Those moving words say it all. Make no mistake; Ghana is not going anywhere without Ghanaians in the Diaspora. Make no mistake; the future of Ghana is inextricably linked to the future of Ghanaians in the Diaspora. Any serious minded Ghanaian leader ignores Ghanaians in the Diaspora at the peril of all Ghanaians including those in the Diaspora. Similarly, any political leader, any parliamentarian and any political party which ignores the interest of Ghanaians in the Diaspora are never working for the interest of Ghana, let alone the interest of his party. Such leadership must never be trusted. Such leadership is short-sighted and deserves to be banished to political wilderness never to be resurrected again!
It is with these premises, that I discuss the issue of voting rights of the Diasporans; a people who are equivalent to ten percent of the total population, a people who now contribute more than half of the total GNP of Ghana (More of that later) and a people who have been marginalized in all aspects of Ghana socio-political thinking The efforts of the government to grant voting rights to Diasporan Ghanaians in accordance with their constitutional rights is commendable, It is about time the voices of Ghanaians in the Diaspora are heard on the Ghana political radar. This article takes a close look at the reasons given by the critics of the Government’s ROPAB bill and finds them to be without merit. Whatever happens in Ghana affects both Ghanaians in the Diaspora and Ghanaians in Ghana. It is erroneous for anyone to think that what happens in Ghana does not affect those in the Diaspora.
Is Diasporan voting a right or a privilege?
Voting is a priceless right that had to be extended to all citizens of voting age of sound mind. Voting by citizens, no matter where they reside, is not a privilege. Disenfranchising the Diasporan Ghanaian is not democratic. Diasporans are not traitors. They are pillars of our society. Critics of the government seek to annul the voting rights of the Diasporans; and this is not democratic.
The voting rights of Ghanaians in the Diaspora are not impaired merely because they live outside the country. The Diasporans cannot be disenfranchised simply because the cost to get them to vote may rise. Universal adult suffrage means exactly that. It does not have any financial requirement. The voting rights cannot be subjected to electoral arithmetic of weak-minded, self-seeking and incompetent leaders or parties. The voting rights of the Diasporans must be subjected to the law and the reality of the global environment we live in. Nothing else can therefore stop the onward and forward match of equal treatment for all that the NPP administration has started.
Currently, one in every ten Ghanaians is disenfranchised simply because they reside in a foreign country due to employment, educational or other reasons. As a result, millions of Ghanaians living in the North America, Europe, Middle East, other African countries, and Asia who take their identities as Ghanaians seriously, who care about the future of Ghana and their loved ones and relatives can not vote, and thus can not hold Ghanaian politicians to account. This disenfranchisement can be frustrating and alienating because it sends a message that we Ghanaians living abroad are welcome to only contribute to Ghana by sending money as Dr. Ohene says.
By granting the Diasporans their voting rights, the government of Ghana is merely asserting itself its true responsibilities of treating all people of Ghana equally no matter where they live. By granting the Diasporans their vote, the government is taking the bona fide responsibility it has shirked over the years and thereby gives Ghana the necessary respect that well-run countries, particularly the Western countries and recently upward-looking countries such as Senegal, Mali, Cape Verde, Mexico and others have done for its citizens. By allowing the Diasporans to vote, the government of Ghana is giving formal recognition to the inevitable consequence of the citizen’s right once he reaches the voting age. By granting the Diasporans their vote, we are not enlarging or abridging the rights of citizens; we are merely granting their basic inalienable rights as enshrined in the Constitution of Ghana.
The granting of the voting rights is indicative of the rising of the consciousness of the people and the reawakening of the leadership to take their responsibilities seriously. To this end, I salute the NPP administration for their steadfastness and unalloyed determination to go ahead despite the oratorical ranting of a few backward politicians, weak-minded and wayward coup-makers, vacuous intellectuals, timorous souls and the empty threats and intimidation of thuggish elements and hoodlums in our society.
In this globalization era where ease of transportation and availability of telecommunications allows us to be involved in our countries and still live thousands of miles apart, it makes no sense for any serious-minded leadership not to act in accordance with these new developments. We are seeing improvements in leadership. Gone were the times when only Western countries evacuated their citizens from distressed places. Gone were the days when only Western countries allowed its citizens abroad to vote. Ghana has successfully evacuated its citizens in distressed countries and Ghana should now step up to the plate and grant voting rights to all its citizens. Let Ghana rise forward and join the ranks of forward-looking countries such as Senegal, Mexico, Mali, Cape Verde and others. We are seeing the gradual improvement of our people. We are giving meaning to respecting the rights of citizens. We are bringing respect to our nation by treating all as equal. This is the essence of what voting rights to the Diasporans are about.
