Unlike past elections where public debates were just a matter of formality, the pending 2017 election is seeing heated debates among candidates. Under the brand, “Ducor Debate,” the Liberia Media for Democratic Initiatives (LMDI), led by experienced Liberian journalist John Kollie, has staged a series of legislative debates in Nimba County, where hundreds of candidates are expected to contest for nine legislative seats. According to our Nimba County Correspondent Ishmael Menkor, the incumbent Representative of Nimba District #1, Jeremiah Koung, was fiercely challenged by six contestants in a heated debate, questioning him about the use of development and legislative support funds.
Menkor reported that one of the candidates, Samuel Brown, who allegedly distributed money among potential voters during voter registration last February, was conspicuously absent. An opponent graded him as “incompetent” to speak in public. The Ducor Debates continued to Sanniquellie in District #2, where incumbent Prince O.S. Tokpah faced his challengers, who by their profiles are said to be highly educated. There, too, Prince Tokpah was reported not to have answered questions posed to him, thus leaving the huge crowd that had gathered to feel disappointed and to brand him as “incompetent.”
This trend in our election process, if taken seriously by voters, will cause election decision making not to be based on family or social connections, but on credible qualification, which ought to be required of ALL public officials. Additionally, effective public debates will give voters the true information about a candidate, and voters will learn to dig up information on anyone who wants to represent them, either at the legislative or presidential level. The debates in Ganta and Sanniquellie gave some sense of direction to voters to decide whether or not to retain incumbents or change them. As reported by our Correspondent, suspicious citizens were able, perhaps for the first time, to hear from their lawmaker Jeremiah Koung how county development funds have been used in the district, and what has been the impact of the legislative support fund.
There are three cardinal functions of a lawmaker: Representation, oversight and lawmaking. Many lawmakers, if not all, have not been fair to their constituents in explaining to them the use and impact of county and social development funds. Many lawmakers have always claimed that the funds expended on various projects “came from my pocket.” This was the case with Representative Koung, which his opponents openly questioned him about. ‘Yes, schools, hand pumps, clinics, among others, were built by you as you claimed, but which one can be pointed out as a project implemented by the Executive Branch?’ That led Representative Koung to invite his opponents on a tour to show them projects undertaken under his watch. The debate also enabled many Nimba District #2 voters to learn what their Representative Prince Tokpah had been doing among his colleagues in the House. The Legislature is a place where men and women debate and make their independent judgments on issues to impact the country. It, therefore, calls for a competent man or woman to go there to represent his/her constituents.
The recent debate showed that incumbent Rep. Prince Tokpah could not answer questions from his contenders; neither could he convince voters why they need to reelect him. For the last two periods of democratic elections (2005 and 2011) in our country, voters were confused as to who to elect because of the multiplicity of contestants. Currently there are 925 candidates, including incumbents, contesting the 73 electoral districts in Liberia. Amid this huge number of candidates, the ongoing debates will enable voters to evaluate each candidate, which will give voters clearer insights on how to decide who is the best candidate to elect.
We, therefore, believe that LMDI and its partners have undertaken a laudable initiative to bring political candidates closer to voters through debates. We hope that this and other such initiatives would extend to presidential candidates, who will be invited to come out and tell the Liberian people what plans they have to move Liberia substantially forward.