NCRA SAGA: WHY CAN’T SIERRA LEONEANS COUNT CORRECTLY?
March 10, 2020
BY Andrew Keili
By all accounts, the National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA) seems to have been doing a good job. NCRA has responsibility for the continuous, permanent and compulsory recording of occurrences and characteristics of vital events including births, deaths, marriages, divorces, nullities, adoptions etc. Anyone who has been to some agencies to collect vital statistics would regret bringing frustration on oneself-an Institution like “Births and Deaths” had long ago forgotten when it was born and is now truly dead. NCRA had also embarked upon producing securitized and serially numbered Births and Deaths certificates. The Authority under the leadership of its Director, Mohamed Massaquoi has received accolades from several UN agencies for its development of holistic and sustainable civil registration, vital statistics and identity management systems. NCRA also seemed to have the cooperation of the various political parties until recently when the Authority was accused by them of overreaching its mandate. NCRA’s crime?-the use of a 9-letter-word-“elections” in a statement from the DG!
There have been press conferences accompanied by press releases from the APC and NGC, stating that NCRA has no business with voter registration and that NEC would utilize the information provided as one of the useful tools in its arsenal to facilitate election registration. Opposition parties seemed to insinuate the possibility existed for NCRA to ultimately manipulate the data provided NEC for extraction of voter register information. The Acting NEC Chairman, Edmund Alpha categorically denied this, confirming that the usual checks and balances would be in place for voter registration and verification of information.
This seems to have blown over a bit but is hardly surprising, given the hostile political atmosphere that currently exists between the political parties. There is always suspicion however when counting people in Sierra Leone-whether it is in a formal national census or any other census like that carried out by NCRA. Several accusations were levied against Statistics Sierra Leone after the 2015 census bordering on concerns about “the cartographic mapping and the non transparent and skewed recruitment process for additional staff which is based on political loyalties”. The fact that data from such a census would later guide policy formulation, planning, resource allocation and boundary delimitation for both Parliamentary and Local Council elections made this into another war.
In this particular NCRA registration process, the main concern seems to be about elections. In general censuses play many roles such as gathering social and economic data; informing planning policies such as on affirmative action for marginalised communities. They also support research on social phenomena. It is therefore not surprising for people to get suspicious in a charged atmosphere. In both Kenya and Ethiopia, ethnicity and politics are closely linked. Perspectives on ethnic inclusion or exclusion through the census lens are therefore important. The Nigerian story is however classic. An article on Nigeria’s 1962 census reported thus:
“Southern politicians seeking to end the north’s dominance of Nigerian politics decided that the only way to do it was through the census. Population figures at the time determined not only parliamentary representation but also revenue allocation and employee distribution in the civil service. Although the final results of this census were not made public, the preliminary results were quite clear as to what had happened: the north’s population had gone up from 16.5 million in the last census in 1952 to 22.5 million, an increase of 30%. But in some parts of the east, the population had increased by up to 200% and more than 70% in general. The west also reported an increase of 70%. What the preliminary results showed was that the north had lost its majority share of the country’s population. The northern leaders were not about to take that lying down. A new census was held in 1963 and this time, an additional 8.5 million people were discovered in the north, bringing the total to 31 million for the north. Another census was conducted a decade later in 1973 but was so hotly disputed and produced incredible figures that the government simply nullified the result.”
The Nigerians now seem to have solved their census problem.
Coming back to Sierra Leone, let us put politics aside and consider other aspects of our day to day life. It may actually be true that politicians and politically motivated people are not the only ones who can’t count correctly.
Is it not true that before the recent implementation of the biometric registration system, we have not been able to count teachers correctly over the past two decades? And, lest I forget, does this not also extend to civil servants? And guess what?-the ghosts that were counted still received salaries!
Those who have been on political campaigns including yours truly will tell you that when it gets to distributing food or any financial largesse, the number proffered by the organisers is always considerably more than the actual number. The benefactors?-the organisers! People even claim positions falsely-as the higher you, are the more you get-“Na me day near the thairlady na dis consequency”.
