Grassroots Alternative Movement urges government, citing absence of required civic education and that it would be a potential waste of resources
Grassroots Alternative Movement (GAM), a Liberian owned civil society group based in Liberia and the United States, has called on the Government of Liberia to postpone the upcoming national referendum, which is expected to be held parallel with Senatorial mid-term elections on December 8 this year.
The referendum, which should have been held since 2018, was deferred due to what the government claims as “lack of finance” to facilitate the process. It has four propositions; change of presidential tenure from six (6) years to five (5) years, Senatorial tenure from nine (9) to seven (7) years; Representatives from six (6) to five (5) years, as well as the right to Dual Citizenship.
This referendum that the Executive branch, headed by the President, has already begun propagating, has propositions that seem contradictory to majority views solicited during the Constitution Review in 2014. According to the final document compiled by the Constitution Review Committee (CRC), Liberians agreed to four years for the President and Representatives instead of six, and six for Senators instead of nine. Dual Citizenship has been pleaded for by Liberians in the Diaspora, but Liberians living here are skeptical that dual citizenship would give foreigners including Lebanese and Indians to the edge to claim more land from the impoverished citizens, thereby making them be strangers in their own land. Liberians at home also contend that, with dual citizenship, Liberians in the diaspora would use it to get financially capacitated in government to support families in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world.
Grassroots Alternative Movement, a registered social justice, political and advocacy organization committed to “Building a just society in Liberia with the tenets of fair play, equality, and justice,” claims that there has been hardly any awareness about the referendum so that Liberians will fully understand the propositions to see how beneficial they will be.
Josiah F. Joekai, Jr., GAM Executive Chairman, reading the organization’s statement in a Zoom meeting, told reporters that one of the reasons for separating the Senatorial Elections from the Referendum is: “If the Senatorial Election and the Referendum are held together, the Senatorial Election will take away the meaning and enthusiasm of the referendum because the Senatorial Election is the single highest subject of national discussion at the moment and the Referendum will definitely become a side issue with very less interest.”
“In that case, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to know that people will have less interest in the referendum, thereby bringing a low turnout as we saw in the last Referendum in 2011. As such, GAM believes that if any of those crucial Propositions is passed, it will not meet the mandate of the Liberian people,” he told reporters.
Joekai said if the two elections are not separated, it is also possible that none of those propositions will even receive two-third votes as required and, as such, GAM believes that the National Election Commission (NEC) does not have the required timeframe at its disposal and full capacity to adequately educate and inform Liberians, especially eligible voters, on the propositions, steps, and procedures of the Senatorial Election and the Referendum.
According to him, the NEC has depended on short-term awareness and sensitization activities during electioneering periods, adding that although the strategy has worked to a certain extent for regular elections, they believe the education associated with the Referendum is much more complicated and requires adequate preparation.
“We are all aware the country does not have a national mechanism in place with the capacity to conduct sustained civic education, particularly teaching the Constitution in keeping with Article 10 to make citizens aware of these Constitutional matters in a way that they know their rights, roles, and responsibilities to contribute to the governance of the country,” Joekai said.
Joekai said: “Article 10 of the 1986 Constitution provides that the Constitution shall be published and disseminated with its principles taught in institutions of learning across the country. Sadly, this has not happened and the gap therefrom has had serious implications for governance and growth of democracy in Liberia. The entrenched voter apathy in the country is a good example, and the forthcoming Election and Referendum, if held as planned, will also record a very low turnout, particularly for the Referendum.”
He said as an issues-based election, the ballots carry symbols with corresponding scripts to identify, read and vote; adding that with the very limited timeframe for education, information dissemination, mobilization of resources, and deployment of logistics, combining with this Senatorial Election and this important Referendum is impossible.
Joekai said forcing the Senatorial Election and the Referendum together may actually undermine the Referendum, thereby defeating these crucial national decisions as enshrined in the Referendum Propositions; Dual Citizenship, Reduction of Tenure of the President, Vice President, and members of the Legislature, and the Date of Election.
“If we insist on holding this essential national decision-making process alongside the Senatorial Election, there’s a high likelihood that we will not succeed. If this Referendum is defeated as a result of low turnout or other reasons, it will be difficult to reintroduce these same Propositions for future referenda,” he said.
Joekai said learning from the recent past, the 2011 President and Legislative Elections that were combined with the Referendum clearly defeated the purpose of the crucial Propositions that were in the Referendum.
“Liberians went to the polls on August 23, 2011 to vote to amend a proposal to reduce by half the ten-year residency requirement for presidential candidates, a proposal to change constitutionally mandated general elections date, a proposal to extend the retirement age of judges from 70 to 75, and to amend a proposal that requires that elections to the public office be won by a simple majority, and not by an absolute majority. Unlike the referendum, the elections attracted tremendous attention and took away attention from the referendum and made it a side issue completely only because political parties and candidates spent almost all of their time campaigning for the offices they sought with very limited or no interest in the referendum,” he said.
Of the total of 1.7 million registered voters that year, he said only 615,203 voted for the referendum, causing the NEC to count the votes in the referendum and announced that none of the four prepositions received the required two-thirds votes of the total votes cast.
Joekai said ignoring the experience of the 2011 General Elections and Referendum and heading into the 2020 Senatorial election and Referendum will cause the nation another round of waste of precious time and resources.
“No ballots have been designed and produced yet, civic and voter education materials have not been designed and produced, regional consultations with citizens on the symbols and scripts for the ballots have not been conducted, and civic educators have not been recruited, trained and deployed; the fact that these key activities have not happened, postponing the Referendum should not be an issue,” he said.