By Samuka V. Konneh
Authorities of the National Election Commission (NEC), with support from USAID through the Liberia Media Development Program, engaged high school press clubs on electoral reform at a debate organized by the Youth Media Action (YMA) on Friday, June 14, 2019.
The high school debate, held at the Montserrado YMCA on Broad Street, brought together several schools face-to-face with Cllr. Sarah M. Jegede-Toe, NEC Co-chairperson, who provided facts, gave feedback and a greater context for what electoral reform is all about as part of a learning process for aspiring journalists in press clubs at various schools.
Cllr. Jegede-Toe, encouraged the students and aspiring journalists (aged 7-18), informing them that the debate was also an opportunity for her to learn new perspectives about electoral reform from the high school students.
“Can you imagine that, as a commissioner of NEC, you have actually taught me something new about electoral reform? Oh yeah, I have actually been learning new things from your today’s exchanges. We at the NEC have been focusing on the four propositions, but now I know there are more to them,” she said.
Cllr. Toe was responding to one of the points the students raised during the debate; and as a former teacher herself, she was showing what learning and debate should look like, with everyone listening to each other, no matter how old or young, and no matter where they came from.
Cllr. Toe said that it is a general assumption in elections that people in general want the electoral dates changed.
She added, “We have not really been looking at the effect the potential change of date would cause in the academic calendar. We have been focusing on changing the electoral date from rainy season to dry season. So, we will take this point into consideration during our planning. Your points of arguments is really new learning for me.”
Students put fire into their presentations, which they had prepared with passion and commitment.
Fredrick Gongar, a student of Tubman High School Press Club, said: “We should not change the date of the election, because it will affect our school and academic calendar. When elections are moved to the dry season, it would mean we have to go to school during the rainy season.
“Because disputes often arise from elections; we don’t know how long it would take to adjudicate them. So, the longer the disputes, our schools will remain closed. We think the election date should remain. What we should be doing is actually to be fixing the roads to allow voting materials and election workers to reach rural areas,” Gongar said.
Melody Mezay-Ketter, communications manager at United Bank for Africa (UBA), admitted she, too, had never thought of the impact changing the date of the election would have on students’ academic schedules.
“I have been a strong supporter of changing the date of election to dry season, but I never thought of how it would affect the academic calendar. This event has exposed me to a new way of thinking about electoral reform. It means we have to look at different angles of the proposed reforms,” Mrs. Ketter said.
The YMA and Internews with Liberia Media for Democracy (LMD) team gave basic training on electoral reform, where two groups of four students that participated in the debate.
In their debut performance, some of the students stressed the need to reform certain aspects of Liberia’s existing laws, including a change in the elections date from rainy season to dry season; reduction in the tenure of elected officials like the president, vice president, representatives and senators; creation of an independent body to adjudicate electoral disputes, instead of NEC; and reduction in the voting age from 18 to 16 years.
“Let us change the voting age to allow more people to participate in the electoral process. Our labor law allows 16 year-olds to work and pay taxes; why should they not be allowed to vote? Voting is not about age, it is about maturity, and responsibility,” student Seamon Chea, from the Soltiamon Christian school system argues.
Cllr. Toe responded: “Your point about 16 years old working and paying taxes is also interesting. We have to do research on that, but let me say that we have international obligations. Eighteen years is accepted as age of consent. All the countries have 18 years as an official age of consent.”
However, it should be noted that there are countries in the world where 16 year is an official age of maturity. Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, etc have 16 year as voting age.
Jan McArthur, Internews Country Director, at the end of the event, said the form of education and citizens’ engagement perspective was more than successful.
“I am really happy, because this is really a great event. No matter which side one was on the debate, judging from the cheering and the overall excitement in the hall, I want everyone to know that it was not about winning. It was about creating space for students to exchange ideas- widening the space for national conversations that affect Liberia’s democracy and governance. We are proud that this event has successfully been able to bring people together to talk about what matters most to them,” McArthur said.
Internews provided three new mobile phones and recharge cards as prizes for the winners of the press club exhibition, with each member of the two debate teams walking away with one of the phones. The phones will help students report on events on their campuses, and other media forums organized by the LMD on electoral reform.