 169-106 majority in Parliament over the NDC.

A very rushed plan

In the midst of the demonstrations against the new voters’ register, the EC announced on January 22 that work on it will begin on April 18 and end on May 30 – a total of 43 days to verify the identities of some 16 million registered voters and collect biometric data to identify them at the polls. Then from August 15 to August 28, it will exhibit the new voters’ register. The EC said 8,000 registration devices will be deployed to cover the country’s 32,000 polling stations, which will be grouped in clusters of four stations each.

With the global outbreak of the coronavirus, which has affected the entire country and compelled the authorities to ban public gatherings, many people thought the EC would abandon its plans for the new voters’ register, at least for public health and safety reasons. But the EC stated that it would not cancel the compilation of the new voters’ register. “Plans are far advanced for successful take-off of the registration process,” the EC said, adding that “in view of the ban imposed on public gatherings by His Excellency President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo Addo, a new date for the registration will be announced in due course.”

To ram through its wishes and goals, the EC has asked Parliament to amend the existing law on voter registration which allows citizens to provide as identification for registration one of the following: an existing voter identification card, a driver’s license, a passport, or a national identification card. Now the EC only wants a passport or a national identification card as good for voter registration, but this will disenfranchise many people because they do not possess a passport or a national identification card. To get around the problem, the EC has proposed that citizens without a passport or a national identification card can get two registered voters to vouch or guarantee for them. Interestingly, the EC does not want a birth certificate, which, strangely, is the foundation document for a passport. Without a birth certificate, a citizen cannot get a passport, but now a birth certificate is not good enough to get a citizen registered as a voter.

Six political parties have formed a coalition called the “Inter-Party Resistance Against the New Voters’ Register.” It is led by the NDC and includes the EGLE (Every Ghanaian Living Everywhere) Party, the People’s National Convention (PNC), All People’s Congress (APC), United Front Party (UFP), and the United Progressive Party (UPP). With the exception of the NDC and the PNC, the others in the group are insignificant parties.

In contrast, 12 other mostly inactive parties, led by the ruling NPP, are in support of the new register.

New voting technology

On December 31, 2019, the EC called a press conference in Accra to “clear the air of some misconceptions regarding the Commission’s intention to procure a new Biometric Voter Management System (BVMS) and to compile a new voters’ register ahead of the 2020 general elections… [because] it is a well-known fact that the register is bloated.”

It said it had made the decision based on the advice of its IT team and external consultants that “it would be prudent to acquire a new system rather than refurbish the current system.” Those experts, it said, advised that for what the commission was spending on replacing failing parts and renewing warranties, it could acquire a brand-new system that would be robust, modern, durable, and user-friendly, with full functionality and warranties.

“It is important to note that the equipment that the entire voter management system runs on, from enrollment, duplication, adjudication to voters’ verification is obsolete and no longer supported by their Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM),” the EC contended. “The report from the immediate past vendors of the solution indicated that the Commission would assume so much needless risks if steps were not taken to change the equipment.”

The EC also averred that the Biometric Verification Device (BVD) it used was unable to verify a number of voters electronically. The BVDs and Biometric Voters Register Kits (BVRs) were challenged by their inability to do fingerprint verification, “resulting in a high number of manual verifications on voting day. This compromises the integrity of the elections.

“The Commission intends to reduce the increasingly high identification failure rate by using new scanners and software with improved fingerprint-capturing algorithms and the use of certified fingerprint image-quality assessment software,” it said. “Registration officials will now have real-time image quality feedback to improve capture. Furthermore, quite a significant number of the BVDs and the BVRs cannot be repaired.”

The EC said it spent close to Gh¢2 million (about US$367,000) to refurbish and repair the BVDs and BVRs in time for last December’s district-level election. It described the effort as “a labor-intensive and expensive process” that spanned from May to December 2019 and required hiring additional staff.

