I managed to get myself a valid Ghana voter registration card yesterday, taking advantage of the current limited registration window that closes tomorrow. As with nearly every other needful transactional encounter with the Ghanaian state, this latest experience, too, was an exercise in building and demonstrating frustrated patience and humility–or, as I observed with other compatriots going through the same process, an opportunity to display boisterous aggression and disorderly behavior. In all, the process took me two attempts in two consecutive days.
Day 1 was spent mainly trying to find exactly where I needed to go to get registered. With no notices or signs posted in my neighborhood or anywhere, no local party or candidate informational outreach, and no useful information available on the website of the EC, I initially had to fall on my neighbours. And from them I got inconsistent responses. It took a timely conversation with my good friend Nana Awere Damoah, who got help from the staff at his nearby registration center, to get me the name and general location of the registration center I was supposed to go to. Finding the exact location would take a fair amount of additional expenditure—of time, petrol, tire, and the customary roadside asking, plus a few wrong turns and corrective U-turns. When I finally found the location, I was certain of it only because of the size of the crowd I saw gathered there. The sight of the sheer number would be enough to discourage many a time-conscious prospective registrant. Happily for me, I had some time–about an hour or two–to spare, so, after inquiring about the steps and process from some staff behind one of the desks, I decided to take my chances with what seemed like a queue.
I quickly discovered that the queue comprised not only those persons that were in the line whose tail I had just joined but everybody else milling around at the center and others not even present in the area. In effect, everybody else at the registration center, whether in line or not, was ahead of me, though no one had an assigned number or way to proof their priority in the “line”. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to stand where I stood in the disorganized queue. I had budgeted about an hour and a half to take care of this registration business when I left home. It became quickly apparent that I would need the whole day–and possibly more. The line never seemed to move, though I could see some people getting processed. After being in the “queue” for nearly two hours, and as my next scheduled appointment was about 15 minutes away, I decided to leave. I asked when registration closed (5 pm) and when it would open the next day (7 am).
On Day 2, which was yesterday, I got to the registration center–about an eight-minute drive–a little shy of 8:30 am. I thought that was reasonably early. To my surprise, the place was even more crowded than the previous day. I walked to take my place at the end of the only arrangement of people there that resembled a queue. I knew from the previous day’s experience that everybody hanging out at the center, whether in line or not, as well as others not physically present, considered thmselves part of the queue, and ahead of me in the queue. I soon discovered that a good number of the men (they were mostly men) sitting or standing under the shade of the big mango tree at the registration center were there as so-called guarantors. They were there to attest, with no credinle risk of sanction for perjury, to the age (and nationality, I presume) of particular persons in the queue who had no proof of birth or nationality. That helped to explain the many faces at the center who did not appear to me to be age-eligible. For them, the guarantor’s word is a good as a birth certificate and a passport combined.
As on the previous day, the line moved at a tortoise pace. After about two and a half hours in the barely-moving queue, a gentleman came over and pulled me out of the queue. Was this my Ibrahim-Tanko @DVLA moment? I thought my cool haircut the two previous days had taken care of all the visible grey that might have marked me out as a senior citizen. I wasn’t amused. I had seen a couple of late-arriving old folk processed out of turn, which made sense to me. The gentleman asked me to wait under the mango tree. Perhaps he had seen my polo shirt get wet from sweat and felt a need to offer me a little break. Since there was no method to establish one’s priority or place in the queue and I did not want to lose my place in the line, I had made sure to let the two young men who were immediately behind me in the queue know I was stepping out for a break. The gentleman went to talk to the registration staff, then returned. I would be processed after a certain number of “youngsters” had taken their turn. According to him, they had used that “system” the first day, but since then there hadn’t been that many “elderly” people, so they had not followed that arrangement since. Though a senior citizen or parent-with-baby or pregnant woman exception made perfect sense to me, presumptive (visual) age didn’t make sense to me as a way to organize service. But I was not about to complain. True, except for the guarantors, the place was full of persons who looked teenage or in their early twenties. So, I stood out as older than about everybody else I saw in the queue. But “elderly”? This man paa. 🙂 Anyway, after about another 40 minutes in the shade, I was beckoned to approach the registration desk. My registration had commenced.
