Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng, Journalist & Media Consultant, writes on the challenges of Africans voting outside of their countries.

Abroad Voting "Wahala" - Beyond Politics
When South Africa staged its first democratic, multiracial elections in 1994, a group of Ghanaians, including me, went to South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, London to watch South Africans living in London vote. We were green with envy; in Ghana's own first elections under the Fourth Republic Constitution, we had been excluded from the exercise. We hoped then that perhaps the franchise would be extended to us for the next election. However, 1996 came and we were still long-distance spectators in our country's democracy. Ditto 2000 and 2004. Now, as I understand it, all along, we had the right/privilege to vote but the election machinery had not established any means for us to do so, apart from re-locating to Ghana. Therefore, Ghanaians abroad must be following the current debate on the representation bill with bated breath. Simply put, they are very anxious to vote.

I am puzzled that this relatively simple issue has become the subject of such a huge party-political dispute and most Ghanaians abroad, I am sure, will feel the same way. One would have thought that the principle of the thing was a settled issue and that if there was any discussion it would be on the logistics for facilitating the process. To be honest, I cannot understand why this has to be such a political hot potato because I don't believe that it will work to any party's exclusive advantage, as some have alleged. I know many Diaspora people, from all political persuasions, will jump at the opportunity to vote at a venue close to where they live. It would be useful to have a non-party political debate on this issue. My contribution to this discussion is completely apolitical and is inspired by my belief and knowledge that Ghanaians of all parties abroad want to vote.

Again, as I understand it, all parties agree that the 1992 Constitution allows all Ghanaians who qualify to vote. There is no argument about that and if that is the case, should we not cut the party-political shadow boxing and look at the real issues of logistics and timing? First, about timing, no time is better than now. Ghanaians abroad have wanted to vote since 1992, and Parliament should enable them to do so. There will always be reasons to postpone it, but if we are committed to fulfilling this principle then no time is better or worse than another. Officials from all parties have told Ghanaians abroad that they were committed to fulfilling the two main demands of the Ghanaian Diaspora: voting and dual citizenship. If the principle is right then the time is right as well.

Then there is the argument about how to organise elections in all the 200-plus countries in the world in which Ghanaians might be living. This is difficult but not impossible. Every government department or public agency has the duty and responsibility to cooperate with its counterparts abroad and I think the Electoral Commission can do the same. There are international electoral clearing houses and international electoral organisations worldwide to which our EC belongs already or can affiliate. For example, when a criminal is being sought by the Ghana Police in say, Vanuatu, it does not have to send its people physically into that Pacific Island but invokes the cooperation of its counterparts through Interpol. In the same way, the EC can invoke the assistance of its counterparts throughout the world. In any case, postal ballots should make it possible for Ghanaians to vote anywhere they might be. This need not be as chaotic as it might appear to be. The key to all of this is early registration. The postal ballots could be sent out early or even downloaded from the Internet and sent in before the voting in Ghana. These would be sealed in the same way security personnel votes are sealed until the general ballot count.

As for the physical voting, these can also be organised on "world-regional" basis. This means that even in countries where Ghana has no embassies or high commissions, regional "capitals" can be designated as voting sites. The EC would not have to organise elections in every country in the world; it has to designate regional voting centres for all the regions of the world. For example, Ghanaians in Vanuatu would vote in Perth or another Australian city and those in the Russian Far East (the example of impossibility given by a radio pundit), could vote in either Moscow or Beijing or Seoul. The point being that it would be easier for Ghanaians in any of those far-flung areas to vote in those regional capitals than to come down to Ghana to vote. The argument that some places "are too far" to render a service to Ghanaians is a dangerous one to make. It smacks of the way some public officers refuse to take appointments in some parts of Ghana on the grounds that "it is too far". If the people are owed a right, distance should be a challenge not a bar.

Another difficulty cited by the critics is that Diaspora voting could distort the votes of the people "on the ground". The general principle embedded in the constitutional right of Ghanaians to vote does not make a distinction between Ghanaians "on the ground" and those elsewhere. Ghanaians are Ghanaians. In any case, all political parties routinely visit places of Ghanaian concentration in the Diaspora to solicit funds and many times their supporters congregate from far-flung places to listen to their leaders, and more importantly (from the parties' perspective), make a donation. The parties and their supporters also routinely send information either targeted at their supporters or through the Internet to inform Ghanaians abroad about events in Ghana and their take on them.

However, I think the concern about Ghanaians abroad voting in parliamentary elections is a genuine one and has to be addressed seriously. In this case, even though registration could enable us to know how many potential voters every constituency can expect from the abroad ballot, I do not think it is reasonable to allow the abroad people to vote on constituency lines. This is not for fear of distorting the vote "on the ground" but because the concerns of the Diaspora are likely to be different from those in the constituencies at home. For this reason, I think we need to devise a different mechanism for representing the Diaspora in Parliament.

My suggestion is to create additional Special Seats for Diaspora representation in Parliament and these should be contested for through proportional representation. This means that the Diaspora voters would vote for parties instead of individual MPs. The Special Seats would be allocated to the parties according to the proportion of the vote they obtained. To illustrate this: let us say that 10 Special Seats were allocated to Diaspora representatives and every one of five competing parties got 20 per cent, each one would be allocated two seats. However, if one party obtained 40 per cent that party would have four seats, etc. The parties would then nominate people from a pre-agreed slate to fill the seats they obtain.

The other argument from the critics of the Diaspora representation is that there is more urgent business for the government to tackle than this one. I agree that there are some very pressing issues that Parliament ought to tackle urgently but it is not a good argument to say that the parliamentary delays on some bills should be a bar to moving on others. To some Ghanaians, this bill is the most urgent, even if we do not all agree with their priorities.