By Ragan M. Conteh
The Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Hon Chernor Maju Bah, aka Chericoco, has issued a statement on the challenges in the on-going registration process.
According to Hon Bah, the voter registration process for the 2023 elections which started on 3 September 2022 has continued to attract an impressive turnout of citizens at registration centres across the country. This portrays the determination of citizens to exercise their constitutional right and responsibility, he added.
He said the June 2023 general elections will be crucial to this nation’s unity, peace and development, which is why he is heartened by the huge turnout thus far.
He stated that credible elections start with a credible registration process, which fact has left him disconcerted by the persistent challenges hampering this critical electoral process at present.
Hon Bah pointed out that since the commencement of the exercise Members of Parliament (MPs) of the All People’s Congress (APC) including its leadership have been actively engaged in monitoring the exercise, identifying and collating details of the existing and emerging challenges, adding that ‘the objective is to facilitate the participation of our constituents in the process’.
He said as the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, he has with grave concern witnessed and also been receiving updates indicating that the process is fraught with challenges which should be addressed as soon as possible.
Some of the key challenges identified, according to the opposition leader, include logistics and technical challenges, adding that most centres did not start on time and in some cases would ironically stop the registration process before the prescribed closing time of 5pm.
He continued that in the first few days in particular the challenges ranged from constraints relating to the transportation of registration equipment to the centres; delays in setting up of the centres; deployment of equipment to the wrong centres and districts; the unavailability of login passcodes among others.
On the malfunctioning of equipment, he said there has been a recurrence of failure of equipment for the capturing of biometrics, personal data and photographs in some of the centres, adding that there are complaints that computers are freezing rather too often; their batteries serve for very limited number of hours, and in many cases, there are no back up batteries or charging facilities.
Hon Bah said the first time voters finding it difficult to register, citing that the first time voters are being confronted with challenges in the registration process.
He furthered that the ECSL staff are not consistent with the required criteria for the registration of this important group of citizens.
He revealed that the controversy around the use of birth certificates, school documents, identification by community leaders, are all being interpreted differently by ECSL staff, thereby hampering the registration process.
Hon Bah pointed out that it should be noted that the Public Elections Act is very clear and unambiguous on the eligibility requirement for the registration of voters. He stressed that a birth certificate can be used as a form of identification and in the instance where a birth certificate is not available, a Pastor, Imam, Councillor or any other community leader can be called upon to identify and vouch for the person.
He charged that reports abound of instances wherein a limit is placed on the number of persons a community leader can identify, adding that this is not part of the law. Hon Bah informed that ‘capacity and attitude of the ECSL staff from some of our MPs on the ground referenced with concern, the condescending and confrontational approach with which some of the ECSL staff relate to their clients – the public; as well as the lack of proper ICT and technical knowledge to perform their duties’.
He said uneven/disproportionate allocation of registration centres, adding that he has also noted that the number of centres per area/village particularly in the Northern and Western Areas are fewer than those in other parts of the country.
In the rural areas of the affected regions, he went on that citizens have to endure the burden of trekking for hours in order to access registration centres, disclosing that, ‘This is a key disincentive for participating in this very critical electoral process, especially by older people and the physically challenged. While we grapple with all of these challenges, I would like to highlight two other very critical issues.’
He said the first is ECSL’s cumulative registration figures for the first four days, informing that on Wednesday 7 September the Commission announced a cumulative figure of about 415,465 which it said represented the total number of registrants for that period.
‘My expectation is that such update ought to be disaggregated by centres and made available on a daily basis, especially to political parties. The second issue is the use of unverified existing data to update the voters roll. As far as I am aware, political parties have not been intimated about ECSL’s existing data.’
The Leader of Opposition said the public would note that the current registration exercise is in two phases, stressing that one is the fresh registration of eligible citizens. The second is an update of existing data already with ECSL. However, he said there is lack of transparency and inclusiveness relating to the existing data which raises questions about the comprehensiveness, accuracy, and reliability of such data.
‘If political parties are not given the opportunity to verify some of the data which would eventually constitute the voter roll, this may impugn the integrity of the process. I therefore urge that the data which existed before the start of this registration process be made available to political parties for verification,’ Hon Bah said.
‘As I conclude,’ the opposition Leader said, ‘I would like to state that I have had several conversations with the Electoral Commission and several other stakeholders with the aim of ensuring that an integrated approach is adopted to addressing the challenges as soon as possible.’
He also noted that the commission has acknowledged some of the challenges, made a commitment to address them, and to ensure that every eligible Sierra Leonean exercises his or her constitutional right and responsibility.
However, Hon Bah said it is astonishing that after seven days, logistical challenges such as distribution of booklets still persist.
‘For instance, on Saturday 10 September 2022 in Constituency 124, Ward 429, Christ Church Primary School Centre number 16156 in the Western Area Urban, registration was done for a few hours only and the centre had to close down owing to lack of registration materials. It begs belief that such challenges could still affect the registration process in our nation’s capital.’
Hon Chericoco highlighted that in a democratic state like Sierra Leone citizens must be able to elect their leaders through the ballot box in a process that is seamless, free, fair and credible.
He mentioned that as he pointed out at the opening of this statement that credible elections start with a credible voter registration process.
He is therefore kindly urging the ECSL to take the necessary steps to actualise this commitment of ensuring that every eligible citizen is able to register.
He cited that while he expresses his profound thanks and appreciation to all those who have already registered, he used the opportunity to kindly encourage every eligible Sierra Leonean who has not yet done so to exercise patience in their endeavour to register.
‘Your power to vote for your next leaders in the June 2023 elections lies in making sure that you register; no matter the difficulties. As I look forward to a peaceful, transparent and satisfactory conclusion of the process, I send you and your families good wishes in all that you do,’ he concluded.