My experience with kids in my neighbourhood tells me the problem may extend to the next generation. I have the habit of giving out treats to kids on my street when driving home over weekends. The numbers used to be manageable but success breeds more success and I have noticed the actual numbers have doubled- no doubt word gets around. Notwithstanding this, I still note some cheating as I could sometimes recognize the same kid who appears at my left window reappear at the right one. And so I have taken two on for a fee (with double portions for a fee) as “security guards” to identify doublers (potential Bo school students) and the cheating has minimized. Before this I would call an adult to do the distribution-yes, you guessed it- they kept a percentage for themselves!
Malaysian workers at Rutile had a new method of counting the bottles of beer they drank as unscrupulous barmen were fleecing them left, right and center. No barman was allowed to clear the bottles. One of their lot- a teetotaler would count all the bottles at the end of the binge and pay the bill.
But my best story is the cow with three legs. This story is as reported by one of my Bo school friends. A very senior member of OBBA was asked to buy and butcher a cow for an Association event. After butchering, some mathematically mined guy decide to count the legs- only there were found. The explanation of the buyer was simple-It was an amputee cow!
This counting business-No wonder a famed the famed village Head Teacher would characteristically shout at his students-“One, two, three, four-both of you come here!
But back to the issue of political advantages in numbers. I have even had arguments about which is the largest tribe- Mende or Temne-and have seen conflicting statistics, sometimes depending on the government in power. Thank God the endangered Krios know they cannot join this competition-they just lurk in the corner and chuckle.
When we get to anything to do with elections, we must be doubly careful, as miscounting or suspicions of it could spark unrest, especially as politics now tends to pose an existential threat to some players.
The NCRA was actually formed during the tenure of the previous government and both NCRA and NEC had made some mistakes in the registration process which were later rectified before the presentation of the final voters register. NEC, as mandated by the Constitution, organised all past voter registration processes. Before the last election the state purchased, on behalf of the newly created NCRA, 3,800 (+266 spare ones) registration kits to launch the general civil registration. Nevertheless, due to a lack of time, resources and capacity on the part of the NCRA, this ambitious project was not completed. Given the time pressure, the NEC, possessing the necessary expertise, had to conduct a brand new registration of persons older than 17 years between 20 March and 30 April 2017. At the same time, however, the NEC admitted that the data of 39,276 persons included in the final figure, were missing in the electronic database (especially due to broken-down biometric registration machines). In the course of September the NEC reconstructed the missing data from manual registration forms and journals. Nevertheless, photos of 23,520 persons were still missing, but for a considerable part of the affected voters they were recaptured during the voter ID process.
The NEC managed to reprint and redistribute most of these cards three weeks before the election day in the seven affected districts. Stakeholders, including civil society organisations who observed the registration exercise, considered the voter register to be inclusive and credible.
NCRA should definitely continue with its registration process, which will have immense benefits to this country and provide cost savings in many areas. It certainly behooves the parties to support the process and make it as credible as possible for extraction of data by NEC. As was seen before the last election and as has been assured by the NEC Chairman, the accuracy of the voter registration rests with NEC who even with slippages can rectify the situation.
Quite rightly the NCRA and NEC have been coming up with responses to these allegations to assuage the fears of the opposition political parties. The last thing we want is to have another cause for one party to feel it is being treated unfairly, with the concomitant insecurity it could create. Surely, we can do the decent thing to count and register correctly.
The issue for now is greater than counting. It is a matter of TRUST when that 9-letter word-elections is used. Come on NCRA and NEC-just do what is right for Sierra Leone-even if you have to hire abacuses as in days of yore. And as for the parties, adopt the Reagan theory-“Trust but verify”. And whilst we are at it- Can we Sierra Leoneans in various spheres of life also learn to count correctly?
Ponder my thoughts.