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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

‘Inadvertent error’ on Elections Bill manifests amateurism

The confusion surrounding the tabling of the draft Elections Bill 2021 before the National Assembly by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, and the subsequent “inadvertent error” realized on it by the AG Chambers, is yet another manifestation of the amateurism so prevalent within the Barrow administration.

It is hard to imagine that such an important piece of legislation like the Elections Bill 2021 on which the very stability of this country rests, would be tabled before the National Assembly with such fatal errors, without either the AG Chambers or the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) detecting them. It is quite a basic reality that before any bill is presented to the National Assembly, it should have gone through different stages of verification at the AG Chambers, and the very fact that they still went ahead to table such a faulty bill without realizing the errors, is quite an indictment of those in charge of some of our institutions.

A part of the Bill, which caused quite a stir, was where they mentioned the re-demarcation of certain constituencies, which they however later said, was one of the “inadvertent errors”. Of course, it is clear that such a proposal did not just come out of the blue, but it must have been discussed and put in there for a purpose.

While it makes a lot of sense to split some of the constituencies mentioned, but the process is certainly too little and too late. It is too little because we need a complete overhaul of the present constituency set-up in which some constituencies are more than 10 times bigger than others; and yet they are all supposed to have equal representation. For instance, it is very much at variance with the basic tenets of democracy for the representative of a constituency like Janjanbureh, for instance, with a voter population of less than 2000, to have the same powers and privileges with the representative of a constituency like Serekunda West, which has a voter population of about 50, 000, almost twice the total of the five constituencies in Foni, and almost equal to all the six constituencies in Lower River Region put together. That is certainly a mockery of democracy.

In that proposal also, we saw that there were plans to merge the three constituencies of Sanimentereng, Yundum and Busumbala, with a total voter population of more than 100, 000 into one constituency, while the constituency of Tumana, with a voter population of more than some other constituencies was to be suppressed. One would therefore wonder why suppress Tumana Constituency and not other smaller constituencies like Janjanbureh or even merge the five Foni constituencies into two.

Of course, while constituency boundary demarcation is not necessary for the presidential elections, but it appears as if the Commission does not have the stamina to embark on it, otherwise, they should have done so since 2017, when they had all the time in the world to do a lot within the last four years. Every respecter of democracy thought the very first thing they should have done was to re-demarcate the constituencies to at least reduce the huge demographical disparities between them.

We can recall that it was one of the areas in our electoral system that the Commonwealth Observer Group, led by former Nigerian leader Abdusalami Abubakar during the 2011 presidential elections, criticized and recommended its correction before the 2012 National Assembly elections.

In its report, the Commonwealth said; “The Group noted a significant disparity amongst the 48 constituencies in terms of their population composition. The number of voters registered for each constituency ranged from 1,651 registered for the Janjanbureh constituency through to 57,960 registered for the Kombo North constituency.

It further went on to say; “Following the 1996 Presidential and National Assembly Elections the then Chairperson of the IEC (Bishop Solomon Tilewa Johnson) had commissioned a report to revise the constituency boundaries so as to better reflect demographic changes and population movements that had occurred since the boundaries were last set. The recommended changes were not implemented after the Chairperson was removed from office.

“However, the Group sees a clear need for the constituency boundaries to be reviewed in order to better align the numbers of voters in each constituency, and hence to bring them more into line with the ‘one vote, one value’ principle that is fundamental to a modern democratic structure.”

However, it was not hard to understand the IEC’s reluctance to implement the Commonwealth recommendations, knowing how passionate former President Yahya Jammeh and his APRC administration were in maintaining such a situation to their advantage. We can all recall what happened to Bishop Tilewa Johnson when as Chairman of the IEC; he made that bold attempt to correct the anomaly, including reducing Foni from five to two constituencies. Not only did he end up earning President Jammeh’s wrath, but he was unceremoniously sacked without any justifiable reason. And in order to pre-empt the proposed constituency demarcation, the regime rushed in a bill in the National Assembly to increase the number of constituencies from 36 to 48, which eventually rendered the IEC proposal unworkable.

It is therefore quite a shame that even during this relatively democratic dispensation, the IEC does not still seem to muster the courage to try to correct the anomaly.

All that aside however, we should welcome the publication of a revised electoral calendar by the IEC, including the timetable for voter registration from May 9th. It is not surprising however that they have removed the referendum for a new constitution from the calendar; apparently, they have now realized that we are not likely to get a new constitution before the elections. It is quite obvious that the Goodluck Jonathan process has failed, apparently due to the intransigence of the President Barrow camp, insisting on having his two-term limited commencing after 2021.

Also, another area not quite clear on the electoral calendar is how or even whether the IEC would carry out voter registration for diaspora Gambians as they promised. However, considering the logistics involved, especially their intentions to use paper ballots for the diaspora, as opposed to the continuous use of the marbles at home, it is hard to see how they can accomplish all that in about nine months before the elections.

While the decision by the IEC to drop the idea of using paper ballots for the forthcoming presidential elections is quite understandable, due to lack of time to sensitize the electorate, but many people are still concerned about the possible logistical nightmare of the use of marbles, particularly during the National Assembly elections and the Local Government elections. We already have 18 registered political parties and still counting, and assuming that all those parties would sponsor candidates, as well as the possibility of some independent candidates, there is a high possibility of having up to 20 ballot boxes in one small enclosure as the system requires that each candidate should have his or her own ballot box in each polling booth.

Therefore, apart from the logistical challenges the IEC would face in transporting and securing all those ballot boxes, one can also imagine how much time it would take an uneducated old woman from the rural community, for instance, to search and find her preferred candidate among all those boxes crammed in a small space. While in the case of the paper ballot system, every polling both would have only one box regardless of the number of candidates, and it will be in the open for everyone to see. Therefore, in spite of all the fears being expressed by some people, the paper ballot is a much easier system to use than the marble, and we should therefore hope and pray that the IEC would introduce the system immediately after the presidential elections.

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