A Case For Diaspora Voting

Wed, 8 Feb 2006 Source: Bottah, Eric Kwasi

Beyond Remittances: What is the Role of the Diaspora in Ghana?s Electoral Politics and Economy?

Family, beyond qualifying for the World Cup, nothing has captured and engaged the imagination of the Ghanaian political jockey lately, home and abroad, more than the current bill ? Representation of the People Amendment Bill (ROPAB) ? in front of parliament. Without going into the serpentine detail and quotation of the relevant portions of the constitution, I would rather want to say the bill seeks to extend voting rights and exercise to Ghanaians domiciled overseas. To those who support the amendment, this is a further demonstration of the buoying democratic dispensation in Ghana, a clear and deep demarcation of Ghana as a country on a fast track to political maturity, stability, and confidence after decades of economic and political downslides. To the opponents, the bill is pregnant with all the anxieties reminiscent of the concerns and fears that gripped the entire globe at the turn of the century when cyberspace and computers were gripped with some Y2K paralysis scenarios, come 12.01 A.M, January 01, 2000. All of a sudden the doomsayers thought and wondered aloud; machines were going to default and devour tons of data and even disobey instructions and commands to perform.

It is very crucial and relevant to discuss the topic along the following lines:

Demography of the Diaspora Economics of the Diaspora
Politics and the Diaspora

Family, during the days leading up to the last presidential and parliamentary elections in Ghana, many Ghanaian politicians including president Kufour and Prof. Attah Mills came to campaign in Canada, UK, Germany, Holland, and USA etc. Why did these politicians bring their campaign to say USA if those of us there cannot vote? Now why did they bother to open overseas chapters of their parties if the Diaspora cannot be part and parcel of the basic process of electing people to govern our beloved country?

A country?s most precious and important resource is the human resource. Besides the elements, the human resource is the most potent force engaged in the shaping of affairs on the surface of the planet. Without mincing words, in the foreseeable future how a country taps into, engages and utilizes this most precious of all its resources would determine whether a country is going to succeed or fail in the face of stiff competition in the global economy. Welcome to 21st century global village. A century where strict location of a citizen wouldn?t and doesn?t really matter but what that individual brings to bear in his country of origin. A government would be much wiser to engage the interest and commitment of its citizens wherever they are found, to the mother country, than to severe all ties in a fit of convoluted pettiness. Now what better way to secure the attention and money of the Diaspora than to let him/her vote? Voting is a freedom of expression issue. It is a right by birth and citizenship and cannot be divulged and separated from the person unless proscribed by law. Voting is an exercise whereby the governed transfer certain rights and privileges to the governor (elected representatives) for the purposes of taking and making decisions as to, law and order, and who gets what , where, and how. Without voting, the government cannot determine the will of the people, and wouldn?t be legitimate and mandated to do anything on their behalf.

Now let?s take up the topical issues listed above. For the purposes of brevity, space and time, I shall largely present an abridged version of the topical issues listed above. I wouldn?t comment on all the talking points, lest I bore your ears with lengthy narrations that should otherwise be left to academia.

The Demography of the Diaspora

Nobody knows but it wouldn?t be a stretch or exaggeration to say there are over two million Ghanaians living outside Ghana on any given day. Given our small size ? 20+ million populations - that sum would represent 10 percent of the population. Even if we half that number to say one million Ghanaians living outside the country, that would represent 5 percent of the population. These people are living on a short or long term basis abroad and they are not included in the Ghanaian census. I guess it is safe to argue that this trend, the phenomenon of having large percentage of ones citizens living abroad is going to increase rather than decrease as a result of global trends in mass migration and employability of mobile labor. Yet because of globalization, explosion of the internet, improved transportation and telecommunication, it is safe to argue the world has shrunk and the cost and significance of distance has become negligible, resulting in our era becoming a real global village. The flow of information is now instantaneous around the globe. One can hear and read live commentary on happenings back home if he chooses to care. You don?t have to be physically present in Ghana, to be in Ghana, engaged and informed of happenings in real time, sometimes if not even faster than say the average Joe at say, Tuobodom or Worawora.

