Liberia: LMD Fellow: Grand Bassa Joins Call to Postpone December 8 Referendum

22 November 2020

Civil society organizations, professionals and politicians, as well as voters from Grand Bassa joined others to protest against holding the December 8 referendum due to lack of sufficient public awareness and information on the three propositions. Barley Togba, chairperson of the Civil Society Council of Liberia (CSCL) Grand Bassa chapter, said that the referendum should not be encouraged because there is not enough civic education, and therefore, the National Elections Commission (NEC) should postpone it. He added that people in remote areas in particular 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 Liberia is not Monrovia and therefore, 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. "... [W]e need more time. This is our country, and nobody can detach us," he told journalists. Togba threatened that he will not vote on December 8.

The Bassa chapter of the CSCL is comprised of several community-based organizations from the rural and urban areas of the county. In the past, Togba said, civil society organizations helped with the civic education programs across the county, but it is a different case in this election, when the NEC seemingly kept the civil societies out of the process, he alleges.

Shortage of money and time

Civil society organizations were invited by NEC to apply for accreditation to participate in civic education between 9-20 December 2019. Initially NEC budgeted $24.4 million USD for the conduct of both the Special Senatorial Elections (SSE) and the referendum. This amount suffered progressive cuts to just $13.5 million USD. NEC only received half that money.

This reduction in funds also meant that instead of 28 days of civil education, NEC only had money for just 10 days, a reduction by 64%. All other civic education and awareness programs meant to encourage gender balance and counter violence in elections campaign have also been reduced by 75%.

Although NEC 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 carryout awareness programs.

Magdalene M. Harris, one of the two female candidates participating alongside six male candidates in the Senatorial Elections in Grand Bassa, concurred 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 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 stated that many of the people living in the urban and rural areas may not even know that there is a referendum this year and might not have participated in a Referendum because it happens only after every five years. She noted that the referendum should have been separated from the special senatorial elections because of the potential to create confusion among voters, especially those who aren't properly informed and educated on the current election.

Grand Bassa senatorial candidate Magdalene Harris. Photo by Sampson David

She told journalists that when people are not aware of the referendum process and propositions, they may 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," Harris concluded.

Representative Vincent Willie, who runs for reelection on behalf of the Grand Bassa District #4, 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. The people are not aware so how do you expect them to make an informed decision?"

Rep. Willie added that the 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," Rep. Willie argued.

Representative Vincent Willie/Photo by Sampson David

Representative Willie explained that Lofa County Representative, Clarence Massaquoi, filed a motion with the court to postpone the referendum, adding that "[... ] some of our friends have gone to court while others are getting prepared to go to court."

Voters speak

Sampson Zegan, a resident of Grand Bassa's Wayzohn City, also in District #4, said that the referendum should be held after the SSE 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."

Bendu Sumo a resident of Wayzohn city also supports postponing the referendum in order to give the citizens a chance to make the right decisions adding that the referendum is more important than the SSE as it is about changes to the law that governs the country: "If the referendum remains, we will not vote [... ]. They are in power for the citizens, not for themselves - we put them there. They should postpone [the referendum] to go from place to place to educate the people before the process begins," Sumo said.

Several additional organizations and professionals have called on the government and the NEC to postpone the referendum due to insufficient awareness, adding that it could also lead people into voting without understanding what they voted for. Among those calling for postponement are the Press Union of Liberia, the umbrella-organization for all media houses in Liberia, the Liberian Women Can Lead, a civil society organization that supports women in politics, and lawyers Gloria Musu Scott, the chairperson of the former Constitutional Review Committee.

The Communications Director of the National Elections Commission, Henry Flomo, said the NEC decided to blend the special senatorial elections with the referendum because the holding of the referendum meets the constitutionally required timeline and could help save money and resources.

The referendum proposals were passed on September 30, 2019, Flomo argued, which is more than a year ago. "So, it met the constitutional requirement - meaning after September 30, 2020, a referendum can be held anytime. It was wise to have all of the elections in the same year together instead of separating them and that also help to save cost and other resources," Flomo said.

Flomo added that even though the time and resources to prepare the elections may be inadequate, people seem to single out the referendum as a problem, and they should just vote NO if they don't like a referendum proposition:

"Yes, we are not going to have sufficient time and sufficient resources given the circumstance, 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."

"How come they only know about the Senatorial Elections and don't know about the referendum when everything is going hand in hand? We had regional meetings and consultations across the country."

He appealed to the citizens to not mix disagreement with a particular referendum proposition with lack awareness on grounds that the special senatorial elections and the referendum are being done simultaneously.

Possible Explanations

Inquiries made by our reporter at the NEC sub-office in Buchanan indicates that civil society and community-based organizations are not engaged in civic education on the elections at this time. An NECBuchanan employee, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak, said that NEC could not hire any organization directly to support elections awareness due to lack funding.

However, the NEC has conducted voter awareness. For example, from December 2019 to present, NEC and the United Nations Development Programme (UND) held multiple public engagements and media training on the SSE and the referendum with participants from all over the country. On August 14, the NEC also launched the civic and voter education campaign to enhance voter awareness.

On August 29 the NEC concluded a two-day national conference in Gbarnga, Bong County. It was attended by stakeholders from the 15 counties including superintendents, commissioners, traditional leaders, Civil Society Organizations, faith based organizations, women and youth groups and disabled groups.

NEC held several media training activities on elections reporting in Gbarnga, Tubmanburg, Ganta and Buchanan Cities, a five-day legal awareness forum to enhance stakeholders understanding of the legal electoral processes; and the NEC Gender section conducted multiplecommunity outreach programs with Disabled People Organizations (DPOs) and persons with Disabilities in Kakata, Buchanan and Tubmanburg.

Speaking on the COVID-19 safety plan, the commission said: "The NEC is continuing to collaborate with health authorities to ensure the protection of its staff and others against the coronavirus disease. Accordingly, citizens are advised to observe all COVID19 prevention protocols, including the washing of hands, wearing of nose masks and social distancing."

As of mid-November, community radio stations have not started playing the SSE and referendum jingles in Buchanan City, although Flomo said two media organizations, including the Liberia Media Development Initiative (LMDI) and One Media were vetted to hire radio stations through an application process to air NEC messages.

What is at stake

This referendum is to amend three of the 25 propositions gathered from citizens for amendment and it is expected to take place on December 8 alongside the Special Senatorial Election as well as the two by-elections occasioned by the deaths of two Representatives. The propositions include legalizing dual citizenship for natural born Liberians, reduction in tenure of elected government officials and change of election date from the raining season in October to the dry season in November.

The three propositions are represented by separate symbols which were selected by stakeholders and unveiled recently in Buchanan City, Grand Bassa County by the NEC with the symbol of dual citizenship represented by two different colors of passports; reduction in tenure of elected government officials (specifically president, senators and Representatives) is represented by smaller and bigger chairs while change of election date is represented by the rising sun and umbrella.

In this referendum, citizens are required to vote yes or no on each of the three propositions, however, civil society organizations report that voters struggle to understand the importance of the referendum due to lack of sufficient awareness and clarity on why instead of the 25 initial propositions, it's now just three, and why has the tenure for elected officials been reduced by one year each instead of the initial two years.

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