BUCHANAN, Grand Bassa – Some civil society organizations, politicians, as well as voters from Grand Bassa are expressing concern about the upcoming December 8 referendum. They say the limited public awareness about the three constitutional propositions would leave many voters in the dark.
Barley Togba, chairperson of the Grand Bassa chapter of the Civil Society Council of Liberia, says the referendum should not be encouraged because there has not been enough civic education around the process. He is calling on the National Elections Commission to postpone the referendum. In remote areas, Togba says many citizens have not had access to proper information and civic education about what they are supposed to vote.
“The people of Grand Bassa County spoke clearly through the civil society organizations that the referendum is not timely,” Togba stated. “We are not rushing – you need to give the people more time to educate them, provide civic education. We invited our lawmakers and told them already.”
Togba added that there is a heightened need to extend the civic education to the rural areas to sensitize voters about the laws that are to be modified and their direct or indirect impact. Togba threatened that he would not vote either way for the referendum on election day.
He represents several community-based organizations from the rural and urban areas of the county. In the past, Togba said civil society organizations like those he represents would have assisted with the civic education programs across the county. However, he says this election cycle has been different, alleging that the elections body has kept civil society out of the process.
Shortage of money and time
Civil society organizations were invited by NEC to apply for accreditation to participate in civic education between December 9-20, 2019. Initially, NEC budgeted US$24.4 million for the entire special senatorial election and the referendum. However, this amount suffered progressive cuts, and only US$13.5 million was approved. According to a statement on its Facebook page, NEC says it only received half that money. Those funds would have been used to contract civil society organizations to raise awareness about the referendum.
This reduction in funds also meant that instead of 28 days of civil education, NEC only had funds for just 10 days, a reduction by 64 percent. All other civic education and awareness programs meant to encourage gender balance and to counter violence in elections campaigns have also been reduced by 75 percent, NEC added.
Although NEC’s communications director Henry Flomo said civil society organizations were vetted and accredited across the country, Togba said that no local organization in his county received the approval to carry out awareness programs.
Magdalene M. Harris, one of the two female candidates participating alongside six male candidates in the senatorial elections in Grand Bassa, agreed with Togba on the need to provide more information and increase awareness among voters. She also believed that voters are not sufficiently prepared to make an informed decision.
“If you have a country with many literate people, then it is easy to [hold the referendum] alongside the special senatorial elections, but where [the] majority of the people are not educated, then they need more time to educate them,” she said.
Harris said many voters may not even know that there is a referendum this year and might not have ever participated in a referendum given that the last one occurred in 2011. She noted that the referendum should have been separated from the special senatorial elections because of the potential to confuse voters, especially those who are illiterate.
Harris told journalists that when people are not aware of the referendum process and propositions, they might end up doing the wrong thing without even knowing it: “If we don’t create awareness for the people to make the right decision then we put the country at risk and citizens are equally at risk, that is my fear.”
Representative Vincent Willie of Grand Bassa’s fourth district, who is also running to be a senator of the county, agrees that the referendum is rushed.
“I strongly believe that the referendum should not be held in parallel with the Special Senatorial Elections due to lack of sufficient awareness,” he said. “The people are not aware, so how do you expect them to make an informed decision?”
Willie added that voters are more focused on the senatorial elections, and not so much on the referendum because of the perceived belief that the referendum does not have a direct impact on them.
“This is why I think the court should grant the request of those who are arguing that the referendum should not be held alongside the special senatorial elections. The essence of it will not exist. Let the referendum be scratched off of the election,” he argued.
Willie noted that his colleague in the House of Representatives, Clarence Massaquoi of Lofa’s third district, filed a motion with the court to postpone the referendum. However, it is not clear on what legal grounds Massaquoi is seeking to postpone the referendum.
Sampson Zekeh, a resident of Grand Bassa’s Wayzohn City, also in the county’s fourth district, also wants the referendum to be held after the senatorial elections to give NEC more time to carry out awareness or civic education campaigns.
“For me, if they continue with it, I will vote, but will not touch the referendum because I don’t know anything about it,” he said.
Bendu Sumo, who also lives in Wayzohn, likewise supports postponing the referendum to give citizens a chance to make the right decisions. She considers the referendum more important than the senatorial elections, as it could make substantial changes to the constitution.
“They should postpone [the referendum] to go from place to place to educate the people before the process begins,” Sumo said.
Other organizations have called on the government and the NEC to postpone the referendum due to the insufficient level of awareness, adding that it could also lead people to voting without understanding their voting choices. Among those calling for postponement are the Press Union of Liberia (the umbrella organization for all media houses in Liberia) and Liberian Women Can Lead (a civil society organization that supports women in politics). Former Supreme Court justice Gloria Musu Scott, who also previously served as senator of Maryland and chairperson of the Constitutional Review Committee, also backs a halt to the referendum.
Flomo, NEC’s communications director, said the Elections Commission decided to blend the special senatorial elections with the referendum because it would save the country money. He recommended that people unhappy with the referendum could opt to vote against its propositions, as doing so would ensure that the status quo remains.
He added, “Yes, we are not going to have sufficient time and sufficient resources given the circumstances, but to always single out the referendum to say you don’t know about it. I think if people don’t like any proposition, just give it a ‘No’ vote.”
At NEC’s local office in Buchanan, an employee who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak said NEC had not hired any organization directly to support elections awareness due to lack of funding.
However, NEC has conducted some voter awareness, although they have not focused on the referendum in particular. For example, since December 2019, NEC and UNDP have held multiple public engagements and media training on the elections and the referendum with participants from all over the country. On August 14 this year, NEC also launched the civic and voter education campaign to get voters to update their information.
On August 29, NEC concluded a two-day national conference in Gbarnga, Bong that was attended by stakeholders from the 15 counties, including superintendents, commissioners, traditional leaders, civil society organizations, faith-based organizations, and disadvantaged groups. NEC also held several media training activities on elections reporting in Gbarnga, Tubmanburg, Ganta, and Buchanan.
Another five-day legal awareness forum to enhance stakeholders’ understanding of the legal electoral processes was conducted, along with multiple community outreach programs with organizations representing the disabled in Kakata, Buchanan, and Tubmanburg.
However, radio is the biggest medium for reaching the masses in Liberia. As of mid-November, community radio stations have not started playing jingles meant to sensitive the voting public about the upcoming election and the referendum. However, Flomo said two media organizations, including the Liberia Media Development Initiative and One Media had already been vetted to hire radio stations through an application process to air NEC messages.
What is at Stake?
This referendum is to make three major sets of constitutional amendments. The propositions include legalizing dual citizenship for natural-born Liberians, reducing the tenure of elected government officials, and changing the election date from the rainy season in October to the dry season in November.
For each proposition to pass, at least two-thirds of citizens are required to vote yes.
Featured photo by Lloyd Massah