Without citing specific data, it can safely be assumed the average Ghanaian in the Diaspora is between the ages of 25 and 50 years old. They are pulled from a cross section of the population, from all manner of class in terms of education and employable skills that are in high demand overseas. Many continue their education whilst abroad, often transforming or reinventing themselves completely from the education they left Ghana with. It is not a surprise to see someone leaving Ghana with a mere teacher training certificate rising to become a medical doctor, computer programmer, a nurse, an accountant or an engineer etc. The average Diaspora lives in big cities in Western Europe, North America, Japan and elsewhere in Africa. It is remarkable to notice that no sooner these Ghanaian citizens have arrived in a certain country than they begin to form or organize themselves along Home Town Associations, Ghanaian churches, business networks, building social capital, perpetuating or moderating conflicts (e.g. you have to listen in, to the conversations of Asante Akim Agogo citizens in the Bronx, New York, regarding their chief, Nana Akuoko Sarpong, to grasp this), philanthropy etc. It is rare to see significant number of Diaspora in their sixties and seventies still living abroad. Like some magic they begin to frequent the motherland as soon as they turn 50 years of age. They begin to think out loud how they would begin to move back home. By this time the average Diaspora has put up some building in Ghana and set aside some capital to make a living with, once they decide to move back home. They would often leave behind second generation Diaspora to carry on the act of living, whilst they, the first or second generation, relocate back home, to retire or pick up some inheritance and or start some business. I guess it can be said they left Ghana, but the Ghana in them never left. They live everyday, thinking, talking and worrying about Ghana. How to move the country?s politics and economy forward. They reserve tremendous amount of goodwill towards Ghana. They put their money where their mouth is, by sending money and items such as hospital equipments, machinery, vehicles, computers, textbooks, medicine and clothes etc back home to Ghana.

Career advancement, better education, better employment (greener pastures vis-?-vis terrible job opportunities at home) with its attendant benefits are the main reasons Ghanaians cite to move overseas. In the eighties and nineties harsh and unpleasant political and economic conditions in Ghana were the main draws.

The Economics of the Diaspora

Countries that have experienced large out-migrations run a whole range of attitudes toward their Diaspora, from warmly embracing to coolly instrumental, from active engagement to indifference, from mobilization to outright hostility. Their policies and practices reflect these diverse views, but the clear trend is for homeland states to court their nationals and the descendants of nationals who are living abroad. The Diaspora are variously seen as sources of financial flows, economic opportunities, technology transfer, political support, progressive attitudes, and a good image of the home country.

Countries of origin that actively court their Diasporas do so in a variety of different ways and with different priorities. In Ghana the government has taken to organizing homecoming cultural and trade Expos, lauding and encouraging the billions of dollars the Diaspora send home, which has become next to cocoa and gold earnings. The Kufour administration is going further than the previous administration to tie the Diaspora to the decision making process in Ghana by opening and extending to them, through the ROPAB bill, the right to vote and exercise their vote wherever they are domiciled. It seems to be making attempts to level the playing field, and affirming that remittances without consultation and or representation are incomprehensible. For the Diaspora, I think it is fair to say our stand is: you get crooked hair cut if you go to sleep on the barber?s chair and do not engage the barber on how you want your hair to be cut. The Diaspora has an equal amount of vested interest in Ghana and is keen on seeing that the right people are elected to govern the country, whose policies would not endanger his interests.

The dense web of ties between Diaspora and Ghana is, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the creation of individuals and groups acting on their own initiative, rather than a product of government intervention. Diaspora engagement takes so many different forms and occupies so many different spheres that it is difficult to generalize about it. It ranges from the purely personal level of family ties to the level of international financial markets. Beyond the individual and family level, Diaspora organizations include associations of migrants originating from the same locality, ethnic affinity groups, alumni associations, religious organizations, pressure groups or semi-political groups (e.g. Ghana Social Democratic Movement-GDSM, Center for Diasporan Interests-CEDI, Ghana Leadership Union etc.), professional associations, charitable organizations (e.g. African International Association- Philadelphia), development NGOs, investment groups, and affiliates of political parties, humanitarian relief organizations, schools (e.g. Ashesi and All Nation universities) and clubs for the preservation of culture, virtual networks, and federations of associations. Locating the level and the kinds of Diaspora engagement that are most conducive to poverty reduction requires an awareness of the time dimension of impacts, as the most immediate may not be the most effective over the long run.

The most direct and immediate impact on poverty comes out of Diaspora engagement at family and community level. Remittances have a direct impact on poverty reduction, since they tend to flow directly to poor (although not necessarily the poorest) households and are used primarily for basic needs such as food, shelter, education and health care. The common observation that remittances are not used for ?productive? investment, (i.e. it is not income tax) misses the point that poor households rationally give priority to these basic needs, which represent an investment in human capital as well as needed consumption. Spending on basic needs also has a multiplier effect in the community and economy.

Remittances, however, are far from being the only vehicle for Diaspora influence on the incidence of poverty in their home countries. For many countries, the Diaspora are a major source of foreign direct investment (FDI), market development (including outsourcing of production), technology transfer, philanthropy, tourism, political contributions, and more intangible flows of knowledge, new attitudes, and cultural influence. The quality of information, much less hard data, about Diaspora influences in these dimensions is in general very poor, posing a serious challenge to policy development.