“The proposal received from the immediate past vendor to have them replaced was several times more expensive than getting a commercial off-the-shelf solution of similar capacity and functionality,” so it would be cheaper to acquire “newer equipment with better software and improved scanners,” it continued. “The Commission, therefore, finds it prudent to replace the kits with a newer one with improved technology to capture images from fingers that are dry (due to the natural ageing process), wet (from perspiring fingers), or fingers with degraded or worn ridge structure due to occupation (e.g. farming).”

The current system, it claimed, does not have facial-recognition capacities, and its architecture prevents adding those capacities. “The new solution will have facial recognition as an additional feature for those whose fingers cannot be verified,” it said. “This will remove the current rising trend of manual verification which tends to compromise the integrity and credibility of our elections.”

The EC said that out of a total 5,431,902 verified voters in the December district-level election, 34,843 were manually verified. “This is a significant number which can determine the winner of an election,” it added, pointing to the 2008 presidential election runoff, which Akufo-Addo lost to NDC candidate John Atta Mills by barely 40,000 votes.

“The inclusion of facial recognition will completely eliminate manual verification and will ensure that the will of the people stands and that every vote cast matters,” the EC now claims. “It is for this reason that the EC intends to prepare a new register which will capture both fingerprints and face and completely eliminate the use of manual verification. The idea is that should there be a difficulty in verifying the fingerprints of voters on Election Day, voters will be verified using the facial recognition feature.”

The EC did not tell Ghanaians that the rate of manual validation in the district election was 0.64%, and that BVRs are not 100% accurate. Also, facial identification is not 100% accurate either, because a person’s face could have changed somewhat over four years.

“Considering the above challenges,” the EC said, “the Commission has come to the conclusion that it will be cheaper and prudent to acquire new BVRs and BVDs which are robust and user-friendly than to upgrade old and obsolete ones. Again, the Commission will go ahead with the preparation of a new biometric voters’ register based on the reasons provided earlier.”

The EC announced that it had begun an international bidding process with separate competitions for software, hardware, and the data center. It promised to undertake discussions with “our stakeholders, including the political parties.”

EC defies public will

Jean Mensa’s insistence on overhauling the country’s voter-identification system contradicts what she apparently believed in before her appointment as EC chair. After the December 2012 presidential result ended up in court, with Akufo-Addo unhappy about his second defeat in a row, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), an Accra-based think tank Mensa then headed (her husband, Dr. Charles Mensa, founded it in 1989), blamed the problems on the compilation of a new voters’ register during an election year.

The IEA singled out as culprits the biometric voter registration, the exhibition of the voters’ register, and the creation of an additional 45 constituencies in 2012. “Needless to say,” it added, “these activities undoubtedly overstretched the capacity of the Electoral Commission to successfully undertake and accomplish all its pre- election programs and still organize the 2012 General Election successfully. But why should all these activities be undertaken at the time when key actors in our electoral process, particularly the political parties, were very busy touring all parts of the country campaigning? Why should we sit down and wait till the eleventh hour? Things done in a rush are susceptible to costly mistakes. Indeed, such crash activities are a recipe for distrust, tension and the raising of unnecessary alarms over issues that could ideally pass without many qualms from the key stakeholders.”

Complete lack of trust

“The EC wants to rip out a system worth US$60 million, of which value at least US$40 million has accumulated since just 2016, and spend US$150 million (plus contingency) constructing a new one,” the Accra-based Imani think tank said. “A careful analysis of best practice in procuring biometric technology for elections in Africa shows that the EC’s proposed spending plans are inflated by about 60%. In short, the EC’s proposed system is brutally expensive compared to other countries in Africa. The EC’s claims about the existing system’s weaknesses are flawed and untrue, because the biometric data can be salvaged and facial recognition technology already exist through visual inspection.”

Imani said that the EC invited 18 civil-society organizations operating in Ghana to a briefing to persuade them to support the new register, including replacing the entire biometric voters’ management system (BVMS). The groups apparently emphatically said no.

