Elections are part of the central beam which anchors a healthy democratic process, as it marks the climax of an engagement where the citizenry has the ability to elect the leaders to best represent them in managing the affairs of the country or their local authority. Therefore the integrity and the independence of the electoral Commission in facilitating this process cannot be overemphasised. Professor Paul John Isaak, the newly appointed Electoral Commission of Namibia Director of Elections, takes us on the road ahead on the current general voter’s registration and the upcoming elections later in the year.
PF: Can you give us a brief overview of your personal background and why you applied for the position of the Director of the Electoral Commission of Namibia?
PJI:I am coming from an academic environment, specifically in in the fields of philosophy, social ethical and anthropological issues, and religion. In the field of Philosophy I concentrated on African Philosophy and Western Political Philosophy. The difference is that in the African Philosophy the focus is on themes of Pan Africanism, negritude, black consciousness especially in the United States, South Africa and Namibia where the skin colour was defining people’s hood, African humanism or Ubuntu, indigenous African ethics, culture, and thought as well as African Renaissance in light of Pan Africanism. In Western Political Philosophy it was on basic concepts that define the field of political science, such as the polis, or political community, namely the question “How should we be governed?”, and the rise of ‘isms” such as capitalism, communism, socialism, feminism, nationalism, etc, as ideologies.
On Contemporary Social Issues when I taught the course at the University of Namibia (UNAM) the focus was on the interconnections amongst ethics, moral reasoning, citizenship, leadership, and values of a society and approaches that direct to responsible moral social behaviour of a society. Special emphasis was placed on the construct of citizenship and its relation to democracy and the common good. On religious matters I am more interested on the issues of God, thus issues on the insights on who is God and what characteristics does he have. I was looking on the a German concept Menschenfreundlichwhich means that essentially God is kind, or God loves people or he is for people, out of this concept, I am also looking into the African religion and one of central and key issue is Ubuntu, I am therefore we are and how do these two issues, who God is and who we are work together.
On how I became the Director of the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN), I applied when I saw the advert. I applied in light of my qualities of being critical, innovative and an analytical academic with outstanding communication skills in various contexts and fields to promote the spirit of Ubuntu.I have also demonstrated throughout my life in various positions to be an independent, non-partisan, and professional person, who is capable to perform under pressure and has tremendous problem-solving skills, in particular to promote and to maintain the existing democracy, reconciliation and healing paradigms of Namibia since its independence. I made it through the selection and the President, His Excellency, Dr. Hifikepunye Pohamba appointed me.
PF: You are coming in at a time when there are so many expectations from the ECN, are you up for the task?
PJI:I can confidently say that I am up for the task because the core values of ECN are the values which I have always adhered to. As outlined above I studied three types of communities, namely political, socio-cultural and ethical, and religious communities. The insights gained from such studies and courses taught in such fields shall come to my rescue.
For example, I do not underestimate the roles that are played by politicians and political parties with their different ideologies and the uncontrollable surge for political power. In light of such eventualities I shall strive to maintain the basic core values of the ECN: accountability, non-partisanship, professionalism, integrity, and secrecy of the vote thereby instilling confidence in the process and outcome.
PF: What signal does your appointment send to Namibia and to the world?
PJI:When I was appointed by His Excellency, President Dr Hifikepunye Pohamba, on September 1, 2013 it was clear to me that my appointment signalled the following: The Director of Elections under the auspices of the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) shall execute the mission and vision of the ECN, namely to deliver free, fair and credible elections, managed in a transparent, innovative and participatory manner to strengthen democracy in Namibia as well as to be the most credible elections management institution in Africa as well as world-wide.
The time has come that in Africa we shall proudly announce the results of an election and all political leaders and parties and the nation as a whole shall accept such outcome as free, fair and credible. We ought to make Africa proud of us as Africans.
PF: What are the missions and visions of the ECN and would you say you are living up to that mandate?
PJI:Fortunately the ECN has solely one mission and one vision which we ought to internalise and to make our own so that it becomes our property and we become the proud owners of the mission and vision of the ECN. The MISSION of the ECN is “to promote and deliver free, fair and credible elections, managed in a transparent, innovative and participatory manner” to the Namibians. The VISION is “to be an excellent and independent election management institution committed to credible elections”.
Together with all Namibians I am sure that we are able to live up to that mandate just as we have been able to struggle to be free and independent. Now, as citizens of The Republic of Namibia, all power is vested in the people of Namibia who shall exercise their sovereignty through the democratic institutions of the State.
PF: Can you tell us how important it is to have a credible body as well as running a credible election in a democracy?
