Early in the morning on August 23, 2017, many people were still in bed as the voice of a middle-aged man carrying a megaphone echoed across the historic town of Butuo, Liberia. Situated north of Nimba County, just on the edge of the Ivorian border, the town received a message that they would be host to the first-ever debate for candidates wanting to represent the region in Liberia’s third post-conflict presidential and legislative elections.
About 8am, the middle of the town was already flooded with eager residents wanting to take a glance at the Jeep, mounted with loudspeakers, vibrating information about the debate and the importance of citizens’ participation to make informed decision at the polls.
‘’I am over happy to witness this historic event taking place in our town for the first time. Thank God we are talking democracy in Butuo not war because this is the birth place of the Liberian civil war that killed thousands of innocent people. People only remember Butuo when you talk about the war years, but the story is different today as we host a debate that will help citizens vote for the right candidate for this region,” beamed 59-year-old Butuo resident Joseph Dahn, Nimba County.
Town Chief Saye Gbartuah expressed his anticipation of a peaceful electoral process in his welcoming statement at the jam-packed Butuo town hall.
“This is my first time seeing individuals who wish to represent us coming together to share their platforms and why we should entrust them with leadership. Years back, the decision to select leaders in this region was left to a few powerful people, but today’s gathering suggests things are changing now in Liberia. People hoping to lead us can sit and discuss their plans with the citizens. I think this process alone will help to direct the election in a more peaceful direction. We really appreciate the presence of this debate team in Butuo despite of the bad roads and heavy rain.”
A high-stakes, unprecedented approach to local politics
The debates targeted 984 candidates contesting legislative positions for the House of Representatives in the National Legislature. Nearly 90% of the candidates attended the two-to-three-hour debates in front of audiences from each district, reaching more than 23,000 citizens in person, including 5,901 women and 16,292 men. The debates were broadcast live and then rebroadcast up to 10 times each, adding up to more than 500 re-broadcasts.
This historic and ambitious project was rolled out by the Internews USAID Liberia Media Development program in partnership with 35 local radio stations, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), Liberia Media Development Initiative (LMDI) and the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP). The grand idea was no less than to encourage more participatory politics. The bar could not have been set higher.
While pursuing these lofty ideals, Internews and local partners also had to face the fact that the candidates debating, the audiences watching, and the elections observers gave little thought to the journalistic and societal “capacity-building” aims of the whole project. Many local radio stations and journalists had never moderated or broadcast issues-focused debates before or thought about ensuring balance and objectivity with equal time for all candidates.
Implementation of the debates was additionally challenging due to accessibility and poor infrastucture exercabated by the conditions of the roads in wet season, poor communication networks, and a national memory of elections debates being personality-driven. Notwithstanding, the outcomes of the debates were lauded by citizens and candidates. A Maryland Lower House candidate noted:
“I admire the able and transparent manner in which the debate was held, giving each candidate the time and space to interact with our people. I believe with the huge turnout of the electorate, our vibrant and young democracy is getting better.”
A different atmosphere in elections season
“I have participated in elections twice before, but never had the opportunity to engage with citizens in such a forum, to share my vision and aspirations for this district. I admit, I felt a bit apprehensive when I initially got the invitation to attend this debate and nearly declined, but I built the courage to be at this forum. I really appreciate the issue-based approach for this debate, rather than being confrontational or a personality contest. It gave me the opportunity to make my case to the voters why I should be elected in this district, said Barbara Ballah-Wilson, the lone female representative candidate running on the Alternative National Congress (ANC) ticket in Lofa County Electoral District 5.
The nationwide debate process not only allowed voters face-to-face interactions with candidates, they also helped to rekindle the interest of citizens in the electoral activities. Internews conducted focus groups with audience members after the debates who noted they felt the debates enabled them to hold the candidates accountable for their promises once in office. They also appreciated seeing candidates engage respectfully with each other and citizens and in a peaceful forum. This they noted contributed to a peaceful elections process.
“These debate activities seem to be generating lots of interest across the country and increasing the confidence of voters in electoral the system. This was not my experience during the voter registration period early this year. Many people at the time said they were not interested and did not register, but this is gradually changing the other way,” said Lasana Dukuly, head of a local civic action group in Gbarnga, Bong County.
Before the rollout of the nationwide debate series, Internews in partnership with PUL, CEMESP and LMDI ran three regional training workshops in Monrovia, Gbarnga and Ganta for more than 60 journalists in debate design and moderation, to ensure a consistent and constructive approach across the nation.
The Internews LMD program delivered more than 20 additional training workshops to ensure journalists had a clear understanding of electoral issues, and prepare them to stage additional debates that could provide all candidates the space to articulate their platforms to voters. Internews also worked with the PUL to consult, revise and circulate an elections reporting code of conduct.
“The media has crucial role to play in the ongoing electoral process. For candidates and voters, journalists have a primary objective to be impartial and not take sides, but to ensure balance and equal access for all candidates in the coverage of the electoral activities,” said Jan McArthur, Internews Chief of Party in Liberia.
“Media can help the electorate make informed judgments,” she said, underscoring the need for a proactive, vibrant and unbiased media to sustain democratic governance in Liberia.
The October 10 presidential and legislative elections were crucial to Liberia – the new government will mark the country’s first democratic transition in more than forty years where a sitting president peacefully transfers power to election winners.
The past two elections, in 2005 and 2011, were heavily supported and financed by the international community, with UNMIL taking the lead in the process. 2017’s elections were the first conducted independently by Liberia.
Jefferson Massah is Community Radio Advisor for Internews in Liberia. Under the Liberia Media Development Program, supported by USAID, Internews provides capacity-building support to 21 media outlets across the country.