By Samuka V. Konneh
MONROVIA – Cllr. Sarah M. Jegede-Toe is co-chairperson of Liberia’s national elections commission (NEC). As part of high-level collaboration between the NEC and the USAID funded Liberia Media Development Program, Commissioner Toe attended a student debate on electoral reform organized by Youth Media Action (YMA) on Friday at the YMCA on Broad Street. Her mission, listen, provide the facts, and give feedback and greater context for what electoral reform is all about as part of a learning process for aspiring journalists in schools press clubs.
But to everyone’s amazement, despite her extensive expertise, she offered encouragement and confidence to the young students, and aspiring journalists (aged 7-18) telling them that this was also an opportunity for her to learn new perspectives about electoral reform from students in high school.
“Can you imagine that as a commissioner of NEC, you, students, have actually taught me something new about electoral reform? Ohh yeah, I have actually been learning new things from your exchanges here today. We at the Commission have been focusing on the four propositions; but now I know there is more to it,” she said.
Cllr. Toe was responding to one of the points raised by students during the debate, and as a former teacher 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 you come from.
In the debate, students put some fire into their presentations, which they had clearly prepared with passion and commitment. Fredrick Gongar of Tubman High School Press Club said “We should not change the elections date 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 raining 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 workers to reach rural areas.”
Cllr. Toe noted that it is a general assumption in elections that people in gender want dates changed. She noted “we haven’t really been looking at the effect the potential change of date would cause your academic calendar. We’ve been focusing on changing the date from raining season to dry. So, we will take this point into consideration during our planning. This is rally new learning for me.”
The commissioner wasn’t alone in her excitement and new knowledge. Melody Mezay-Ketter, communications manager at United Bank for Africa (UBA) admitted she too had never thought of the impact changing the elections date 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 academic calendar. This event has exposed me to new way of think about electoral reform. It means we have to look at different angles of the different reforms we’re proposing,” she said. Melody is one of four judges at the exhibition.
This public show of support and declaration that young people can show new ways of thinking was empowering for the students and a testimony to the commitment both Cllr. Toe and Melody showed young people on Friday, listening to, and endorsing their views.
Two groups of four students participated in the debate. They were given basic training and education on electoral reform by YMA and the Internews LMD team. Team Change argued in their debut performance the need to reform certain aspects of Liberia’s existing laws, including a change in the elections date from raining season to dry season; reduction in the tenue of elected officials like president, vice president, representatives and senators; creation of an independent body to adjudicate elections disputes instead of NEC; and reduction in the voting age from eighteen to sixteen.
But Team Continuity argued otherwise – insisting that laws are not Liberia’s problem. “Reducing the tenure of elected officials will eventually increase the frequency of elections in Liberia. This will only complicate our economic burden. More elections mean more spending. Moreover, if the president cannot develop Liberia in six years, can he or she do it in four years? We say a big no,” student Elijah Zarzar of the Paynesville Seventh Day Adventist High School says.
“Let’s change the voting age to allow more people participate in the election. Our labor law allows 16yrs olds to work and pay taxes, why shouldn’t they be allowed to vote? Voting is not about age, it’s about maturity and responsibility,” student Seamon Chea from Soltiamon Christian school System argues.
Cllr. Toe responded: “Your point about 16yrs olds working and paying taxes is also interesting. We have to do a research on that. But let me say this – we have international obligations as well. Eighteen years is a generally accepted as age of consent. All the countries have 18yrs as an official age of consent.”
However, it should be noted that there are countries in the world where 16yrs is an official age of maturity. Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua among others have 16yr as voting age.
Well, as heated as the debate may have seemed, it was only a mock event to stimulate students’ thinking; and to provide a platform for them to have mature conversations about issues that affect them, especially when some are already either at or approaching voting age.
The Country Director of Internews surmised at the end of the event that from an educational and citizen engagement perspective it was more than successful and impactful. “I am really happy. This is really a great event. No matter where you stood on the debate today, judging from the cheering and overall excitement in the hall, I want you to know that it wasn’t about winning. It was about creating the space for students to exchange ideas – widening the space for national conversations that affect Liberia’s democracy and governance. We’re proud that this event has successfully been able to do that – bring people together to talk about what matters most to them,” Jan McArthur.
Internews provided three new mobile phones and recharge cards as prizes. Winner of the press club exhibition got one while each of the two debate teams took away one phone. The phones will help students report on events on their campuses as well as from community media forums organized by the LMD on electoral reform. Stories will be published on their school press club pages, which Internews and YMA also helped to set up.
The debate among students is part of YMA’s annual National Press Club Exhibition. Since April, Internews has been providing series of technical support to YMA, including a curriculum development training, training of trainers for its staff on effective facilitation; and an intensive journalism training for press club members. Internews’ support to YMA is part of CLEAR, which is rolled out as part of the Liberia Media Development (LMD) program with funding from USAID. CLEAR is USAID’s Citizens in Liberia Engaged to Advance Electoral Reform project.
As a continuation of the above collaboration, Internews will support YMA to train at least forty students from twenty schools in Montserrado and Nimba counties – with basic journalism and electoral reform taking center stage.
Internews support to the YMA has never unnoticed. “Before I met Internews, we held our training under very extreme circumstances – no food, no water, no electricity. We ourselves as trainers have serious limitations. But today, here we are, having activities under the best of circumstances that enhance learning. We’re grateful to Internews. Not many international development choose to work with very small local institutions like us. The criterial alone are. Internews, thank you,” Varmah A. Kamara, YMA executive director.
Friday’s Exhibition and electoral reform debate brought together an audience of close to one hundred people, including representatives from USAID. The event was also broadcast live on USAID Liberia Facebook page through Truth FM.