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LMD Fellow’s story:People with disabilities feel neglected, threaten to boycott election

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People living with disabilities from Bong county are upset with the politicians and their failure to keep promises. For this reason, they have threatened to boycott the December 8, Special Senatorial Election and Constitutional Referendum.

According to Arthur Bondo, who is the Bong county coordinator for the National Union of Organizations of the Disabled (NUOD), there are 523 people living with disabilities in Bong, and 435 are voting-eligible adults.

They allege that since 2018, the county council excluded the people living with disabilities from development discussions. In previous years, for example, the Bong people living with disabilities were allotted USD$10,000 (1,7 million Liberian dollars) in the County Development Fund, an annual developmental budget raised from royalties and social funds paid by concession companies. But members of the community allege the money was never disbursed, and it remained an unfulfilled promise.

The former chair of the Bong Legislative Caucus, Senator Henry Willie Yallah, who is seeking re-election, and the chairperson of the Project Management Committee (PMC) Steve Jorquelleh Mulbah, blamed the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning for delaying the funds disbursement.

Senator Yallah explained that funds allocated to Bong county from the national budget were never received because the government did not generate sufficient revenue.

Chairlady Tenneh W. Togba, representing the aggrieved voters, told reporters that casting their votes in the upcoming senatorial election would represent a waste of time and energy, reflecting on their past experiences. She stated that her members went to vote unfailingly every time, but they have yet to see any investment or development programs in the Bong county.

“They only come to us during elections to fool us. When we participate, nothing changes. Our children are here; most of them are not going to school because we don’t have any means to support them. Politicians would come and make promises to us, but after giving them power, they turn their back on us. We are sorrowful,” Mme. Togba said. As women from the disabled community, she added, they are resolved to withhold their full participation in the elections until their plights are addressed.

“If we don’t see anything changing, our protest will continue beyond 2023 general elections,” Togba promised.

The senior election magistrate for the National Elections Commission (NEC) in Bong, Daniel Newland was unable to state how many people living with disabilities have registered to vote in the upcoming elections, because there is no such statistic. According to the Borgen Project, an American NGO focused on fighting extreme poverty, the most recent statistic on people with disabilities in Liberia is a UNICEF report from 1997 stating that 16% of the population has a disability.

Prince Kermue, 36-year-old Liberian living with disabilities, and father of three children, said that the important thing for him is for the government to provide access to hospitals and schools to the people with disabilities.

“I want them build a special school that is disabled friendly. Before I vote, I must see a tangible [result], like a major hospital for us to attend. I want scholarships for our community because nothing is happening like that,” Kermue said.

Nineteen-year-old Mary Morris wants people with disabilities to be treated with care and respect, particularly by the county public institutions. In December she should be voting for the first time, if it weren’t for the boycott.

“We have been looked at badly at various public institutions. No one is willing to assist us. Most of these areas are not disabled friendly, including some polling stations,” she warned.

Moses Tokpah, coordinator of the Group of 77 in Bong, and Lawrence Tokpah, spokesperson for the Christian Association of the Blind, believe that one key factor impacting their community is the perceived abandonment by the Bong county officials. They stated that they have not been consulted in any county policy decision or official engagement.

“Not because we are disabled, but we are literate. We need to have our say in the decision[s] of our county. We have cried, but to no avail. We are tired of accepting false promises from them,” both men complain.

Korto Kollie, the leader of the Group of 77 in Bong and social advocate on gender issues, said that politicians ignore the contributions and impact that people living with disabilities have on the society. “It is only during elections time that politicians know us,” she said. “We should not be overlooked.”

The Liberia Group of 77 is a welfare institution established by the Government of Liberia through the Office of the Vice President, and is primarily responsible to seek well-being for the people living with disabilities.

In response, the Bong county Superintendent Esther Yamah Walker denied the allegations and stated that county officials have consulted the community of people with disabilities on development planning.
Besides being abandoned between the elections cycles, the people with disabilities, through their representatives, have claimed that there was inadequate public education on the constitutional referendum. They believe not much awareness has been carried out by the NEC.

The constitutional referendum proposes three amendments. One proposal seeks Liberian’s approval to reduce the president’s and representatives’ term in office, also known as tenure, from six years to just five and the senators’ tenure from nine years to seven. A second proposal seeks Liberians’ approval to set the months of October-November for elections and, the third proposal seeks Liberians’ approval to legalize dual citizenship for Liberian citizen who seeks the nationality of another country in addition to being Liberians.

But since the propositions were approved by the Liberian Legislature last year, little or no education was provided until October 2020 barely a month to the poll when the NEC embarked on civic education.

People with disabilities are demanding adequate public education on the propositions before citizens go to the poll in December saying, “If we don’t understand or know the propositions on the national referendum, why will we participate? Besides, most of the polling centers are not disabled friendly.”

Mr. Jappah Nah, NEC Coordinator of the Referendum Committee, who is responsible for civic education, recently told journalists that NEC was conducting public awareness on the constitutional referendum propositions, but highlighted logistical challenges and lack of manpower.

This is not the first time that people with disabilities from Bong threatened to boycott the elections. In July 2019 they had issues a warning, well ahead of the elections, claiming neglect and abandonment by the Weah government.

“Adopted in 1986, the Constitution of Liberia was suspended several times during the country’s civil wars (1989 – 2003) to make way for transitional governments formed at various peace conferences,” wrote Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei, PhD student in Politics and International Studies at SOAS University of London.

Proposals for a new constitution during the last transitional government (2003 – 2005) were poorly received by warring factions, political actors and regional and global bodies, including ECOWAS, AU and the United Nations that brokered peace here, Nyei added in an article written for the ConstitutionNet, a project created to support legislators, constitutional lawyers and other constitutional practitioners with information.

The December 8th referendum will be the second attempt to effect changes in the 1986 Constitution in a decade. When Liberians first went to referendum in 2011, they voted based on political leadership. One item that failed at that referendum sought to amend the residency clause for candidates that could have potentially disqualified the then-incumbent president and several other politicians from the 2011 elections.

A second successful amendment replaced the electoral system for the legislature from two-round majoritarian to first-past-the-poll. Two other unsuccessful propositions that were on the ballot included retirement age for judges at the Supreme Court, which is currently at 75 and change in the month for elections, according to Constitition.Net. By J. Peter S. Dennis

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