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September 28, 2016 Moses MASSA

It is a widely held but wrong belief that lawyers do not know the law but know where to find it. That’s absurd. How can one know where to find a thing and not know it? Lawyers know the law and when a person goes to one with a case, a good lawyer will know what the issues are and which law to apply to good effect. In a court of law, as one law professor sarcastically notes, all a lawyer does is to stand up, speak up and shut up (no disrespect intended). Nothing more!Against this backdrop is the toxic discourse that voter registration for the 2018 general elections is going to be gleaned from the National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA) than the National Electoral Commission (NEC), which is laughable at least but more so worrying.

The NCRA and NEC by law and fact are quite twodifferent institutions with defined functions. Let us start with the recent but least of the two; the NCRA. Section 14 of the National Civil Registration Act 2016 says the object of the Authority among others is to maintain an accurate electronic national population database as well as issue national ID cards. S.15 says the NCRA shall assist the government in the provision of general policies for civil registration and vital statistics.

  1. 25 (a)addedthe NCRA Director-Generalis required to provide NECwith informationfor the purpose of getting an updated register of voters for the conduct of public relations and referenda.This does not disqualify NEC from registering voters becauses.27(1) says “…the NCRA shall be responsible for the continuous, permanent and compulsory recording of births, deaths, divorces, adoptions.., legitimization and recognition of citizens and residents throughout Sierra Leone for the purpose of establishing and maintaining a Civil Register.

The Constitution of any country is the grand norm (i.e. the supreme law).  In Sierra Leone the 1991 Constitution is and s. 32 says there should be a National Electoral Commission, which in s.33‘’… shall be responsible for the conduct and supervision of the registration of voters for and of all public elections and referenda and for that purpose shall havepower to make regulations by statutory instrument for the registration of voters…’’.

Note the difference. Civil registration and voter registration are not the same, and are like comparing an okada to a poda-poda.An okada takes one passenger – dangerously two by some riders- and a poda-poda takes more passengers. Simply put, civil registration is everything related to people’s information, whereas voter registration is people’ information related to elections. We have arrived at the point where everybody has said it but not everythinghas been said yet.  In s. 32(11) it is clearly evident that in the exercise of any functions vested in it by this Constitution the Electoral Commission shall not be subjectto the direction or control of any person or authority.The main opposition; the Sierra Leone Peoples Party, understandably stood up, spoke up and shut up on the issue by issuing a press release. NEC could do the same, albeit differently either:call a press conference asserting its constitutional mandate, go to Court for declaration, or take no action because it is a gimmick for public consumption and perception gauge.

It is sad that in most developing countries some progressive ideas do not seem to last. In 2012 NEC successfully introduced the biometric voter registration for it to continuouslyupdateits register by registering new voters and deleting dead ones. What has happened to it? Again if we are to get the raw data from the NCRA, how will it cope with people’s relocation, how many people will be registered, when,where and how considering our structures are notwell decentralized, computerized, electrified and fire resistant?

The’kill two birds with one stone’’argument that the NCRA provides NEC with updated voter data in order to save money if that is the government’s intention is no brainer. Money is a problem everywhere and will never be enough to achieve our wants. Elections are the lifeblood of good governance, security and development, and in the heyday of the brutal decade civil war the government with international support provided NEC with funds to register voters and conduct the elections. So why should this time be different when we are not at war? Undoubtedly, if the government wants to stack the deck not all will register andperhaps be the beginning of the end of political stability and security in Sierra Leone. I hope the powers that be think otherwise.

Sierra Leone’s democracy is not new but growing and needs to adopt international best practices. In highly developed countries where people’ data are computerized, there are independent national electoral commissions which register voters. In the US, citizens are allowed to register as voters for any political party in their respective states or on Election Day. Presently we cannot do this in our country because of the state of our country’s technological infrastructure and untamed human nature to get our parties or candidates elected at all cost.

In conclusion, there is no and should be no confusion over the functions of the NCRA and NEC. And if there is, s.171 (15) says the 1991 Constitution is the supreme law of Sierra Leone and any other law found to be inconsistent with any of its provision shall be void and of no effect. NEC should stay calm, speak up, shut up and plan to register voters for the 2018 general elections as it has the constitutional mandate to do so.

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