It is a great honor and delight to be here today.
On behalf of the Electoral Commission of Ghana, I extend a warm welcome to all of you, especially those visiting Ghana for the first time. I would also like to acknowledge and welcome the Speaker of our Parliament Right Honorable Professor Mike Ocquaye. We appreciate your taking time to be here this morning. It is not often that you have such a pool of knowledge and expertise assembled in one room and I am grateful to God for making this possible. I thank our co-hosts, the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies, for choosing Ghana as the destination for the 17th International Electoral Affairs Symposium. We have no doubt that our guests will enjoy the warm hospitality of the Ghanaian people and the delicious Ghanaian cuisine.
Today’s meeting affords my two Deputy Chairpersons and I an opportunity to meet, interact and learn from the heads of over 30 Election Management Bodies (EMBs) gathered in this venue. As most of you may know, all three of us were appointed to manage the affairs and operations of the Electoral Commission of Ghana just five months ago. Indeed any ideas we envisaged of slowly settling in gave way to the realities on the ground and we hit the ground running. I am sure that if we contacted any of you for advice prior to our swearing in, you would have made the complexity of the office clear to us. So perhaps it is a good thing that we did not as we may have declined the call to serve.
So five months on here we are - alive and kicking – it has been a busy and insightful journey so far. We have already had the experience of conducting a Referendum - Just a month ago we conducted a referendum to decide on whether or not to create six additional regions. The elections which were largely successful, witnessed the majority of Ghanaians voting yes in favor of the creation of six new regions. We are currently expanding our activities and structures in these new areas.
Again at the institutional level, we are reflecting on the lessons learnt from the recent Referendum as we prepare for the District level elections and another Referendum in the last quarter of this year. We believe that the challenges and opportunities, experiences and lessons from these elections and referenda will adequately prepare us for our Presidential and Parliamentary elections in December 2020.
Distinguished Guests, I am mindful of the fact that the tall order I have just outlined, is nothing new to any of you. For the EMB heads gathered here, I am sure that you will say to us – ‘this is the name of the game, get on with it.’ And indeed, we are getting on with it and we look forward to sharing with you and learning from your experiences during our side meetings in the coming days.
I would like to take a minute to discuss the importance of an electoral system. Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, we need no telling that the electoral process is the cornerstone to a democracy. Indeed it is the midwife that births a democracy. It provides legitimacy to our leaders and democratic institutions and therefore needs not only to be maintained but more importantly fortified. We are fortunate to have institutions like the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies (ICPS) which continue to provide a platform on which these processes are strengthened and nurtured.
It is of utmost importance that we continue to strengthen EMBs to ensure that citizens respect the processes that elect their leaders as being free, credible and transparent. It is essential that political parties freely participate in the electoral process and crucial that the right of citizens to express their preference is protected and guaranteed. We the Electoral Commission of Ghana are committed to these ideals. Only recently, we restored the founding principles of the Electoral Commission, namely Transparency, Fairness and Integrity and we are determined to abide by these principles.
So while the Electoral Commission of Ghana has made significant progress towards perfecting its systems and processes in the last two decades, there is more room for improvement. For example, more work must be done to address the high costs of our elections and the challenge of building institutional capacity. These are some of the topics that we will be discussing at the conference this week and we look forward to learning from our counterparts.
For us at the Electoral Commission of Ghana, we are keen to learn about advances made in the area of technology, having operated the same biometric registration and voting systems for the last ten years. How can we leapfrog and begin to use new technologies in our electoral process? What new biometric systems are the most efficient and most reliable? Since our assumption of office we have been concerned about the high cost associated with the procurement of hardware namely biometric registration and verification devices used in the electoral process. Therefore feedback and information on efficient systems and equipment that provide value for money will be useful to this meeting.
The high cost of elections is another key issue I hope will be discussed here - our elections are fast becoming a very expensive venture and we constantly have to rely on development partners to fund this thereby compromising our independence. In 2016 for example, the cost of elections in Ghana was $12.03 per voter, compared to $9.33 per voter in Nigeria (2015) and $5 per voter in Tanzania (2015). How can EMBs streamline their processes to reduce cost? What avenues and expertise exist to help EMBs audit their processes while maintaining the effectiveness and integrity of their systems?
Another important subject that we will broach is that of institutional capacity building. A major challenge we have observed is that of vendors taking over and owning the biometric database of EMBs. This is a worrying trend especially in developing countries that are striving to become more independent. How can EMBs build the capacity of their staff particularly in the area of ICT, to ensure that their day to day administrative processes and the maintenance and management of their database are not hijacked by vendors?
We will also discuss the issue of security around our electoral processes. We will reflect on how we can tighten security right from registration processes to Election Day activities through to the declaration of results. In the era of social media and fake news, what security systems can we put in place to counter the activities of mischief makers and scaremongers? Are security seals, customized ballot boxes and screens, uniformed field staff, onsite police and polling agents enough to secure the ballot and integrity of the process?
Again, how can we ensure that both our structures and staff operate in a manner that is transparent and accountable to key stakeholders? How should EMBs engage with their stakeholders in a way that will promote trust? How do we as autonomous bodies, remain accountable for our actions and for the use of the public purse?
The issue of ensuring that every vote counts will be discussed during our meeting. What steps should be taken to protect and guard every vote cast? What new educational tools are in place to train people on how to vote properly?
To date we still have high numbers of spoilt ballots after every election. In the 2008 Presidential Elections for instance, the number of rejected ballots as a result of improper thumbprinting constituted the third highest after the two largest political parties (2.37%). The percentage of rejected ballots decreased to 2.24 in 2012, and 1.54% in 2016. Despite the steady decrease in the past few years, we are still open to learning about new approaches to voter education. As EMBs I have no doubt that we are keen to see a reduction in the numbers because after all we are often blamed for this phenomenon.
On our part, our Commissioners and Staff are here to share valuable lessons on advancements made in the area of training electoral staff, promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women, and the facilitation of an equal right to vote for persons with disabilities and special needs. We have developed systems to make it comfortable for the visually impaired and physically challenged to vote and we will be happy to share this. We would also share with you some of the programmes we have developed to empower and nurture women to lead. Additionally, following our 2012 election petition, we have developed robust training programs to build the capacity of election officials. This has promoted a high standard of efficiency and professionalism across all levels and we will be happy to put at your disposal our training tools and manuals.
And so Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, before I take my seat, permit me to echo the words of Abraham Lincoln,
‘Elections belong to the people. It is their decision. It is our job to make sure it stays their decision.’
It gives me great pleasure once again to welcome you to this Symposium.
I thank you all for your attention.