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Biometrics for Voter Registration in Sierra Leone?

Biometrics for Voter Registration in Sierra Leone?

In sub-Sahara Africa, most countries have grudgingly tailored in multiparty systems, amended their constitutions, educated their citizens on democracy and voting, and the list goes on, to be seen as conducting free and fair elections. What worries me are the cosmetics associated with the process giving the world a pictorial view of what is yet to be really democratic in practice.  As African countries emulate western democratic systems of government, a wind of change is blowing a new epoch in Africa’s electioneering process, especially voter registration.

As the year 2012 draws near, I have been critically thinking about the electioneering process in Sierra Leone, mainly voter registration. The ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) “has” the military, the police, the finances, the court system, and even the Electoral Commissioners. The Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) the main opposition is in limbo: with no date set for a Flag Bearer election, no proper mechanism in place for registering voters for a free and fair election to name a few. But the SLPP is not in isolation with these critical obstacles; other political parties are also lagging behind.

How can Sierra Leoneans be sure of having proper voter registration? Other countries have revamped their voter registrations and no doubt have come out swinging with positive voter registration systems – Biometric voter registration.

Bangladesh for example deployed 30,000 direct data capturing machines, while voter registration in Bangladesh took between eight and 11 months, INEC had four months to carry out the exercise. An online Nigeria newspaper  The Punch, stated that,  “After registering more than 80 million voters using biometric face and fingerprint technology, the country also took the extra step by using Neurotechnology‘s MegaMatcher biometric technology to detect and prevent duplicate registrations”.  The newspaper quoting a Reuters’ July 23, 2008 report s reiterated that, Bangladesh spent $65m (about N9.7bn) to register over 80 million voters.

Swradioafrica.com, in January 2011, indicated that, “Views across the board said voters should be biometrically enrolled for the country’s next elections, due late this year or early next year”. The article was commenting on Political commentators and Civil Society Organizations backing the MDC-T’s call for Zimbabwe to adopt a new voters’ roll, as a prerequisite for the forthcoming elections.

In 2010, isiafrica.net, reported that, The Gambian Electoral Commission has committed itself to the introduction of a new biometric voter registration system, to be in place before presidential elections in September 2011.The Gambia shortlisted, two international companies, CODE Inc from Canada and Zetes from Belgium, the website indicated.

Nigeria in January 2011, started using biometrics voter registration system to register voters: “The commission has distributed direct data capture machines, that is, the laptop computers and peripherals that would be used to capture biometrics and photographs of registrants that will eventually take place in the elections in all the states of the federation,”(voanews.com).

Iamaghanaian.com, noted government’s approval of Gh¢80 million for Biometric Registration and Verification Exercise for the conduct of the 2012 elections, with Parliament recommending the establishment of an Election Fund for the Electoral Commission to have enough resources, at least six months to elections, for the efficient performance of its constitutional mandate, to execute its electoral programmes, citing similar funds in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and other places.

It is high time all political parties commit to constructing a national conduit to safely transport Sierra Leone through its political waddle into free and fair elections in 2012. This idea might seem futuristic or utopian in Sierra Leone, where bribery, corruption, nepotism, and poverty, are unbridled. The abrasive militant posture of the All Peoples Congress Party in preparing for the 2012 elections, does not heighten public confidence and will not prevent accusations of manipulating election results. . If Bangladesh is 134 on the TI‘s corruption perception index table out of 180 countries, ranking the same with Sierra Leone at 134 (transparency.org), then Sierra Leone should be able to set up a voter registration system similar to Bangladesh, whose population is less than 8 million compared to Bangladesh that is 80 million. The comparison I am making here is that if Bangladesh could get funding, ranking 134 in corruption then Sierra Leone could also get outside funding for its system and will not even spend as much as Bangladesh.

To a large extent free and fair elections do not exist without proper voter registration. If the cost of these systems are going to debar the much needed free and fair elections, then we all need to think again, about the land that we love, Sierra Leone.

By Jeneba Koroma, former SLBS/TV Producer/Reporter, Atlanta, GA

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