Ghana’s 7 December general election will be the country’s eighth consecutive poll since returning to democracy nearly 30 years ago. Citizens will elect a president and 275 members of Parliament.
Although 12 candidates are vying for the presidency, the contest is mainly between the incumbent Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and his predecessor John Dramani Mahama of the main opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC).
Peaceful exchange of power between the NPP and the NDC in 2001, 2009 and 2017 has earned the country a reputation of political stability in a rather turbulent West Africa. Yet the NPP and NDC have clashed over the neutrality of the Electoral Commission owing to differences in compiling the new voters register ahead of the elections.
Meetings between the Electoral Commission and political groups making up the Inter-party Advisory Committee indicate some satisfaction with the state of election preparedness. But tensions between the two main parties haven’t subsided and set the stage for a potentially disputed outcome.
Mahama has accused the Electoral Commission of setting out to organise a flawed election and threatened to reject the results. Another sign of trouble was the admission by Special Development Initiatives Minister and NPP Member of Parliament, Mavis Hawa Koomson, to firing a warning shot during an altercation with NDC opponents. This was at a voter registration centre on 21 July.
Despite supervising elections in which incumbent parties have lost on three occasions, important deficiencies expose the Electoral Commission to suspicion of political manipulation. Beyond its head office in Accra, electoral infrastructure across the country is weak, making the commission reliant on the government to mobilise logistics for polls.
Election commissioners have security of tenure and recruitment of permanent and temporary staff is not subject to government control. However, at the leadership level, a chairperson can be removed from office and a new one appointed by the president. This arrangement accounts for much of the pre-election tension.
In June 2018, Akufo-Addo dismissed then chairperson Charlotte Osei and her two deputies on the recommendation of a committee established by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The committee had investigated allegations of procurement violations, financial malfeasance and incompetence. As Osei was appointed in 2015 by then president Mahama, the NDC criticised the move as part of the NPP’s plan to manipulate the Electoral Commission and rig the December 2020 elections.
Tensions deepened when Jean Mensa, whom the NDC accused of being pro-NPP, was appointed as new chairperson along with two deputies and a commissioner. Relations deteriorated when the new leadership announced plans in December 2018 to compile another voter register because the previous one was bloated and contained the names of minors and foreigners.
The NPP had lobbied Ghana’s partners on the need for a new register following its narrow loss of the 2012 elections. Before the 2016 elections, two individuals accused of fronting for the NPP had filed a Supreme Court petition against the then Osei-led Electoral Commission essentially affirming the party’s position. The commission complied with the court’s ruling that it had cleaned up the register.
Accusations of manipulation deepened when key NPP figures agreed publicly with the Electoral Commission that the old voter ID card and birth certificate be excluded from the documents accepted for new registrations. In early June, the commission secured approval from the NPP-majority Parliament to accept only passports and national ID cards (Ghana cards) as proof of citizenship.
People with neither document could only register with guarantors who had already registered – a situation the NDC warned would make the process cumbersome. Before then, the NDC accused the National Identification Authority, the agency responsible for issuing national identification, the Electoral Commission and NPP of plotting to disenfranchise people who had neither a passport nor a Ghana card.
This is the backdrop for violent clashes between NPP and NDC supporters during the 31-day voter registration process. The attacks occurred in various constituencies and lead to several fatalities. The NDC accused the NPP of trying to disenfranchise its supporters based on their ethnicity and doubts about their citizenship.
In the eastern Volta region, an NDC stronghold, the government’s deployment of security forces to border towns as part of its COVID-19 prevention measures drew accusations of voter intimidation and ethnic discrimination. The NPP in turn accused the NDC of attempting to register foreigners in the Bono region bordering Côte d’Ivoire.
An ensuing voter verification process also generated controversy and further polarised positions. Mahama’s NDC lamented that the revised voters lists in its strongholds were incomplete. This raised questions about whether Ghana would have a fair, credible and transparent voters register before the December elections.
Recurrent suspicions over the Electoral Commission’s independence don’t augur well for Ghana’s political stability in the long run. Legal and structural deficiencies that underpin these allegations must be addressed to build confidence in the electoral process and reduce the possibility of results being disputed.
Sam Kwarkye, Senior Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel, and the Lake Chad Basin
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