‘Election Day’ for Liberia’s Disability Community

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Naomi B. Harris, president-elect, NUOD

Samuel G. Dweh/freelance journalist (0886618906/ 0776583266/ [email protected])

“I feel overwhelmed. My victory in the election today is a proof of my people’s confidence in me based on my works or performances in the immediate past government.”

These were some of the words of Madam Naomi B. Harris, a physically challenged and crutches-mobile, during interview by journalists at the end of her organization’s elections for new leaders on March 29, 2019 at a resort in Monrovia.

The elections was organized by the National Union of Organizations of the Disabled (NUOD).

The electoral journey for ‘presidential candidate’ Naomi B. Harris, who was hit by paralysis on one of her legs at age 2, was dotted with bodily pains, emotional pangs, and psychological pinches for her, and all other disabled persons, who participated in the electoral stages.

The process began at NUOD’s Congress—where candidates sell their campaign platforms to registered voters and an independent elections body carries out voter education. The congress, by NUOD’s constitution, is held on the eve of the elections. The elections eventually ushered in Ms. Naomi B. Harris as the president for the first time.

Before the debates began, a five-member Independent Disability Elections Commission had set all materials needed for the process. The tools included seven white square-shaped plastic buckets (each with black top), seven cups of indelible ink for thumb-signing, seven voters’ queues dividers, and an assortment of stationery materials.

The National Elections Commission (NEC) provided all the materials, except the stationery provided by the leadership of NUOD. Amos Harris, representing the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), was the Commissioner for the NUOD’s elections.

Other members of the Independent Disability Elections Commission were also drawn from Government institutions and private organizations. They included: Teatema M. Yarsiah, Chairperson (working in the Division of Inclusive Education at the Ministry of Education); Bill Karmo, Co-Chair (a private consultant for organization development); Venus K. G. Quite, Procurement Coordinator (working with the Liberia Labour Congress); and Alexander Mingei Nakamu, Jr., Secretary (working in the Division of Inclusive Education at the Ministry of Education).

Marking of ballot boxes with serial numbers was done by Commissioner Bill Karmo.

Positions being vied for included: President, First Vice President, Second Vice President, General Secretary, Financial Secretary, Treasurer, and Chaplain.

Seventy-eight persons—from all of Liberia’s 15 Counties—registered to vote. The total number of candidates’ agents/observers was 17—10 females and 7 males.

The Elections Commission printed a total of 100 ballots for each position, Elections Chair Teatema M. Yarsiah announced to the audience. “The extra 28 ballots are stand-by replacements for ballots that will be damaged during voting,” she explained.

Debate started, first with presidential candidates, after voter education by the Election Commissioners.

“I have not come here with big promises to impress you to vote for me. You are already aware of my performances in the past government, which are speaking to you on me here,” Madam Harris, the organization’s immediate past president, declared to voters during the presidential debate.

“Naomi Harris lacks advocacy skills,” candidate Joseph Kortu exclaimed, in an attack against his sole opponent in the presidential race. “She doesn’t speak on the disability issues on the radio, as her fellow leaders in other groups do. And she is not media-friendly.”

The Elections Chairperson remarked on candidate Kortu’s comments. “On the debate, we instructed each candidate to only tell the voters what he or she would do for the Union, if elected, and never to attack the other candidate,” she reminded.

After the platform sell-out session, the elections commission opened the floor for each candidate throw questions to their opponents, if there were any.

“Mr. Kortu, you said Naomi Harris doesn’t speak on disability issues on the radio. Please provide proof,” the female presidential candidate spoke first.

“Candidate Joseph Kortu, do you have answer to candidate Naomi Harris’s question?” Elections Chair Yarsiah enquired from the visually impaired candidate.

Kortu, in his response, simply insisted that Harris does not speak on disability issues. However, he could not provide proof as requested.

For his question, candidate Joseph Korto asked his opponent to give account of food rations she had received from G-77, a pro-government disabled group directly under the Vice President of Liberia, on behalf of all members of NUOD. The full nomenclature of “G-77” is “Group of 77”.

Candidate Harris said she passed the foods to leaders of DPOs (Disabled People Organizations) to share them among members.

The Elections Commission turned the voters’ sections to interact with the presidential candidates on their respective platforms.

“I have a question for Naomi Harris!” a call came from a visually impaired voter. “I’m informed that you warned NUOD’s members against interacting with leadership of G-77.”

Candidate Naomi B. Harris responded to the concern: “I never told NUOD’s members to not interact with the leadership of G-77. What I said is this: Do not get involved into the political scheme of G-77 whose leadership is blocking NUOD’s access to support from the national government.”

Voter Joseph T.K. Barfeh, visually impaired, threw two questions to presidential candidate Joseph Kortu: “You are employed with the government. How can you independently run NUOD, an independent advocacy body critical on the government? And, how can you run Montserrado County-based Headquarter of NUOD while you are living in Grand Bassa County, your current permanent base?”

Candidate Joseph Kortu replied: “To your first question: I’m a consultant to the government, not an employee. To your second question: I’m partially based in Monrovia, and will be here fully if I’m the president.”

After the Presidential debate, the Elections Commission called candidates for the other positions.

The ballot casting was slow—mostly due to sight problems of some of the voters.

After the voting, the Elections Commission called all candidates’ agents to witness the counting of ballots.

“Thank you for your cooperation that made this election successful and without violence,” Elections Commission announced after the ballots had been county.

Next, she announced the name of the winners, beginning with the presidency.

“Candidate Naomi B. Harris got 73 votes; Joseph Kortu got 15 votes. Naomi B. Harris is hereforth declared winner of the presidential election.”

Screams rippled through the audience on the mention ‘Naomi B. Harris’. It was the same with most of the other names mentioned as winners of the other positions.

The list of the other officers-elect included: Peter Flomo (visually impaired), First Vice President; Daniel Dargbe (visually impaired), Second Vice President; Alonso Dixon (physically challenged), Secretary; Heylove R. Mark (physically challenged), Treasurer; Mrs. Alberline Dennis (physically challenged); and Comfort Mulbah (visually impaired), Chaplain.

The major inconvenience at the elections venue was accessibility problem, especially for participants who came in wheel chairs and those with crutches.

For the ‘wheelchair’ group the main victims were Weedor N’dorleh, president, United Disabled Women of Liberia; Nenlay G. Doe, Nimba County Coordinator, NUOD; and Agnes M. Effiong, president, Association of Disabled Women. Each person, in the wheel chair, was carried into and, when the wanted to use the restroom, out of the venue.

“I will not vote in NUOD’s elections again, if organizers of the next elections choose this place where wheelchair people suffer to enter,” Madam Weedor N’dorleh complained when she was being led by her son out of the compound of the Eco Hotel.

Lester M. Stuart, from the ‘crutches’ felt off, and dropped back on the ground, when climbing the stairs to enter the hall.

Josephine Williams and Matthew Boborwie—both employees of the National Commission on Disabilities (NCD)—served as sign language interpreters for hearing impaired participants of the elections.

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