Sierra Leone Telegraph: 15 September 2022:
As political fallout continues over the ongoing, seriously flawed voter registration process ahead of elections in June 2023 in Sierra Leone, the capital’s Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr has written to the Chief Electoral Commissioner – Mohammed Konneh, outlining the difficulties first time voters are experiencing at registration centres, which she says may disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of the city’s electorates.
This is what she said in her letter dated 12th September 2022:
Dear Commissioner Konneh
First Time Voter Challenges Experienced In Western Area Urban Registration Centers
Thank you so much for facilitating my meeting with ECSL Western Area Commissioner Zainab Moseray and her team on Friday 9th September and for our telephone conversation this morning. As you know, I requested the meeting in order to share with ECSL challenges being experienced by first-time voters in the Freetown registration centers and to seek collaborative solutions for same.
The meeting with Commissioner Moseray and members of her team was insightful and valuable and I am writing to confirm my understanding of our discussions and to seek further clarification in respect of registration of first-time voters.
I think it is important for me to start by confirming our shared understanding that the Sierra Leone 1991 Constitution does not require citizens to be in the National Civil Registration Authority (“NCRA”) database in order for them to be eligible to vote. However, the current ECSL voter registration process has been structured such that a citizen that is not in the NCRA database, would not be entered into the ECSL voter register. This would appear to be because a citizen must first be entered into the NCRA database (using the VIU machine) before they can be verified by ECSL and entered into the ECSL database (using the VVK machine).
My meeting with Commissioner Moseray predominantly focused on the challenges of first-time voters who are not in NCRA database. I explained that hundreds of first-time voters are being told that they must produce birth certificates even though the ECSL Procedure Manual makes provision for verification by a local stakeholder. Page 28 of the ECSL Procedures Manual provides a sample Witness Form (see attached) which is to be used by a Paramount Chief, Tribal Head, Town Chief, Section Chief, Village Head, Religious Leader, Head of Educational Institution or Councillor to confirm that the potential registrant is: (A) a Sierra Leonean; (B) at least 18 years old; and (C) Ordinarily resident in the area where he/she intends to register.
The Western Area Commissioner explained that ECSL has had experience of fraudulent registrants, fake birth certificates and potentially unreliable verifications. The Western Area Commissioner further advised that as a result of these challenges, ECSL is no longer accepting any Witness Forms as a basis of the entry of potential registrants into the VIU machine (the NCRA database). Commissioner Moseray stated that only original birth certificates will now be accepted at ECSL registration centers. At the suggestion of the Western Area Commissioner, I met with the NCRA Director General later that day to discuss ways in which potential registrants can be validated. The NCRA Director General confirmed that it is possible for first time voters that are not currently in the NCRA database and who do not have birth certificates to obtain delayed birth certificate from NCRA using their BECE or WASSCE certificates to confirm their age.
According to the NCRA Director-General, verifications from local chiefs are also accepted by NCRA.
Whilst I am appreciative of the explanations I received from ECSL and NCRA on Friday, the proposed singular course of action for first-time voters to produce original birth certificates at the registration centers seems to raise a number of questions. Perhaps the first and most important question for which I would appreciate clarification is the basis upon which ECSL can, in the middle of the ongoing registration process, change not only its own guidelines about Witness Forms, but by so doing also seemingly disregard the provisions of the 2022 Public Elections Act set out in Section 24 which reads:
Section 24 (I) For being satisfied as to the claim of a person to be registered as a voter, a Registration Officer may request from the person applying to be registered any of the following:-
(a) A birth certificate or naturalisation certificate
(b) A statutory declaration giving particulars of a person’s birth
(c) The testimony of a member of the Local Council in the area of his residence
(d) National Identification Number
(e) Any other satisfactory evidence of the person’s entitlement to be registered as a voter
As is evident from the above extract, the 2022 Public Elections Act has provided five options to confirm the claim of a registrant’s eligibility to vote. That includes (b) a statutory declaration (an affidavit) and (c) the testimony of the Local Councillor. The decision by ECSL to only accept birth certificates when according to the World Bank Completeness of Birth Registrations in 2005 (the year of birth for those turning 18 in 2023) only 48% of births in Sierra Leone were registered, is problematic.
