Civic Education, Electoral Reform, and Democracy

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Civic education is integral to Liberia’s democracy becoming more robust, says veteran journalist John Kollie.

In September 2012, almost one year after general elections and a referendum, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) brought stakeholders together for an electoral reform policy seminar.

Election experts, political party members, policy makers, and democracy activists, sat together to reflect on the 2011 electoral process, and to prepare for Liberia’s future. Following the outcome of the 2011 referendum, a number of constitutional issues remained outstanding, including the terms of office of elected officials and Liberia’s electoral districts or constituencies. NDI hoped to increase the level of election law knowledge among members of the Legislature, bring to light needed reforms and their policy implications, and foster an environment for effective examination of reforms proposed in recognition of Liberia’s ”still fragile” status.

The seminar was also designed to stimulate discussion between lawmakers; the Legislative and Executive branches; and civil society organizations. One of several presentations was from the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.

Elections and Political Processes Program Officer Olufunto Akinduro shared a perspective derived from years of experience in electoral challenges, and reform successes, across the continent.

Constitutional and electoral reforms in post-conflict countries are important, he said, because they are primary elements of the post-conflict peace and democracy-building process.

He continued that elections, as contests for democratic power,  are ”inherently conflictual’’, therefore making the legal framework regulating their conduct extremely crucial. As a result, the question that must be asked is: does the Constitution as the legal framework provide sufficient, inclusive, and legitimate regulations to guide the contest for power, ensuring that citizens are satisfied with the conduct and outcomes?

Akinduro encouraged Liberians to see electoral reform as a positive undertaking of ”continuous internal negotiation and improvement’’ after prolonged conflict. Additionally, he stressed the importance of a citizen driven reform process, where individual Liberians are well informed – and empowered through civic education to support their own democracy.

Veteran Liberian journalist John Kollie could not agree more.

Kollie has been a journalist, radio and TV producer and presenter for more than 24 years, working with media outlets such as Radio France International (RFI) as one of its senior English correspondents in West Africa, and the BBC World, covering the trial of former president Charles Taylor.

In October 2011, he founded the Liberia Media for Democratic Initiatives (LMDI) to promote participatory democracy, and to help sustain it. As a local non-governmental organization, LMDI keeps ”ordinary Liberians’’ in focus, even as media practitioners are their primary constituents. LMDI provides media sensitization, empowerment and training on key development and governance issues – reaching, teaching and learning from Liberian citizens along the way.

Most Liberians probably know the organization from Ducor Debates, and maybe now, from the recently ended countrywide community dialogues on electoral reform.

As an implementing partner in Citizens of Liberia Engaged to Advance Electoral Reform (CLEAR), LMDI hosted twenty-three forums in towns and cities across the fifteen counties. Enduring rain and impassable roads; adjusting to last minute relocations due to incomplete, still under-renovation town halls; getting back on the road to get to a nearby town because they learned it was market day there. They did ”whatever was needed” to get to the people, and get them talking.

For Kollie, the electoral reform dialogues were ”very much a democratic initiative”, because, ”the people were getting involved”.

“Inaction is what shows that your democracy is not working…The truth of the matter is that democracy in Liberia is better than it is in many African countries.”

Mr. Kollie cited the democratic transition of power in 2017, the conduct of successive by-elections, and passage into law of the Abdullah Kamara Freedom of Press Act as indicators that Liberia’s ‘’hard-won democracy’’ is becoming more robust.

However, he said, one major challenge remains — Liberia’s almost non-existent civic education about the country’s laws, and ”the true meaning of democracy’’.

“Our constitution is largely unknown, and this is a worrying sign. Due to our limited civic education, lots of election laws and procedures were also largely unknown, thereby limiting the electorate’s ability to, for example, spot and report violations,” he added.

With the CLEAR project concluded, Kollie remains a firm believer in the power of citizen consultation and engagement, and the media’s import to sustaining and deepening Liberia’s democracy.

He said the ongoing problem of poor civic education must be ”officially tackled”. Through school curriculums and programs that teach about democracy, but also through civil society and media efforts that engage the public on ”democratic dos and don’ts’’.

LMDI’s other initiatives include Tomorrow’s People, a show produced and presented by children and youth themselves that tackles child protection and rights, violence specifically targeting girls and women, and other issues that should concern ”children, families and policy makers”. The DIALOGUE, an interactive policy forum for critical national and community policy issues, allows citizens to speak directly to their leaders. The living conditions of the people are put in dialogue with the laws and policies that affect their lives.

”There will never be a full display of democracy anywhere in the world…but that doesn’t mean democracy is not good.”

“Being in the democratic arena, holding people accountable, that is what matters”.

Robin Dopoe contributed to the publication of this article.

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