PJI: The Republic of Namibia is a democratic State that respects all our citizens, regardless of race, colour, ethnic origin, sex, religion, creed or social or economic status, justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. In order to carry this Constitutional mandate the Namibian State has independent organs such as the ECN to run all elections in Namibia in a free, fair and credible way so that the nation shall accept the outcome of such elections. In short, it is a disgrace for a nation, when after elections instead of joy, there are endless court cases.
So, it is important having credible bodies to manage elections such as the ECN and credible election results which are accepted by the Namibian Nation as a whole. That will make us as an institution proud and the Namibians will be proud of their own country and the rest of the world will look up to us while we walk the talk.
PF: How are you going to build that trust against the background of the court cases which dogged ECN?
PJI:The ECN is trying to build trust though transparency, and ensuring that no eligible voter is discriminated against, especially during electoral processes. Currently the ECN is ensuring that all eligible voters are informed of the relevant process to ensure have an informed electorate. Additionally, the ECN is releasing statistics on a weekly basis to continuously update the nation on the progress made so far.
In addition to that the ECN has shared the challenges that have been experienced during the GRV and the remedial action. So this time around, court cases are not anticipated and citizens are urged to lodge complaints with the ECN, so that we can look into those issues. This continuous consultation will build the trust and consequently result in the credibility of the electoral process. Therefore there are no surprises expected from the side of ECN, as these surprises normally result in stakeholders taking action such as taking the ECN to court.
PF: Do Namibians understand the value of elections particularly the local authority elections?
PJI:Let me tackle this question from the perspective of democracy and development. Firstly, the question to answer is, do Namibians believe that participation in the democratic elections for local authorities shall bring development? Secondly, is there a relation between good governance, democracy and development? We have to understand that development is not the mere construction of skyscrapers, endless roads and airports or hotels. It is also not the sheer statistical increase in Gross Domestic Product and Gross National Product indices.
Development must ultimately mean the qualitative and quantitative growth of both the material and non-material resources available to individuals and society for the fuller pursuit of their creative energies. Where development takes place it registers in all areas of social life. For example, due to lack of development we have so many informal settlements. Through democratic elections any local authority ought to bring the following to its residents: food to the hungry, affordable and adequate housing to the homeless, clinics and hospitals to the sick and safe environment in the prisons where those imprisoned are fully protected etc. I think of basic human needs—food; clothing; shelter; health care and, by implication, the basic socio-political need for human dignity, human rights and integrity.
Therefore, the motto of the ECN is to enable the eligible voters through elections to exercise their voice and to demand for development, thus that those who are hungry have food, those without proper and affordable housing have homes, clinics and hospitals for the sick and good education infrastructure for all our children. In short, your vote is your voice towards human development and happiness.
PF: What do you make of people who have threatened they will not vote as a result of poor service delivery?
PJI:All I can say is that there are rules and regulations within a given society, which will eventually give you access to certain services. For example if you want to drive, you must have a driver’s licence, which you can only obtain by getting a learners. If you choose not to obtain a learners license, you will deprive yourself of the right to drive on Namibian road. Similarly, for you to vote you must register. Through voting, many Namibian citizens empower themselves to voice their opinion on issues that affect their country and communities. If you refrain from registering to vote then you are punishing yourself and giving others a free reign on what they should do with you.
If you want a very good candidate to be elected to power, the person will always say I am here because I have been voted for by the citizens of the Local Authority. Therefore citizens should engage in democratic processes to ensure that the local authorities will provide the services based on their needs.
PF: Can you clear the air on the war of words on the ongoing voter’s registration especially those voters who have to produce municipal bills, for those who failed to register?
PJI:The matter raised in the media is not new, in respect of registration for Local Authority elections, the Electoral Act provides for certain registration requirements to be complied with by an applicant who intends to register as a voter. The challenge is with the interpretation of the various section(s) of the Electoral Act.
Applicants have to prove 12 months residency in a local authority by presenting either water or electricity account from a village, town or municipal council or telephone account. This requirement stems from Article 111 (3) of the Namibian Constitution.
The ECN is fully aware that this situation is not ideal for many, and has taken cognizance of the fact of the expansion of our cities and towns, which has resulted in many informal settlements. Residents, who live in these informal settlements, were encouraged to make use of the sworn statements whereby a registered voter can act as a deponent and can vouch for up to 10 applicants.
The crux of the matter is that ECN is not in a position to relax the requirements, until such time that the law has been amended by Parliament through the normal legislative processes. As a result, the ECN has an obligation to operate within the confines of the law.
Therefore, the ECN hopes that the law reform process will eventually do away with the residency requirements by passing the necessary amendment to the Constitution.