Although NCRA has confirmed that delayed birth certificates can be obtained, the practicality and the costs of having hundreds or thousands of first-time voters travelling to NCRA’s offices to apply for birth certificates would place a significant obstacle in the paths of first-time voters who are not already in the NCRA database.
Whilst this might nevertheless be achievable in urban Freetown, it will certainly not be possible in rural areas in other parts of the country, thus disenfranchising thousands of first-time voters and others not already in the NCRA database (for example those living in urban informal settlements who have experienced disasters and no longer have or perhaps never had any forms of identification). One would want to believe that this was not the original intent of the change in ECSL Procedures.
Whilst I recognize and acknowledge that ECSL has experienced challenges with the Witness Form verification process, I believe that these challenges can be addressed through continued communication and public engagement on the consequences of fraudulent verification. There will always be challenges with any system but the response to those challenges must not be to inadvertently disenfranchise thousands of potential first-time voters who are not in the NCRA database and who do not have birth certificates.
The 2022 Public Elections Act Section 24 (I) (c) provides for the testimony of the Local Councillor and does not restrict the number of registrants that the Local Councillor can verify on a daily or cumulative basis. Local Councillors (and other stakeholders identified in the ECSL Witness Form) will know many first-time voters in their communities and that the provision of BECE and WASSCE certificates by these young people will support the Local Councillors’ abilities to reliably complete the ECSL Witness Forms.
Furthermore, Section 24 (1) (b) specifically provides for affidavits (statutory declarations) to be used to confirm the age and identity of potential registrants. It would be a huge disservice to citizens for ECSL to take the position that all potential registrants who submit affidavits (and indeed all lawyers and JPs who sign these) lack integrity and are committing fraudulent acts.
The proposition that only birth certificates can be utilized as a confirmation of age and identity by potential registrants who are not in the NCRA database would effectively and practically disenfranchise Freetonians and citizens in other parts of
Sierra Leone. I am therefore asking that ECSL reverts to the provisions of the 2022 Public Elections Act wherein the registration centers accept any one of the 5 types of documents set out in the legislation.
Safeguarding against fraud could then potentially include combining the ECSL Witness Form with an affidavit so that there is greater accountability and the presentation of BECE and WASSCE results (which NCRA accepts) with the ECSL Witness Form. ECSL would then be seen to have addressed integrity concerns without disenfranchising Freetonians or citizens in other parts of Sierra Leone who are eligible to register. As it is important that this matter be addressed urgently, I would kindly ask for your consideration and swift response to this pressing issue.
As agreed in my meeting with Western Area Commissioner Moseray, I am also sharing an issues-log that FCC Councillors have been collating on a daily basis from 3rd September, using electronic submissions from 32 registration centers in Freetown. The issues highlighted in this random sample of centers include but are not limited to faulty machines, previous NCRA registrants’ details not being found in the VVK machines, insufficient registration booklets etc. We believe these issues may also be evident in other centers across Freetown.
I would like to thank you and the entire ECSL team for your hard work and for your assurance that you will try to rectify all issues on a timely basis whilst noting that there has already been time lost in many centers. We trust that even as the issues are rectified, time already lost will be compensated for through an extension of the registration period.
May I use this opportunity to reaffirm my commitment to supporting you and the Western Area Commissioner to ensure that the registration process in Freetown is successful and that all Freetonians who are eligible to register can do so.
Assuring you of my highest regards
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr OBE, Mayor of Freetown
The Minister of Local Government and Rural Development
The Commissioner Western Area, ECSL
The Director General, National Civil Registration Authority
The Country Director, UNDP
The Ambassador, European Union
The High Commissioner, British High Commission
The Ambassador, American Embassy
The Chairperson, APC Party ITGC
The Secretary-General, APC Party ITGC
The Leader of the Opposition in Parliament
The Councillors, Freetown City Council
The Chairperson, National Elections Watch