A number of Ghanaians will vote for the first time in this year's District Level Elections just like I did. Over the years, local level elections in Ghana have been fraught with major challenges of apathy and low voter turnout. Reasons? Well, little knowledge and appreciation of the local governance system and its usefulness to our democratic governance; limited information on the local governance processes; failed promises and poor accountability by duty bearers; distance; relocation from electoral areas, and an endless list of genuine and empty excuses.
On Tuesday 17th December, I arrived at the AME Zion School Park at Mamprobi, Accra in the Ablekuma South Metro at about 9am to cast my vote. I had anticipated a queue which meant I would probably be late for work. To my surprise, the place was dead silent but for the presiding officer, some polling assistants, candidate agents and security. In all, I was done in just about five minutes.
While I drove out of the polling station, I relished the fact that I had exercised a very important civic responsibility as a Ghanaian necessary to deepen the decentralization and local governance system in Ghana.
But I was equally sad.
First of all, prior to the voting day, I had done a few checks over the internet and social media for information on the candidates contesting in my electoral area but to no avail. When I did a scan, only a few had published the December 17 elections as an upcoming event albeit no additional information on candidates or polling centres. Many others had no such information. It was too late for me to have asked some residents also. So I simply had no knowledge of the profiles and competences of any of the candidates on both ballot sheets - that of the Assembly members and that of the Unit Committee Members. It's been more than five years since I relocated from this electoral area. How in God's name was I to vote on merit with no information on the candidates?
It felt like the "Multiple Choice Question" kind of exam back in school. Unsure of the right answer you simply gambled; you just might get some right. Gamble? With such an important exercise?
Fortunately, there were some women candidates on the ballot sheet. Quickly, I thumb printed against their names. Of course, if for nothing at all, it valuable make choices that go to encourage and shore up the chances of women in our governance system. I have worked with some superb assembly women and women unit committee members in some districts in the country. Besides, according to the Electoral Commission's (EC) Acting Director of Public Relations, Sylvia Annor, the contestants of the 2019 District Assembly Elections comprised 17, 601 males and 909 are females.
But did I really vote right? Did I vote on merit? Or perhaps I shouldn't have even bothered. I kept wondering because if it must be done, it must be done well.
As a resident outside of the electoral area, what was most critical at this point was some information on who the candidates were. Especially because I did not have the opportunity to engage with candidates and was also not able to participate in any of the platforms mounted for candidates to present themselves and their programmes to the electorate.
According to the District Assembly Elections Act - 1994 (ACT 473) Section 8 (1), "the Electoral Commission shall appoint for each District a returning and two deputy returning officers who shall be referred to as "returning officers". Section 8 (2)(c) adds that "the returning officers shall - create or cause to be created platforms for the candidates to present themselves and their programmes to the electorate".
While I may not be privy to what these platforms are, I imagine most of these will be town halls and face-to-face interactions with electorate. But in this day of ICT and high powered technology, and after several years of the practice of local governance in Ghana, I think it is woefully inadequate to just mount physical platforms for candidates without also plugging them onto the virtual world.
Ghanaian voters are diverse, and getting more sophisticated every day. Different communication channels and platforms must be consciously deployed to reach them with the necessary information to help inform their decisions. The Electoral Commission's website already provides some useful information on electoral processes in Ghana.
It may indeed be too grand to request the EC to at least have a brief profile of the 57,030 candidates contesting in either the assemblies or the unit committees in the different electoral areas. But why can't local assemblies - Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies use their online presence - web portals; websites and social media pages (especially Facebook) to also support this? It is really unfortunate that while mainstream media and many social media users used their platforms to highlight the elections, the social media platforms of many local assemblies were dead silent on mentioning the day; let alone reminding and encouraging people to vote.
Perhaps, the EC or the Returning Officers appointed by the EC can also collate and make available information on candidates' profile and share with the different MMDAs so they also publish on for the accessibility of the general public.
In Ghana, citizens' apathy and little interest/participation in local governance processes is most glaring in the urban areas, towns and cities. I believe providing simple information like this will be an incentive for those who at least make the effort.
While we hope for the opportunity to elect our MMDCEs someday and perhaps bring back the conversation about whether political parties should sponsor candidates in local level elections, I would hope that the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Law, which begins in 2020, can rekindle efforts by public organisations and agencies to be more proactive in disclosing information to the public.