In December 2019, the EC announced a series of “stakeholder consultations” on the New Biometric Voter Infrastructure (NBVI).

“Everywhere the EC has spoken, it has created the impression that the entire NBVI dates as far back as 2011 and therefore every equipment, software and data store is, to use its preferred terms, End-of-Service and End-of-Lifecycle,” Imani said. “This is serious misinformation, since the entire NBVI was audited by independent experts in 2016 as part of the EC’s strategic review of its vision and operations. No such recommendation for an end-to-end replacement of the current infrastructure was made in that report. We challenge the EC to publish that report. The decision to do so now is ad hoc and unsupported by the organization’s strategic plan.”

Imani said that both the 2016 audit report and the EC’s strategic and medium-term spending plans, which it had reviewed for the years since 2012, “have constantly endorsed the continuous improvement and upgrade model, whereby the EC continually procures equipment and services to replace the truly obsolete equipment and upgrade and refurbish systems truly reaching the end of their life cycle.” All of the commission’s procurement plans and expenditure frameworks, it added, “show clearly that the policy of Continuous Improvement & Upgrading has been the organization’s strategic philosophy until the end of 2018” — after Osei was ousted and Mensa appointed.

“Above everything else,” Imani said, “it is the disingenuity and complete lack of candor of the EC that is eroding the trust we in the civil-society movement in Ghana have in the institution, and reducing the esteem in which we had previously held it. With the EC having virtually completed its procurement process for a new NBVI without any regard for public opinion, the country would have to watch on helplessly as over US$60 million (accounting for depreciation) worth of technology systems are plucked out and discarded like garbage so that [the EC] can blow US$150 million (accounting for contingency) on assembling a new end-to-end system.”

It was planned all along

Even well before the public protests against the new register, Parliament had approved the release of Gh¢1.2 billion of the Gh¢1.7 billion that the EC requested in the national budget for its activities in 2020. Those activities obviously included the acquisition of a new BVMS system and compilation of a new voters’ register.

“The EC has blatantly and consistently lied about the true facts of the current biometric system and its ongoing effort to procure a new one,” Imani said in a February statement headlined The Dangerous Games of the Electoral Commission. “The EC’s claims that it will cost just US$56 million to procure a new system whilst the cost of refreshing and maintaining the existing one would be US$74 million are dangerous untruths. A sham tender recently completed by the EC has revealed that the EC plans to spend US$72 million on hardware alone.” Imani believes that by the time software and services are added the total costs for technology alone will amount to US$85 million.

Compared to a limited registration to capture just those not on the voters’ register, a fresh mass registration would cost US$50 million, Imani estimated, while refreshing the existing technology at competitive prices would cost about US$15 million. The total loss to Ghana of the EC’s actions, would be about US$150 million, “if one factors in contingency. If the fact that thousands of perfectly good equipment shall be thrown away is also considered, the total loss rises.”

The cost is not the only thing to be worried about, Imani added. “The EC also bungled the procurement process, leaving a trail of evidence suggesting tender-rigging. This has opened the process to litigation and delay.”

Imani said the EC disqualified well-qualified bidders after one day of evaluation, “claiming that they had reputational problems,” when Thales (and its Gemalto unit), the vendor it awarded the tender to – also after a one-day evaluation – “has even bigger scandals hanging over its head,” including that the company was once globally blacklisted by the World Bank.

The processes were so bad, Imani said “that the chairman of the technical evaluation panel dissociated himself from the results, forcing the EC to discard a 4-month process and compress it into a one-week evaluation.”

A rush to disaster

Former President Mahama has also expressed his concerns at meetings with various groups in the country. “If you look at the time left before the elections, you are now going to bring in new devices to compile a new register of voters and also train those who will be in charge of the registration exercise; the time left is not much,” he said. “So, if it happens that on December 7, 2020 the machines fail or the elections go awry or several names can’t be found on the register, what are we going to do?”

