Nobody here is in the dark about the upcoming elections for president and congress, but plenty of people – registered voters included – are unaware of the constitutional referendum that comes first. On August 23, voters will go to the polls to vote yes or no on four proposed changes to Liberia’s constitution: reducing the residency requirement for presidential candidates from ten years to five, increasing the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75, changing the date of the general election from October to November, and choosing winners in congressional elections by simple majority.
Candidates for office have been campaigning hard, but it is up to the National Elections Commission (NEC) to publicize the referendum, and by most accounts, they have done a poor job so far. So, to spread awareness, a local journalist from the Liberia Media Initiative has created a unique platform to bring the referendum to the people. At the bustling Rally Time market in downtown Monrovia today, John Kollie carved out a space among the stalls, setting up chairs, speakers, and microphones. With the help of a megaphone-toting, arm-waving assistant, he drew a crowd, holding their attention with thumping music, dancing, and free referendum posters and brochures. By the time the 6 panelists arrived – a mix of politicians, NEC officials, and professors – the crowd was ready for a debate.
The program is called Ducor Debates, using the Bassa-language name for Monrovia that was used before the settlers arrived from the US. Each week, Kollie chooses a crowded location and arranges for a group of panelists to debate the referendum and other political topics. Each panelist is allotted three minutes for their remarks, a time limit to which Kollie adheres strictly. “Otherwise,” he explained, “they’ll just use this as their mouthpiece. You’ve got to keep them on the issues. They’ll try to use the debate to attack each other.”
Today’s panelists chose different angles, from the NEC representative’s rundown of the referendum’s logistics (“You won’t be voting for people this time. There won’t be pictures on your paper. Its yes or no on August 23!”) to a former Chief Justice’s argument in favor of all the reforms (“You get more experience and more knowledge when you get older. Why do you want to make a judge step down when he’s just getting the most wisdom?”). At the conclusion of the formal speeches, audience members jumped at the chance to ask questions. Ideally, the audience members take their brochures, informational posters, and knowledge back to their communities, disseminating the information informally.
This week’s debate was aimed primarily at women, who have been influential in Liberian politics in the past, but still lag behind their male counterparts in terms of literacy and political awareness. Neither the government nor the NEC has found effective methods to reach out to women and other members of Liberia’s poor to spread the word about the referendum. To fill the void, a number of grassroots efforts, like Kollie’s Ducor Debates, have sprung up around the country. Ducor Debates, though, is regarded as one of the most effective, and its clear why. The debates are broadcast on 42 radio stations around the country, and the crowds love it.
Through cheers and boo’s, each politician stood up this morning and rallied the audience with a call and response chant. “Women, oh, women?” they shouted. “WOMEN!” came the instant reply, with more enthusiasm each time.