Apathy in District Level Elections: Accra is worse

BY: Isaac Yeboah
Charlotte Osei — EC Boss

Turnout at the forthcoming district level elections slated for Tuesday, September 1, 2015, is not expected to improve much given the poor attention the all-important exercise receives from the nation.

When participation of the electorate in the nationwide exercise comes up for scrutiny, the Greater Accra Region in particular records the worst performance among the 10 regions.

Data from the Electoral Commission (EC), since the four-yearly ritual of electing assembly members to lead Ghana’s development and good governance systems at the grassroots level started in 1988, shows that voter turnout in Accra has consistently trailed the rest of the other regions.

From a regional high of 44.3 per cent of registered voters in 1988, the electorates in Accra appear to have written off the system, returning an average 23 per cent. In 2002, turnout was a lowly 16.5 per cent.

Flip the coin, and you land in the Upper East Region, Ghana’s best performer as far as voter turnout at the basic and “most important elections” are concerned. The region has vacillated between 62 per cent and 34.6 per cent of registered voters.

National Trend

Between the Greater Accra and Upper East regions, the national picture of an average 40 per cent turnout is nothing to write home about. Behind the Upper East (53 per cent) is the Northern Region at 49.3 per cent and Upper West at 48 per cent.

The Brong Ahafo Region comes in at 43.3 per cent, Eastern at 42.3 per cent, then the Volta Region at 42.1 per cent, Western at 40.5 per cent, Central at 40.1 per cent and Ashanti at 38 per cent.

Most Important Elections?

Dr Amadu Sulley, Deputy Chairman (Operations) at the Electoral Commission, rates the district level elections as the one election every Ghanaian should play an active role in because it is at the base of development. “We should focus more on it than the national, partisan elections,” he told Daily Graphic in an interview.

And his call is strongly supported by Dr Eric Oduro Osae, Lawyer and Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at the Institute of Local Government Studies (ILGS), Accra. “It is the most important election in the life of a Ghanaian and we should start to prioritise it,” he stated in an interview .

It will seem the two are merely re-stating the national aspiration and estimation of what roles the local governance system should play as per the national constitution, but the reality so far does not support the dream else the Upper East Region, or at least northern Ghana, should be leading in many areas of growth and development measurements.

The irony is that the best performing regions are among the country’s poorest in development and if the local assembly system was designed to assist development, the converse rather has been achieved.

The situation of the best performing regions being the least developed badly exposes the functions imposed on local governance institutions (Regional Coordinating Councils; District, Municipal and Metropolitan assemblies; Urban/Town/Area/Zonal councils and Unit committees) in Act 462.

Coat of many colours

The problems contributing to the growing apathy towards the local level elections are commonplace. Local level elections organised from a centralised command is a no, no. “It does not work like that. We have to decentralise the system so that local election activities will be planned, funded and executed at the basic level,” says Dr Osae.

We have to make the exercise a priority, and prioritising the elections also means adequate funds should be committed to run the system. The EC and National Commission for Civic Education should be resourced enough to mount platforms in all electoral areas, not in selected areas so their education campaigns could reach many more people. Funding the processes should be by the country and not donor agencies who now contribute the most part. It is not sustainable and also throws our credibility as a respected democracy into question.

According to Dr Osae, the Ghanaian’s penchant to copy anything blindly is also to blame, for with a sizeable number of Ghanaians still illiterate, it beats the imagination why election materials are all printed in English when local languages would serve us better.
Again, he said, it would seem the local level elections were for ‘rural’ communities.

“It seems so because in the rural communities, the people live and farm there, they know the assemblyman who attends funerals with them and are always in touch. In the metropolis, everyone is busy attending to their work and so many do not even know and don’t care about the name of the assemblyman. What is worse, many other actors engender development so people really don’t see the relevance of the assembly member and so are not motivated.”

Dr Osae also thinks declaring the day(s) for local elections a holiday will give the exercise the needed attention and afford people who may have travelled out of the locality the chance to return to vote.

And where are the media in all this? “They are usually aloof, coming in once a while to highlight challenges, otherwise they are not interested much”, suggests Amadu Sulley. “They prefer to hype the national elections,” he adds.

Functions of Assemblies

Per the Local Government Act 1993 (Act 462), the assemblies are to spearhead the overall development of districts, including the provision of basic infrastructure, in collaboration with relevant state institutions such as the Finance Ministry and the National Development Planning Commission.

They, thus, must formulate and execute plans, programmes and strategies to mobilise the required resources such as levying and collecting taxes, rates, duties and fees, and support productive activity and social development in the district and remove any obstacles to initiative and development.

From these duties imposed by the law, the assembly member’s duties could be any or all of being a liaison officer, motivator, mobiliser, messenger, servant, consultant, reporter, convener, whistle-blower, listener, an organiser, an observer or an initiator.

A veteran’s counsel

The apathy stems from many fronts, says 56-year-old three-time assembly member Nii Amarh Ashitey, aka Oshiapem, of the La Dadekotopon Municipal Assembly (Until 2012 a part of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly).

Oshiapem is gunning for a fourth straight term as assembly member and is contesting four others at the Adobetor Electoral Area. He has seen many contestants come and go and thinks many are misled into the race with ambitions of how much wealth can come to them.

“Assembly work is a call to serve and those who offer themselves should be committed to dedicating their energies and resources to the locality.

Sadly, many enter the race with the mindset of making money and when they discover the truth, they are disillusioned. They don’t suffer the disillusionment alone, their families, friends and sponsors also get disappointed and they spread the apathy,” he says.

Some are also lured to offer themselves by the opportunity to wear the title “honourable”, but when they realise it is an empty title, they abandon their responsibilities, this leaving the electorate unfulfilled, as they don’t even see them any longer.

“Anyone who offers himself or herself should have the interest to help the people and locality overcome the development challenges. It is not about wealth creation for the individual. To think that it is the same people who vote at the national elections to elect presidents and MPs who also vote at the local elections, one should expect the same numbers.

But you know the truth. The interest is simply not there and we end up spending a lot of money to motivate, educate and entice people to vote.”