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Bomi: Uncertainty Over The Referendum As Politician Discourages People from Voting

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One of the referendum propositions seeks to reduce the term in office for elected officials, but House Representative Edwin Melvin Snowe said that he is telling his supporters and citizens of Bomi county not to vote in the referendum. However, Snowe is seeking votes for a Senate seat.

Liberia gears up for the special senatorial election, two by-elections for the House and a national referendum to be conducted on December 8, 2020, in less than three weeks. But as the National Elections Commission (NEC), the main organizing body, speeds ahead with the plans, more and more people speak up against holding the referendum on the scheduled date in order to allow more time for voter education.

The national referendum seeks to reduce the term in office for both the Presidency and the House of Representatives from six to five years; the Senate from nine to seven years; to legalize dual citizenship or dual nationality and change the date for presidential and general elections from second Tuesday in October to second Tuesday in November, respectively.

One main complaint surrounds the issue of term in office, or tenure, for the Presidency, House and Senate officials, which are clustered under Proposition 2, and does not provide room for independent thought on each.

For instance, RepresentativeEdwin Melvin Snowe from Bomi county, who is running for a Senate seat, argued that Proposition 2 seeks to reduce tenure for members of the House of Representatives but is silent on tenure of the Speaker, currently set at six years. To become speaker for the House, one should first become elected lawmaker, meaning that while there could be a reduction in tenure for members of the House, the Speaker will not be affected, even though he effectively represents a constituency in Maryland County, southeast Liberia.

The NEC currently conducts regional civic and voter education programs across the country on all three counts. But voters struggle to understand the constitutional propositions, and especially the one that seeks to legislate dual citizenship for Liberians.

Several of these voters voiced their concerns during a one-day Community Media Forum (CMF) organized by the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP) in Gbah Jallakeh, Bomi county, western Liberia.
The forum sought to provide Liberians an opportunity to learn about the referendum and ask questions on issues that they did not understand.

Bomi voter, Morris S. Konah, believed that the referendum is rushed and lack of knowledge on how to vote may lead to many invalid ballots.

“As far as I see this referendum, the counts that are on this paper, I think that [they are ] very belated and I want to ask the Elections Commission to postpone this referendum for now because awareness is low and time is very short; our people are not educated on how to carry out this awareness. If this referendum goes on, we will have too many damaged ballot papers during the election,” Konah said.

Another participant and resident of Gbah Jallakeh, Saah S. Sheriff, believed that naturalized Liberian should be allowed the opportunity to run for seats in the country’s Legislative body.

“The proposition that talks about dual citizenship, if it goes into law, as a naturalized citizen of Liberia, there are certain positions that you can’t [run] for; for example, [you] will not be allowed to run for the positions of senator and representative, as it is now in America, where some naturalized American won seats. I believe this is one of the areas we should look at to avoid future problem, more awareness needs to be done and the time is short.”

Titus M. Wleh, also a voter in Bomi, sees things differently relative to tenures for members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

“My concern has been drawn to two issues here, mainly from the Legislature, the Speaker normally in this country under our law, the Speaker for the House of Representatives is going for six years and the Senate is going for nine years and we will want an even number for the Speaker, who controls the Lower House.

He heads the House from six years so you have to elect the Speaker to go for the same five years because you want an even number and the issue of the pro-tempore; we will want an even number so this has to be clearly defined and well explained. The commission [NEC] has a lot to do if this referendum is to be a success,” Wleh explained.

Responding to some of the concerns, Attorney Alphonsus Zeon, one of the panelists for CMF, explained that when the Legislative passes a resolution, the referendum must take place within a year. Zeon believes that there is still enough time to conduct awareness among voters before December 8.

“The law is when the Legislature passes a resolution, the action to move forward with the referendum takes place within a year, so the legislature passed this resolution in September 2019 and in 2020, the government decides to move ahead consistent with law. They keep raising the issue of lack of awareness, but people are explaining to them; there is still enough time.”

Rep. Edwin Melvin Snowe disagreed. He claimed that voters have not been properly informed about the referendum, which is an important act of modifying the country’s supreme law: the Constitution. He insisted that more education needs to happen to inform voters on what they are asked to vote on, what, and why it is important.

He added that Proposition 2 about reducing tenures of elected officials should have been separated for the House, the Senate and the Presidency.

“I think our citizens have not been properly informed about the referendum. Referendum is a serious situation because you are changing portion of your Constitution, so we need to do more public awareness, we need [to] let the citizens know what is happening, what we want to change, why we want to change it.”

During an interactive forum with journalists at Accountability Lab in Monrovia in October, Mr. Jappah Nah, head of the Referendum organization at the NEC said that the Commission did a lot of work to make it this far in the referendum process. He noted that the Constitution sets the legal basis for organizing the Referendum and the NEC communication section will shortly roll out awareness messages across the country on the process.

The Commission is currently involved with regional public awareness on the Referendum, grouping all 15 counties based regions.

“We have been doing lot of work around this referendum that has delayed the process. It is the Constitution that sets the legal basis for the holding of Referendum in our country and after that we need to have several discussions around it. As we speak, the communication session will shortly begin producing awareness messages about the referendum and it will be aired on several community radio stations in the counties.” Mr. Nah said.

Chapter XII, Articles (91) (92) and (93) of the Constitution of Liberia under the title, Amendments reads:
“This Constitution may be amended whenever a proposal by either (1) two-thirds of the membership of both Houses of the Legislature or (2) a petition submitted to the Legislature, by not fewer than 10,000 citizens which receives the concurrence of two-thirds of membership of both Houses of the Legislature, is ratified by two-thirds of the registered voters, voting in a referendum conducted by the Elections Commission not sooner than one year after the action of the Legislature.

Proposed constitutional amendments shall be accompanied by statements setting for the reasons therefore and shall be published in the Official Gazette and made known to the people through the information services of the Republic. If more than one amendment is to be voted upon in a referendum they shall be submitted in such manner that the people may vote for or against them separately.

The limitation of the presidential term of office to two terms, each of six years duration, may be subject to amendment; provided that the amendment shall not become effective during the term of office of the incumbent President.”

Particularly, it is based upon Article 92 of the above chapter in the Constitution, which states, “If more than one amendment is to be voted upon in a referendum they shall be submitted in such manner that the people may vote for or against them separately”, which is not being done in this case.

By Ibrahim M. Sesay (LMD Election Reporting Ferllow)

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