I presented my drivers license and passport to the form-filler. My driver’s license was enough, he said. But how does a driver’s license establish or prove citizenship, I wondered? For voter registration purposes, didn’t it suffer from the same integrity defect as the NHIS card? Anyway, I took my passport back into my safe custody, while the form-filler did his work on the form.
Yes, all of the wait was just to fill forms, two of them. I and, I am sure, many others in the queue could have completed those forms on our own well in advance of getting to the front of the queue. The information about my parents didn’t seem relevant to me; as was the one about my hometown address. So all the three staffers at the desk were just there to fill forms from the information we supplied them either verbally or on our identification documents. Why couldn’t they have, for example, three separate lines/desks, one each for those with documentation who could fill the forms on their own; those with documentation who needed help to complete the forms; and those without documentation who were accompanied by so-called guarantors. And these guarantors, are they required to be related to the registrant in any way, like a parent or guardian? Loopholes galore!
The forms filled, I was sent off to the nerdy-looking chubby guy with a goatee behind a laptop and some biometric equipment. The shortness of the line there was proof of both how very slowly the preceding manual form-filling process was proceeding and how less time-wasting the computer-aided part of the process was. He took my completed forms, had me verify the information and spelling on the form, and entered them in his laptop. He then took my biometric data and a photo of me and generated a print-out bearing my photo and assigned voter ID number. The staff at the next desk took the printout, cut out the small box with my photo and voter ID, and produced a laminated card for me. That was it for me, but not before my little finger had been marked with indelible ink, ostensibly to prevent double registration–something I thought the biometric data collection of my finger and thumb prints was also designed to avert.
Before I left the registration grounds, I engaged my “good samaritan” in a conversation. He identified himself as an ex-soldier currently engaged as an election officer by an organization called CENCOR, which had been authorized by the EC to observe the registration process. I told him that I knew about CODEO but not CENCOR. He explained that they were mostly drawn from security sector retirees and focused on conflict. He asked what I did and, when I told him what I did, he smiled and disclosed that he had told the registration staff that I was a medical doctor and thus needed to be processed out in turn in order to prepare for duty later in the day. We looked at each other and exchanged smiles.
All together, it was an interesting experience. Perhaps the place was so full of “youngsters” because these were first-time registrants. I counted very few adult-looking adults. I also learnt that very many of the registrants simply needed a state-issued ID card that would serve as a general purpose ID, not just or even mainly for elections. That, too, might explain the near crowded registration center.
Given the large numbers at the registration center, which I learned was the only one in my area, I am sure many prospective registrants will not have been registered by the close of registration on Sunday. The process is way too primitive and inefficient. The primary bottleneck is the very first part of the registration process, namely the completion of the forms. There is no reason why all of us must wait in a queue doing nothing when many of us could use that waiting time to complete our own forms, leaving only the presentation of the completed forms and accompanying supporting documentation when the queue got to our turn. Using one unorganized queue to process all prospective registrants, without regard to their eligibility or documentation status, also compounds the waiting. I wonder how many gainfully employed people can afford to take an indefinite amount of time off their vocations to go through this kind of process. This is clearly a system best suited for the muscular unemployed, or else for some highly motivated person who had all the time in the world to spare. Anyway, with ROPAA the law of the land for a good while now, there is no good reason why I couldn’t have been issued a voter registration card a long time ago through one of the Ghana embassy or consular locations in the United States. And the guarantor system is too easily liable to gaming and abuse. In any case, why can’t age-eligible students who reach the age of majority be registered using their school enrollment and attendance records, which would seem to me to be more reliable for establishing age and nationality than this funny “honor code” guarantor system.
By: H. Kwasi Prempeh/ghanadecides.com