The October 10 Liberian election was significant to Liberia, Africa and the future of democracy for diverse reasons. Key amongst them was the fact that this was the first time, post-war Liberia will witness a peaceful democratic transition from one democratically elected government to another if things don’t go south. Secondly, it was an election determined by the youth who turned out to vote for their preferred candidate. The resilience they demonstrated despite the challenges they faced in during election was unprecedented.
Demographically, Liberia has a predominant youth population. The youth share of the country’s 4,299,944 population is estimated at 65%. According to the National Electoral Commission, 2,183,629 registered to vote in all fifteen counties. With a median age of 18, Liberia is one of Africa’s youngest population with high levels of poverty and unemployment owing to two decades of war (1989–1996 and 1997–2003) occasioning collapse of state infrastructure and poor economic growth. Over the last 12 years, the country experience massive reconstruction under the incumbent President, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Africa’s first female President. Though the country is peaceful, the tension between the natives and settlers still persists. Ex-combatants and dissidents of the war still left on the sidelines. Youth dependency ratio is as high as 77.4%. All these culminated into threats that could slide the country into another era of political instability but this was not the case during the 1st round of the Presidential election.
Recent trends indicate a decline in citizens trust and faith in democracy and democratic institutions. The level of youth engagement in the 2017 Liberian elections perhaps provide a contradiction to this trend as young people were visibly supporting democratic institutions like electoral commission, police, to deliver on their mandate. The political campaigns saw thousands of young people engaged in mobilizing party supporter although one cannot ascertain whether they were card carrying members of the parties but their presence and impact was apparent. What is more astonishing is the way they deploy their energy to cover long kilometers on foot in support for their preferred candidate or party.
Since the commencement of the election campaigns, young people provided leadership in all aspects of the election process. Beginning with voter and civic education, a lot of youth groups were involved in mobilization and public enlightenment campaigns using diverse innovative communication tools. The youth-led groups were so critical to the process that the National Electoral Commission wholly relied on them for public outreach. Groups like NAYMOTE- Partners for Democratic Development and Federation of Liberian Youth visibly reached out to voters to vote. NAYMOTE had a special program targeted at the 108,000 first time voters, educating them on the voting procedure and nonviolent electoral participation. The nook and crannies of Liberia were adorned with billboards and posters with election messaging designed and targeted at youths. Youths also took to the airwaves using radio, music and street theatres for voter sensitization and issue-based participation. The enthusiasm, commitment, and innovation displayed by the youth of Liberia is what democracy needs to thrive.
Electoral integrity was critical to the success of elections and the Liberian youth contributed in no small measure to its integrity. The NEC relied heavily on the youth to administer the polls. On an average estimate, over 90% of the 5,390 polling places in the 2,080 precincts were managed by young people. The integrity, patriotism and commitment they exhibited was critical for the success of the elections and consolidation of democracy in Liberia. In Liberia, instead of the security forces accompanying the electoral materials, young people took responsibility for securing the materials. In fact, when I posed the question to them in Bong, where I observed the elections, they answered back ‘‘we the youths are the security of the election materials, we are securing it ourselves’.
The involvement of young people in the Liberian elections was not limited to working as election officers but they contributed to the success of electoral activities throughout the electoral cycle. They served as long term observers providing oversight on key electoral activities like voter registration, display of voter roll, candidate nomination and selection process and deployment of electoral materials. The Liberian Election Observers Network comprising Federation of Liberian Youth, Liberia Crusaders for Peace, Justice and Peace Commission and the National Union of Organizations of the Disabled deployed 133 long-term election observers, predominantly young people in all 73 electoral districts since June 2017. The Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC) also deployed 2000 observers for the elections. Most of its observers are young people. These young people watched the votes to ensure the will of the people prevails and it did actually.
It was obvious there was national consensus amongst the youth of Liberia to sustain the peace. The level of literacy may be low, unemployment and corruption may be on a record high but the Liberian youth understood what they want and they had firm belief, only democracy can deliver, it not guns, machetes or any other weapons. Bravo to the Liberian youth for making a bold statement that young people are not agents of destabilization but agents of democratic consolidation. The November 7 run-off election is fast approaching and it presents another opportunity to raise the bar. I hope the youth will rise in defense of democracy once more.
Samson Itodo is an elections and constitution building enthusiast. He is the Executive Director of the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement (YIAGA). Send comments and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org He tweets @DSamsonItodo