A man prepares to cast his ballot at a polling station in a stronghold of President Nana Akufo-Addo in Kibi, during the last elections on December 7, 2016.

“Before Mensa became EC chair, we were living in peace; she shouldn’t bring us any chaos or conflict,” he added. “If they remain adamant and refuse to listen to us, they should own up and claim responsibility for any chaos or conflict that may arise from the elections as a result of the compilation of a new register.”

NDC General Secretary Johnson Asiedu Nketiah also argues that there is not enough time to put in a new register before the election. “The time left for the 2020 general election is woefully inadequate for the EC to procure a new system, train its staff, compile a new voters’ register, generate a provisional register, conduct an exhibition exercise, do de-duplication, and so on and so forth,” he told a recent press conference in Accra. “The current biometric voters’ register is credible and can be updated through limited registration to deliver free and fair outcomes in the 2020 General Election… [and] the current Biometric Voter Management System which is made up of BVRs, BVDs, Software application, data center etc. is not obsolete but robust and can be maintained and/or upgraded to efficiently deliver the 2020 General Election.”

He said the NDC had emailed HSB Identification BV of Holland, the manufacturers of the current BVR equipment, on January 1, “seeking answers on whether or not the BVR equipment they supplied Ghana are obsolete; and whether or not the current BVRs can be upgraded to include facial recognition.”

“The current BVRs are not obsolete,” Marcel Boogaard of HSB Identification responded. Although their computer operating system and software need to be upgraded, “components like the fingerprint scanners were very robust and fit for use,” he said. The enrollment software could easily be upgraded with facial recognition, “a feature which has been incorporated in their new software release,” he continued, and more importantly, “the cost of upgrading the current BVR equipment with new functionalities will be far cheaper than replacing them with new equipment.”

On February 26, Nketiah said the NDC had sent another email to GenKey Africa, suppliers of the current BVDs, to find out whether or not the 72,000 BVD units the company shipped to the EC were obsolete, whether they could be upgraded, and at what cost.

“Contrary to the claims by the EC,” GenKey Africa managing director/projects director Harold Hermans replied that the units were not obsolete. “The BVDs the EC used for the 2019 District Level Elections worked perfectly,” he said. “The BVDs are upgradeable and that [GenKey Africa] presented a proposal to the EC for the upgrade of the same at a cost far cheaper than the cost of replacing the current equipment with new ones.”

“Suffice it to say that the Jean Mensa-led EC has been telling well-packaged lies to Ghanaians; lies deliberately calculated to court public support for the compilation of a new voters’ register,” Nketiah thundered. “These falsehoods, coupled with the raging controversy over corrupt tender processes for the supply of new BDV equipment and the announcement of a winner with a questionable record, clearly show that something fishy is going on at the EC. It is either that Jean Mensa and her sponsors have a financial interest in the procurement of entirely new equipment, or that the compilation of a new register is part of a rigging agenda for the benefit of NPP, or both.”

He called it “an absolute waste of the already constrained public purse” for the EC “to throw away the current credible voters’ register and spend over GH¢800 million of taxpayers’ monies on the procurement of a needless new system and a new register. This is moreso at this time when Ghanaians are experiencing excruciating economic hardships and when the government is unable to neither pay the claims of [National Health Insurance Scheme] service providers nor commit the needed resources to safeguard the lives of Ghanaians in the face of the global threat posed by the coronavirus.”

The Inter-Party Resistance, he added, is “determined to do everything possible within the remits of the law to resist the devious machinations and reckless attempt by the EC to waste the public purse on a needless compilation of a new voters’ register, which has the potential to jeopardize our fledgling democracy and the peace and stability we are enjoying as a country.

“We will, in the coming days, escalate our resistance to drum home further the voice of the people on this matter. It is a wasteful expenditure.”

Or is the new register part of an agenda led by President Akufo-Addo, using Jean Mensa and the EC, to blatantly ensure that he and the NPP are re-elected to power come December?

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