Role of Diasporan Ghanaians
The words of Dr. Ohene Frimpong illustrate the frustration as well as explain the role of Ghanaians in the Diaspora. I stated above that we put into the economy more than half of the GNP (estimated $8 billion each year). This consists of the estimated $5B official remittances through the banking system which is equivalent to 50% of the GNP. According to Bank of Ghana, for the first six months of 2005 Ghanaians abroad remitted $2.5 billion to Ghana. We are aware that remittances coming through Ghana through unofficial sources such as money sent through those returning to Ghana are estimated to be $2 billion annually (using one visit every five years with actual cash expenditure of $5,000 per person per visit). In addition, Diasporan Ghanaians import cars, machinery and various assets to assist in the development of business and the economy. The Diasporan Ghanaians pay bills of Ghanaians at home including paying the cost of upkeep of relatives on visits, making purchases for them to come home, buying Ghana products exported abroad and resettling and caring for those holidaying abroad. The Diaspora Ghanaian should not be seen as the source of financial inflows only, but also economic opportunities, technical and technology transfer, improved management expertise, to name a few. He must be given a say in the future of Ghana and that means he MUST VOTE; a primary and necessary first step of inclusiveness in any democratic political process. If our countrymen want our remittances and other resources, we deserve to VOTE!
There are those who contend that Diasporans do not pay direct taxes. Yes, they did not say just taxes but direct taxes. This is because they are aware that Diasporans pay enormous taxes in terms of airport and flight taxes, customs taxes and other taxes. A tax is a tax whether paid as income tax, direct tax or customs tax. It is paid with money! Many Ghanaians do not pay direct taxes whether abroad or in Ghana. Cocoa farmers who bear the largest brunt of taxes in Ghana do not pay direct taxes. Are we going to disenfranchise them because their taxes are not direct? And what percentage of direct taxes get into the national coffers compared to the indirect taxes? How many voters pay direct taxes? Less than 20% per cent of the voting-population pays direct taxes based on my own estimation. If a requirement for payment of direct taxes is necessary, let us put it in the law and effect it for all Ghanaians not only those in the Diaspora. Those contending that others have not paid any direct taxes may not have paid any taxes themselves anyway.
The contention that Ghanaians abroad do not pay taxes is baseless. Ghana government has signed double taxation treaties with many countries making it legal for Ghanaians living abroad to only pay taxes on their incomes and revenues earned outside Ghana to be paid to outside Ghana tax jurisdiction. If we are now saying the taxation system should be changed then we must do so. Citizens acting within the law of Ghana cannot be punished because of the impact on Ghana of Ghana laws.
Additionally, there are those who contend that remittance are for private families and therefore do not count. Remittances are taxes on Ghanaians abroad. They are taxes for incompetence and corruption in Ghana. Without remittances from abroad, Ghana’s economy would have sunk a long time ago. Had our leaders managed Ghana’s economy properly, stopped fraudulent and corrupt practices and offered us better leadership, Diasporans will not need to send inordinate billions of dollars home simply because relatives and friends keep calling and crying for help
Again, anyone asking for payment before voting should recall this country’s experience with the land poll tax, which was a disaster and appropriately abandoned. It did not work then and will not work now. We saw the police using their resources chasing citizens for non-payment of poll tax. It was a disaster then and will be a disaster now. This pay as you vote idea is a non-starter. Unless, all citizens voting are asked to pay as they vote, this idea does not represent equal treatment of Ghanaians and must die.
Cost and knowledge
Those who contend that extending the vote to the Diasporans will increase cost and therefore it must stop should understand that there is a cost for democracy. Indeed, there are those anti-democratic elements who contend that voting is a waste of resources since nothing changes in the end. Are we on a slippery slope of ending democratic institutions simply because it costs money? How do we justify a second run balloting because a Presidential candidate does not win more that fifty percent? Does this idea not cost money? Are we not going to cut that out?
Critics who contend that those abroad are less informed are advocating for a kind of educated suffrage instead of universal suffrage. They are wrong because we know that those abroad are well informed and also our constitution advocates universal adult suffrage and nothing else.
