Sierra Leone kicks off voter registration – but party politics is getting in the way 

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 22 March 2017

With elections in Sierra Leone slated for 7th of March 2018, the country’s electoral commission – NEC opened its doors to millions of potential voters for the registration process across the country two days ago – 20th of March.

But after just two days of the NEC opening shop, the voter registration process which ends on the 16th of April 2017, is being condemned by civil society groups and opposition parties, as well as ordinary civilians as one big political mess.

The government of Sierra Leone has spent millions of dollars importing biometric registration machines, in order to ensure a robust, efficient and secure voter registration and identity verification of about 3.5 million eligible voters in the country over the next four weeks.

According to the National Electoral Commission (NEC) Commissioner: “Voter Registration commences on Monday, 20th March 2017 and ends 16th April 2017. Registration commences from 7am and ends 5pm daily. I urge all eligible Sierra Leoneans to go to any Registration Centres within your Ward/Constituency and register so that you can actively participate in the 2018 elections. If you know that you would be eighteen years old before 7th March 2018, please go and register but take along any documentary proof to justify your claim.

“Anyone who fails to register between 20th March – 16th April 2017 will not be eligible to participate in the 2018 polls. Please make use of this opportunity, go out to any Registration Centre in your Ward/Constituency and register.  The Centre where you register will be the place you will vote during the 2018 polls.”

But despite national publicity campaign aimed at getting voters to register en-mass, there are reports of difficulties in several parts of the country, as fewer voters are able to register than anticipated.

The registration centres are unable to cope with the numbers turning up to register. The process is shambolic and chaotic, caused by poor planning and maladministration, say critics.

In some registration centres in the capital Freetown, people are queuing up for more than five hours and returning home unable to register.

Observers say that the NEC publicity message – aimed at encouraging people to register is not only failing to get through, but there is also serious voter apathy and despondence with the political system and politicians generally.

According to local journalist – Umaru Fofana reporting for the BBC, there are complaints of faulty equipment and the remoteness of several of the registration centres.

Even in densely populated areas where the expectation is for multiple registration centres, there are disappointments. There are simply not enough centres, and people are returning home stressed, angry and disenfranchised.

Many centres are understaffed, with just one person – doing all they can to register hundreds – at times, thousands of people. What should in normal circumstances take a day to complete is now running into three days.

With level of literacy at under 40%, few voters turning up to register can hardly understand some of the unnecessarily complex questions they are being asked in order to verify their identity. Here are some of the questions which critics say, even the president himself may struggle to answer fully and confidently:

“Your Marital status, type of marriage, religion, Date of Birth, Time of Birth, Type of Citizenship, Proof of Citizenship, Place of Birth, Type of Delivery, Type of Birth, Physical Status, Height, Hair Colour, Eye Colour, Residential Address, Education and occupation, Mother‘s Name, Nationality, Address, Total number of children born alive, Age of Mother at time of Birth, Father’s Name, Father’s Address, Father’s Occupation and Father’s Religion.”

The registration of each applicant was expected to take no more than fourteen minutes, but given the complexity of the verification questions, which neither the voter understands – nor do the registrars themselves understand the answers they are getting back, the target fourteen minutes per voter slips into thirty minutes – sometimes more.

The country’s main opposition political party – the SLPP has expressed serious concerns about the voter registration process, especially in several of its political heartland – the south of the country.

“NEC has deliberately created registration centres way away from villages in the South-East in order to cause problems for our people not to register and be able to vote for the SLPP. My appeal to every SLPP member and supporter is to go the extra mile to ensure the registration of all eligible voters in those two regions. Winning elections starts today”, says the SLPP.

“Registration centres are spending 40 minutes to register one person at a time. And some machines are not in working order in Bonthe district”.

“The registration Machine for Mobai Central One registration centre has not had any registration since this morning due to the malfunctioning of the machine.”

What is also causing immense difficulties at the voter registration centres across the country is that the 2017 registration process also includes a compulsory mass civil registration of everyone living in the country.

The government is hoping that a statement published by the National Electoral Commission (NEC), will eradicate the confusion. But critics say that the government is compounding a problem which is of its own making. This is what the NEC statements says:

“The government of Sierra Leone in collaboration with the national Civil Registration Authority (NCRA) will be conducting two separate registration exercises in 2017. The National Electoral Commission (NEC) will be conducting voter registration starting from today 20 March 2017 which will last until 16 April 2017, while the Civil Registration Authority will be doing another compulsory mass civil registration from 20 April 2017.

“The registration exercise by NEC will only be for Sierra Leoneans born on or before 7 March 2000, while the civil registration will be aiming at registering all age group of citizens and non-citizens resident in Sierra Leone.

“Those registered during the NEC exercise will not be required to do so during the civil registration as NEC information will be passed on to the Civil Registration Authority. After both exercises, those 16 and above will be issued with an ID card with micro-chip bearing ID & data of the card holder.”

But many senior opposition SLPP officials believe that the current difficulties being experienced in several registration centres across the country – especially in opposition heartland, have been engineered by the ruling APC to impeded mass voter registration in those areas.

“Voters registration suppression strategy employed by the APC throughout Sierra Leone is seen as manipulation by the election criminals (APC) to defraud the election process come 2018.This was observed today by our progressive radical nationalist leader, Alie Kabba when he went to register at the IMMAT voter registration centre.

“He was suppressed by the APC registration officers discouraging him not to register today by way of slowing the process. They took one hour for every one person; as a result Alie Kabba felt discouraged and did not register at that time. The patriotic nationalist leader standing for the 99% has condemned this behaviour as a ploy to reduce our SLPP votes where they are concentrated.

“Alie Kabba will attend a meeting at the SLPP headquarters to discuss the problems of voter registration. It is very important to educate our supporters on the attitude of the APC registration officers who are employed by National Electoral Commission. It is important also to note that registration officers are bent on reducing votes in our support base and increase votes in their (APC) strongholds.”

As the political row over the voter registration process starts to surface, there is no sign of the government changing its strategy to ensure that all 3.5 million people are able to register to vote in the next four weeks, nor is the government willing to spend more money – millions of dollars, replacing the dozens of faulty machines it had imported into the country for voter registration, ahead of next year’s elections.

The country’s Human Rights Commission issued this statement: “The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone hereby reminds the general public that the voter registration process starts on Monday 20th March, 2017. The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone therefore calls on all potential voters to present themselves for registration at the centres closest to them from the 20th March to 16th April 2017.

“Persons aged 18 or above on the date of the election, who are resident in a ward, and of sound mind, can be registered as a voter. It is your responsibility to register if you are to claim your rights to vote and to be voted for.

“The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone calls on the National Electoral Commission (NEC) to give preferential treatment to older persons, pregnant women and lactating mothers, and persons with disabilities. The visually impaired in particular should be provided with assistive devices to facilitate their registration.

“The Commission calls on the general public particularly potential voters to desist from carrying out any act that will derail the process.

“The Commission urges all law enforcement officials providing security around registration centres, to conduct themselves in a professional manner using the human rights based approach.

“The Commission will monitor the process and engage relevant state institutions to ensure that the human rights principles of dignity, respect and non-discrimination are complied with.”

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