Politics and the Diaspora

Obviously this is the most tempest part of the discussion. Should the Diaspora be allowed to vote in Ghana elections from his distant location? Some would say it is the right of a Ghanaian to engage and take part in national elections. Some would on the other hand slide in that no right is unlimited. That Diaspora do not breathe our air, do not drive on our roads, and do not wear our shoes to know where it pinches us the most and therefore should not be allowed to vote. Stop it right there. Who gets to decide who should vote or not, the constitution which is the fundamental legal document of the land or an individual politician maligned with subjective bias steroids, and or flaw law (PNDC Law 284) that is in direct contravention with the constitution? Yes of course the Diaspora does not pay Ghana taxes and generally only feel less the consequences of Ghana elections. So is it right to presume he shouldn?t be any more concerned than a foreigner anywhere else on the globe, about what goes on inside Ghana? Is it like if you are not IN Ghana, you can?t be ON, in Ghana? Oh really?

It is the focus of this article to state that the demand for Diaspora representation in elections must be balanced against the principle of electoral legitimacy. The notion that elections should be determined by those who have a stake in their outcome. Diaspora is often beyond the jurisdiction of Ghana yet they remain engaged about Ghana. For this reason the country also sets up diplomatic missions abroad to cater for their needs. Ghanaians abroad continue to have interest in election outcomes as most of them often return to live in Ghana. Apart from rights I would posit that it is in the national interest of Ghana to involve the Diaspora in the democratic processes. Ghanaians abroad have valuable contributions to make to public debates just as well their contribution would tend to enrich the quality of the discourse and increase other forms of civic engagement. Participation in elections would turn to create a feeling of duty, a habit of cooperation and interdependence.

It is the position of this article to commend the government for what it is undertaking to remove or strike down the legal constraints to Diaspora voting in elections. Once the right of the Diaspora is established, that he can take part in elections in Ghana, the modalities and recovery could be set in motion as to what best practices can be established to bring about the constitutional requirement. Nobody is saying it can be established overnight just as the construction of the Akosombo Dam did not extend electricity to all corners of Ghana all at once. Every Ghanaian is entitled to electricity, but 50 years on, we are still breaking new grounds to bring villages and communities to the national grid. We cannot let the difficulty of establishing the Diaspora right to vote, be a stumbling block, in and of itself, to not start or do something at all. The warning bell has to be sounded that the Diaspora is currently upbeat and interested in Ghana. It would be sacrilegious to snub this group today. Who knows tomorrow they might become the head of the cornerstone and by then we might have lost them for ever, as a result of our own unproven and unfounded short sighted fear to rise above partisan politics and put Ghana first. By then the Diaspora would have become disconnected and disinterested in Ghana as a result of our ineptitude.

The way some countries have overcome the difficulty of giving the Diaspora the vote is to limit them to presidential elections and preserving and allocating for them some limited amount or fixed number of seats in the national assembly or parliament. For instance in 2000, the Italian parliament agreed to reserve six seats in its senate and 12 in the Chamber of Deputies for the Diaspora. France has a number of MPs elected directly by the Diaspora. Several things would have to be done to ensure the Diaspora vote is not rigged to favor any particular party. Yet we should start finding solutions instead of wringing our hands and throwing about in disarray that it cannot be done. It can be done, our fellow African countries have done it, and Ghana being the first Black African country to gain its independence should have been the leader here instead of a follower, kicking and screaming to do what is right by its citizens.

The Diaspora do not only engage in monetary remittances, but more importantly, in hard to quantify, social remittances in terms of ideas, behaviors, identities and social capital that can affect attitudes towards human rights, women?s rights, the value of education for girls, the benefits of women employment, the use of violence or smart peaceful accommodating conflict resolution tactics to resolve political disputes and chieftaincy affairs.

In conclusion, it is the position of this paper to emphasize that rather than shunning the Diaspora, all the stake holders in Ghana politics, irrespective of which party one belongs to, should show maturity, courage and rise above unhelpful intransigent party positions to embrace and integrate the Diaspora in national affairs, including elections. A well placed Diaspora, e.g. Dr. Ohene-Frempong of sickle cell research fame, Dr Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, Dr Emmanuel Acquah, Vice President of the University of Maryland, Patrick Awuah, founder of Ashesi University, and countless numbers, can function as a bridge between Ghana and the international community. As a bridge to international ideas, investment and capital. The Diaspora could and should become Ghana?s colonies overseas to facilitate Ghanaian exports and bring about good things to Ghana. We shun these opportunities, and our own kin and kith, at our own perils and down right stupidity.

Eric Kwasi Bottah, alias Oyokoba
Philadelphia, PA, USA

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Bottah, Eric Kwasi