A known coup-maker living in England thinks simply because he can travel to Ghana to register and vote everyone should do the same. Thank God such people will have no chance of political leadership in any democratic Ghana. Many national decisions based on one’s own personal circumstances without regard to all citizens are a backward way of leadership and thinking. All people are not the same. They have different financial circumstances, different issues, different time constraints and many other factors. Simply, arguing that if I can do it others can do it does not measure up. It is preposterous for anyone to make policy based on one person’s personal circumstances. I will not be surprised if this coconut-head cum coup-maker was in charge of the affairs of Ghana and argue that all polling must be done in Dormaa Ahenkoro because he is able to get there and all Ghanaians should therefore be able to get there. Two thousand years after the death of our dear Lord Jesus Christ, Herod (Coup-maker) is asking us to go to Bethlehem (Ghana) to be counted (Vote). Imagine the logistics nightmare of two million Ghanaians coming to Ghana to vote every four years, sometime in four week time frame. Sure, there will be no place for Jesus to lay his head.
There are those who contend that there will be fraud. They even argue that Ghana passport is held by non-citizens. Holding Ghana passport when one is not a citizen of Ghana does not make one a Ghanaian. It makes one a criminal! Also, the presence of balloting and voting fraud does not stop Ghana from having elections. Why should it stop us from enfranchising all Ghanaians abroad? Again, Dr. Ohene Frimpong says “Do our leaders in Ghana believe that we will stand silently by and allow our votes to be counted and assigned fraudulently to any ruling party? Do those opposing the passage of ROPAB underestimate the political sophistication and understanding of democratic principles possessed by Diasporan Ghanaians?” And I add ‘or is it a front for their fear that they do not have the votes in the Diaspora because they know those in the Diaspora know them as no good politicians and will not vote for them’.
The current idea of voting only for Presidential elections at first then extending it to constituencies is laudable. This ensures smooth implementation. This is the disjointed incrementalism or step by step approach adopted by Italy when the extended voting to its citizens abroad.
Political threats, intimidation, envy etc.
No one can threaten the leadership of Ghana into submission. All these doomsayers and all those apocalyptic predictions will come to nothing. Those who threaten violence must understand that we will not succumb to the tyranny of the minority. We will not let the threat of violence from thugs, hoodlums and rogues frighten us. We have had enough of the foolish violence talk! Dr. Ohene Frimpong aptly says “Why would sensible Ghanaians resort to chaos and destabilization of their democratic system of governance because their fellow citizens living outside the country were given their constitutional right to vote”
The thugs and rogues parading as politicians in Ghana must understand that we will not succumb to threats, intimidation, repression, suppression and violence, the only methods of influencing decisions they know best. We will meet them which ever way they want; reason, critical thinking or violence through coup. Let them understand that it won’t be “Greek meet Greek”. Neither will it be ‘the immovable rock and the irresistible force’. One will yield. One must yield.
It had become increasingly clear to the Diasporan Ghanaian the presence of extreme envy and dislike of the Diasporan Ghanaian to the point of hatred exercised by certain Ghanaians especially the incompetent, inefficient, non-performing, corrupt and fraudulent leaders, intelligentsia or professionals. The prevailing climate of hate-mongering is exacerbated by the flaunting of the ‘success’ and usually the legal acquisition of wealth of some of the Diasporans. The divide which is the result of the deterioration of standards of Ghana and the inability of the country to resurrect from the doldrums Ghana has been placed by illegal military regimes of Acheampong, Akuffo and Rawlings needs to be addressed before it is too late. Indeed, the current debate of the ROPAB is the result of this divide.
Electoral Arithmetic is just mere misunderstanding of elections
There are some political parties taking positions based on electoral arithmetic. They are dead wrong. Ghanaians in the Diaspora are not firmly aligned with any one political party. They see improving governance, education, healthcare, etc. as their top priorities. Accordingly, major political parties in Ghana would be well served to devote their campaign attention to these issues. The political parties should base their positions on the merits of the issue. No one can predict the voting patterns of Ghanaians in the Diaspora. This is simply because they are more knowledgeable and more activist than those at home. An incumbent relying on those in the Diaspora must understand that when the populace decides to go to the polls in droves, they always go to throw the bums out. Be careful what you wish for, you may get it!