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Liberia’s Healthy Appetite for Political Debate

2011 October 7
Liberia elections

Senatorial candidates debate the issues of the day at the University of Liberia in Monrovia (photos: Lindsay Forslund)

By Lindsay Forslund

It was 9am but the heat was already overwhelming and the energy and excitement on campus palpable.  I arrived an hour early to the senatorial debates that were being held at the University of Liberia, in hopes to interview some students around their feelings on the role of civil society and media in the electoral process.

The senatorial debates are part of an ongoing effort by the ECC (Election Coordinating Committee), which is being chaired by Search for Common Ground.  The ECC is a civil society platform that was created to monitor Liberia’s 2011 Electoral cycle.  The aim of the organization is to promote credible elections and increase public confidence in democracy.

With the second democratic elections in Liberia since the end the fourteen-year civil war, set for this coming Tuesday October 11, 2011, the country is charged with a powerful political energy. You cannot get into a taxi, pass a street vendor or sit down at a restaurant without overhearing an animated conversation about the political campaigning and processes that have been taking place since the referendum in August.

Coming from a political climate in Canada where it feels like youth have less and less of an appetite for politics, it is not only refreshing, but reassuring to see the enthusiasm and commitment Liberian youth are investing in the political process. It was not so long ago that bullets not ballots were the most popular means to power. Liberians, and in particular Liberian youth seem committed to ensuring Liberia as a nation moves in a direction of peace and opportunity for the generations to come.

Minus a brief interruption in the power, the senatorial debates ran smoothly.  The three candidates from Montserrado County were asked a variety of question on topics such as: the introduction of a 30% quota for women’s participation in politics, the continued need for more free and accessible education, improved vocational training, how to address the lack of power and the need to combat the high infant morality rate. The answers given by each candidate were varying but the underlying message and tone of every response was clear and had a common theme – Liberia is a country that still needs a great deal of development in every sector, and prioritizing these needs will not be an easy task.  What is apparent is the fact that after years of having governments fuelled by corruption and supported by impunity, Liberia cannot afford to support anyone with an agenda that includes political self-interest.

Liberia elections

Posters demonstrate and instruct on proper voting procedures.

After the moderator finished with the set of predetermined questions he opened the floor to the audience.  The first question asked, was one that has been fueling many of the political discussion around the city this past week; it is about civil liberties and press freedom. A standard bearer in one of the opposition parties was quoted by the press saying that “civil liberties and press freedom was not the top priority” of his party.  Most Liberians, having known what it is like to have their civil liberties trampled on are extremely protective and defensive when it comes to this topic. Although they may sympathize with the difficulty

of trying to prioritize where to focus resources, time and money, they are certainly not prepared to lose sight of the growing the spirit of political freedom.  Understanding this, the senatorial candidate, who is a member of the party whose standard bearer made the initial comment wisely replied, “ If elected we will allow freedom of speech and be partners to the press and we understand that civil liberties are a must!”

If these senatorial debates, and the kind of open dialogue and commitment to freedom of expression that I have witnessed at the University of Liberia are any indication of the level of commitment Liberians, political actors and media have towards maintaining these gains, I have no doubt that Liberia will continue to grow and cultivate a very healthy political appetite.


Lindsay Forslund is an international intern working with SFCG in Liberia. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in  Gender and Peace Building at the United Nations Mandated University for Peace in San José, Costa Rica.

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