… only making tensions higher, Maryland County religious leaders say
By Moses Geply
Ahead of the 2020 senatorial and 2023 general and presidential elections, several religious leaders in Maryland County are appealing to the government of Liberia through the National Election Commission to revisit allowances for the participation of political parties in the electoral process. Speaking in the interest of Muslim and Christian voters in the communities they serve, the leaders expressed concerns about the ill effects of the overwhelming number of political parties and candidates.
Maryland has a unique history among Liberian counties. Named after the American state of Maryland, it has been both a colony of an American society (1834-1854) and an independent country known as the Republic of Maryland (1854-1857). An 1857 referendum resulted in the decision for the Republic to join the nation of Liberia. From that time up to today, the argument could be made that Maryland has fallen far, and even, has become the least of Liberia’s fifteen counties. The great distance from Monrovia puts Marylanders at a disadvantage when it comes to many aspects of national governance, including public spending, prioritization of county needs and inclusion in the developmental agenda.
According to the last population and housing census conducted in Liberia (2008), the county is home to 135,938 individuals who live in the following districts: Gwelekpoken, Harper, Karluway #1, Karluway #2, Nyorken, Pleebo/Sodoken, and Whojah. The most populous city is Pleebo, with 22,963 residents. Like other Liberian counties, Maryland has many religious communities. It currently hosts over 40 churches and 7 mosques.
Maryland County Chief Imam, Mohamed Sheriff, has overall responsibility for guiding, advising an advocating for the county’s Muslim citizens and residents. He has given serious thought to the effects of existing election guidelines and procedures. “What I think is the problem is this plenty party business in Liberia is really affecting the judgements we take during elections period, and as such we need to do something about it”.
According to Chief Imam Sheriff, the electorate finds it difficult to choose from among the many political parties and politicians on the ballot papers for a number of reasons. First, the majority of citizens do not know or recognize all these names; further, many voters struggle to read. He stressed that not only does this state of affairs ‘sometimes creates some embarrassment’, but also results in ‘invalid votes’. As he pointed out, how can you expect somebody who cannot read and write to legitimately participate in the electoral process without undergoing proper civic education?
“We are not condemning the multi-party system. Our religion accepts that democratic policy”. But, he continued, “The way I see elections in Liberia now, it is like you are asking an A-B-C student to read the Liberia National Anthem after four counts.”
For his part, Rev. Cyrus Tugbeh, a leader in the county’s Christian community and Head of the Mount Scott Methodist Church in Harper, noted that the multiplicity of political parties has its own tendency to create not only embarrassment, but misunderstanding among voters and constituencies during elections.
“When you look at our situation, it seems that sometimes we do not know what we are doing’. He stated that though our constitution provides room for many political parties, we also need to now make room for electoral reform “when it comes to Liberian politics” because the current situation “divides Liberians and undermines the development and peace we are enjoying today.”
Rev. Tugbe argued that instead of aiding voters in choosing the right people to lead, as was intended, the multi-party system has instead upturned animosity among communities and citizens. He believes that the electoral process has become ‘awkward’ and has gone so far as to speak of the multi-party system as a ‘trick’ set by politicians of today who are more concerned about their wellbeing than the condition of the ordinary people who have elected them.
“I think we (ordinary citizens and religious leaders) should work to guide the process by regulating the multi-party system and the number of political parties participating in elections. Citizens should seek to control the system as a means of guarding against the wrong people coming to leadership.”
Chief Imam Sheriff noted that although our country fought long and hard to attain a multi-party system (Liberia’s first multi-party elections took place October 15, 1985 with four political parties contesting), the crowded political landscape has now become a contributing factor to conflict in the country. “The current political crisis, and economic challenges Liberia and its people are experiencing today, is derived from too much political parties’ issues.’ Though everyone has their constitutional rights as citizens of this country, as the head of the Maryland County mosques, I strongly believe that if this country can produce a system that encourages parties to form mergers and coalitions, limiting the number of contesting parties, Liberia will definitely rise again”.
Raymond C. Wah II, Church of Pentecost (Harper) youth leader, recommended that the National Elections Commission work with citizens to put new measures, such as better guidelines for political party activities, in place prior to the next election period. “Let me tell you, NEC has a lot of laws that are abused by politicians. Let the Commission be more serious in implementing those laws, and it will definitely reduce the number of political parties in elections”, Wah said.
While the Church youth leader did not stipulate precisely what types of guidelines or how to decrease these parties, he did say that the national electoral boy should see to it that all local election offices be proactive in engaging and educating the electorate. He appealed to citizens and civil society organizations in Harper to join in electoral reform advocacy to ensure that every citizen will be properly informed about election issues before going to the ballot.