…the Liberian youth understood what they wanted and they had the firm belief that only democracy could deliver this, not guns, machetes or any other weapons. Bravo to the Liberian youth for making a bold statement that young people are not agents of destabilisation but of democratic consolidation.
The October 10 Liberian elections 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 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 percent. According to the National Electoral Commission, 2,183,629 registered to vote in all the fifteen counties. With a median age of 18, Liberia is one of Africa’s youngest populations, with high levels of poverty and unemployment owing to two decades of war (1989–1996 and 1997–2003) occasioning the collapse of state infrastructure and poor economic growth. Over the last 12 years, the country experienced massive reconstruction under the incumbent president, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Africa’s first female head of state. Although the country is peaceful, the tension between the natives and settlers still persists. Ex-combatants and dissidents of the war are still left on the sidelines. The youth dependency ratio is as high as 77.4 percent. All these have culminated into threats that could slide the country into another era of political instability, yet this was not the case during the first round of the just past presidential election.
Recent trends indicate a decline in the trust and faith of citizens in democracy and democratic institutions. The level of youth engagement in the 2017 Liberian elections perhaps provides a contradiction to this trend, as young people were visibly supporting democratic institutions like the electoral commission and the police, to deliver on their mandates. The political campaigns saw thousands of young people engaged in mobilising party supporters, although one could not ascertain whether they were card carrying members of the parties, but their presence and impact were apparent. What is more astonishing is the way they deployed their energies to cover long kilometres on foot in support of their preferred candidates or parties.
Since the commencement of the election campaigns, young people have provided leadership in all aspects of the electoral process. Beginning with voters’ and civic education, a lot of youth groups were involved in mobilisation 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 exercise their suffrage. NAYMOTE had a special programme 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 bill boards and posters, with election messaging designed and targeted at the youth, who also took to the airwaves using radio, music and street theatres for voter sensitisation and issues-based participation. The enthusiasm, commitment and innovation displayed by the youth of Liberia is what democracy needs to thrive.
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”.
Electoral integrity was critical to the success of elections and the Liberian youth contributed in no small measure to this. The NEC relied heavily on the youth to administer the polls. On an average estimate, over 90 percent 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 the voter roll, the candidate nomination and selection processes, 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 Organisations 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 prevailed, and it did actually.
It was obvious there was a 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 wanted and they had the firm belief that only democracy could deliver this, not guns, machetes or any other weapons. Bravo to the Liberian youth for making a bold statement that young people are not agents of destabilisation but 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.