By Moses Geply, Harper, Maryland County
Liberia continues its gradual recovery from the consequences and aftershocks of fourteen years of civil crisis. The slow pace of progress is at times dismaying. Yet many citizens remain attentive to their particular roles they have to play in securing the growth and development of the nation. Government institutions and officials, development partners and donors, religious and civil society groups, schools and students, all are a necessary part of efforts to rehabilitate Liberia’s national prospect. ‘Ordinary citizens’ – voters – may in fact be the missing link or piece of the puzzle. Without their active engagement, involvement and leadership, the way forward may continue to be slow. What is happening in Maryland County is therefore encouraging, and should be supported.
One major consequence of the civil crisis, and major stumbling block to national progress, is the under-education of the Liberian electorate. First time voters in Harper, the capital city, are calling on the government through the Ministry of Education to re-introduce civic education in all public, and private, schools as a means of ensuring younger citizens are well prepared to assume their civic duties. With young people making up approximately 65% of the population, the lack of basic civic knowledge as well as thorough understanding of electoral procedures and policy, is a serious detriment.
According to the youths interviewed, Liberia has already experienced too many of the ill costs of the lack of a national civic education agenda: poor voter turnout, electoral conflict and violence, other human rights abuses during elections, and the election of leaders who over-promise and fail to honor their commitments to constituents. While NEC does have a civic education program, it is very limited and does not reach the numbers of registered voters let alone prioritize those who are just entering the process. Despite these many issues, the youths remained excited ‘pending voters’, keen on taking part in the electoral process and optimistic that bringing back civic education in every grade school across the country will have serious positive impact.
In Liberia’s elections law, a citizen is eligible to vote at the age of eighteen. NEC’s 2017 voter roll update shows there are over 108,485 first-time voters. Two percent of this number will vote in Maryland County, exercising their constitutional right to the democratic franchise for the first time in 2020’s senatorial elections.
“I was born in Daryoken Town, Boah District, Grand Kru County. I first became interested in Liberian politics when I was 15 years old,” said 19-year-old Stanley Julue, resident of Harper’s Stadium Road Community. James T. Elliot of the New Kru Town Community, said he has also been anticipating becoming a voter since he was 17. “Now I am finally qualified to vote and I can’t wait to have the experience. I will be voting with quality education in mind, and urging other young people to vote candidates who are committed to solving Liberia’s education problems”.
“Liberia belongs to every Liberian and as such we are calling on the Ministry of Education to bring back our civic education”, Julue expressed. He maintained that an effective civic education curriculum teaches students about their rights and responsibilities as citizens, as well as how government works. “I am of the strong conviction that if government can re-introduce civic education in all public schools, it will definitely enable us to build our knowledge to actively participate in the decision-making process”.
”Civic education was an established part of our curriculum in social studies’’, said Jasper Moore, age 20. ”But in Liberia today not all students learn the fundamentals that give us a clear picture on how government functions, the laws of our country and our own role as citizens. As a result, we see a lot of confusion and conflict during campaign season. We are yet see things happening that lead us to making wrong decisions on voting day”.
“We’re going to elect those who will decide how we spend our country money in 2020 and 2023, so if we don’t get proper and adequate education on how to go about this whole elections business…we will again elect the wrong people, and we will suffer on bad roads, suffer poor health system and poor education,” soon to be first-time voter Moore continued. “I did not meet the voting age in the previous elections, but I’m now qualified by virtue of the Constitution of Liberia and I made it a point to register.”
For George D. Appleton, age 22 and another eager first-time voter, “taking an active role in society is vital… We have to be taught this at a young age.” He believes that a vibrant civics education curriculum is key to helping students develop into citizens who are prepared to speak up and take action to make a difference in their communities and nation. “I think we’re in a cultural moment [that calls for] for civics education,” he said.
Lucia G. Goffah, a teacher at the East Harper Elementary School and Early Childhood Development student at the William V.S. Tubman University, is in strong agreement about the value of and need for civics throughout Liberian grade schools.
She described civic education as the best way to promote patriotism. Students gain an understanding of their own country, how government runs and the functions and responsibilities of elected officials. According to Ms. Goffah, the pro-active and inter-disciplinary teaching of civics across Liberia and more specifically, across all subject areas, should be prioritized. As she explained, “Social Studies class offers opportunities to discuss how the Liberian government works, how institutions have changed over time, and the potential impact of policies on populations that are marginalized. Mathematics offers chances to explore voting rates among different segments of the population, and so on”.
She sees an opportunity for civic knowledge to boost critical thinking skills when it comes to election rhetoric or propaganda, campaign promises, and other aspects of responsible citizenship. “I’ve heard from parents, teachers, and politicians who are worried about students’ ability to evaluate information that they come across online,” she continued. “Teaching students how to separate a fact from an opinion, how to verify a claim they may see on social media, and how to find trusted sources of news are all critical skills they need now.”
Eddie M. Williams, a twenty-one-year-old resident of the Hardy Street Community, described both the 2020 and 2023 elections as crucial because knowledgeable new voters could occasion a transition or a stay of regime. “My happiness as a first-time voter doesn’t mean I am not evaluating the candidates by their platforms. I listen to the radio and I read their flyers and I am encouraging my friends to do the same,” he said.