In Liberia, President Sirleaf is set to stand down this October and first time voters will sway Liberia’s future. Our Deputy CEO, Tom Burke, meets peer educators taking to the streets to encourage young people to register to vote.
As recent events in The Gambia have shown, African elections can be a bittersweet affair. Whilst hope and promises of reform and change are bandied about, the fear of leaders over-staying their mandate or civil unrest can often be close to mind. For Liberia, with memories of civil war etched in many minds, that fear is real.
In Liberia preparations for a peaceful and successful Presidential and Legislator elections in October are in full swing. The current incumbent, Africa’s first female democratically elected President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has indicated she will stand down at the end of her Constitutional limit. Registration to vote opened on February 1st and will continue until March 7th. After this, candidates will be announced and campaigning will begin.
In the bustling slums ways of Monrovia, the Liberia YMCA Peer Educators are taking time away from spreading their usual messages of health, hygiene and vocational training. Instead, they are joining others in a gargantuan effort to register young people to vote.
Laurence Fahnbulleh is the YMCA Community Development worker in West Point, one of the busiest slums in Monrovia. Home to over 75,000 people, the slum is squashed between the busting metropolis on one side and escalating sea erosion on the other. With few recreational activities, poor access to water or basic services and high youth unemployment, it is a key space to engage young people.
Laurence explains that the young people here both disillusioned and disenfranchised. “Literacy is a big problem. People do not know how to vote or understand the posters of the Politicians. It can be difficult to motivate them to get involved in democracy when it can feel so distant from their lives.”
“We sensitise the people: if we want change we need to go to the ballot box. Our youth advocates are using the voter registration period to give the young people the opportunity to be heard.”
“A challenge is to make sure that people register in their area. Here you need to register in your area. It’s a worry that maybe trucks will come and offer people money to register elsewhere. We try and tell people to register here. Make a decision here on what people can do for us here. Registering elsewhere undermines our democracy. Things won’t change in West Point if we all vote elsewhere.”
How the Government tackles the youth unemployment crisis will be heavily affected by the election and the stability it can bring. In Liberia, under 30 year-olds make up nearly half the population and more in many slum communities. If, and how, they vote in the elections will impact on the country for years to come.
For Laurence and the team of over 60 young advocates, they are doing what they can to ensure everyone claims their right to vote and make a claim for the change they want to see. “For us the message is clear: Stay here, Vote here, Change here.”