PF: With all this confusion going around, how are you assuring the nation that you are a credible institution which can be trusted with the running the country’s elections effectively and efficiently?
PJI: The Electoral Commission of Namibia is mandated to direct, supervise and control in a fair and impartial manner all elections conducted in terms of the Electoral Act. As an institution, we continuously seek to improve our electoral processes and practices at every opportunity and willingly learn from each electoral activity we undertake. In line with the latter, during the past year, the ECN adopted measures to improve the electoral process through the law reform process.
The ECN also maintains a strong liaison with various stakeholders like political parties, civil society and faith based organisations. It is through open and transparent dialogue with such stakeholders that ECN is able to successfully deliver on its mandate effectively and efficiently and continuously endeavour to enhance the credibility of the ECN.
Voting is a key in portraying your love and pride in your community and the country as a whole. Therefore voters are seen by the ECN as direct contributors towards democracy by encouraging participatory democracy in the electoral process, and this is a task that the institution takes very seriously.
PF: The ECN has an enormous task to compile and deliver the voters roll in the newly introduced regions and constituencies, how far have you gone with this process?
PI: The ECN has scheduled the General Registration of Voters from 15 January - 02 March 2014 to register eligible voters’ country wide for the Presidential, National Assembly, Region Council and Local Authority elections. Upon completion of this exercise, the ECN has to produce the provisional voter register, which will be subjected to an objection period by the public and any other interested stakeholder. The provisional voters register will be displayed for two weeks country wide in all regions and constituencies, and the public is invited to scrutinise this register and raise any objections to person who may appear in the register.
This is part of the process of ensuring that the voters register is accurate and credible. Prior to the objection period the ECN will embark on an intensive voter education campaign to inform Namibian citizens of the objection period and their rights as voters to object to other registered voters.
PF: What is your immediate task and how are you going to do things differently from your predecessors?
PJI: For me as an African it is central to be committed to democracy and multi-partyism. Today, to suggest that multi-party democracy is good for North Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Malaysians, and Indonesians but not for Africans is to unforgivably underestimate the intelligence of Africans and abuse their interests. We are moving through the incunabula of the institutionalisation of democratic politics. The longer we postpone the movement towards fuller democratic practice, the more we push the society into crisis and danger.
As we move deeper into the 21st century Africans would want to have multiparty democracy practiced not only in their own backyards, but also their neighbours’. In this day and age, what happens to one country always has an effect on the neighbours. We cannot therefore have democratic institutions in one country and archaic and backward institutions in the neighbouring country. The African Union (AU) is showing by its terms of reference greater appreciation to this.
PF: What is your personal vision for the ECN?
PJI: I shall strive to promote and maintain national reconciliation, equality, liberty, justice, peace, unity and a common loyalty to Namibia. I am committed to these principles by respecting the Constitution of Namibia as a sovereign, secular, democratic and unitary State and protecting the fundamental human rights and freedoms. Likewise, to faithfully adhere to all the laws and regulations of the Electoral Commission of Namibia as the sole and exclusive authority mandated to administer all electoral processes and activities in the country.
PF: What is the price tag of an election?
PJI:When it comes to elections as Namibians we should be very proud, in comparison to other African countries. In Namibia, the Government or we ourselves the tax payers of Namibia we are paying for our own elections. We do not go somewhere to beg for money.
In the current general voter’s registration process we have employed 5000 officials for 60 days, and our budget for the GRV is estimated close to N$96 million. I must stress that registration and elections are costly. Since it’s so costly, the results should be also costly. People should not say the results are not cheap. It is costly and good and shall not bring tears.
PF: Is there any information you would like the nation to know about the ECN?
PJI: The Secretariat and the Commission together are the eyes, ears, minds, hearts, bodies and souls of the Electoral Commission of Namibia. Despite our weaknesses, we don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past therefore as the ECN we are committed to uphold at all times the principles of professionalism, non-partisanship, and political neutrality. We want the nation to know that we are in the business to implement free, fair and credible elections. Our mission is grounded in pursuit of freedom, justice, peace, gender equality, and togetherness as Namibians.
PF: Where to from now?
PJI: The ECN remains highly committed to executing its mandate, to direct, supervise and control in a fair and impartial manner all elections conducted in terms of the Electoral Act, as well as live up to the aspiration of the country to remain a democratic state, founded upon the principles of democracy, the rule of law and socio-economic justice for all. As the ECN we will compile a brand new voter’s register and implement forthcoming Presidential, National Assembly, Regional and Local Authority Elections.
PF: Thank you so much Professor, it was a pleasure engaging with you.
PJI:I Thank You. PF