By: Joseph Titus Yekeryan
Small towns and villages across Liberia, disconnected from the main roads and basic infrastructure, may see voters segregated from their basic, constitutional voting right. And when voters ask for accommodations to be able to cast their ballots, authorities seem unable to find a simple solution.
A partial view of Tinsue and the road
This is exactly the case of two small establishments in Bong county.
Founded in 1960, Tinsue is a village in the Bong county, with an estimated population of nine hundred souls. The “road” is no more than a footpath that has not been blessed by the wheels of a vehicle since its creation. Motorbikers phen-phen even struggle to get here.
It connects to several other villages in the far north of Zota, forming a straight line of foot paths to neighboring Guinea, about 10 miles to the east.
Citizens of the Wornukai and Tinsuehad to walk almost three hours on a good day before reaching Belefanai, which is the headquarters of Zota, where the voter registration process took place. But that was okay, and a sacrifice they were willing to make.
However, voters in these two villages are now taking issue with the National Elections Commission (NEC)’s upper Bong County office because it allegedly refused to establish a polling station in Kelly’s village where it would allow more people to vote. They even appealed to the NEC for this solution back in 2017, however, there was no cooperation or communication on this proposed compromise.
Stephen Barclay, the town chief of Tinsue said that a majority of the citizens in his town, and especially the elderly people, were unable to register to vote in 2017 and this was exactly the case in 2020, because of the bad road and long distance.
“The road is very bad to the extent that even when you are walking, you will have to be careful with the many gutters along the way. There is no way that motorcycle can even reach our area least to mention [a] car.”
Garman Twayah, aged 76, said that she would love to participate in the electoral process, but her age does not permit her to walk long distances to register or vote. Ma Twayah said that she was lucky to succeed to register in 2017 when she had already gone for treatment in Belefenai but did not vote on October 10, 2017 because of the long distance.
“We want the authorities to help fix our road, at least when that is done, we will no longer have to walk but to easily get on motorbike or car to get to the district headquarters” she added.
This is why, Ma Twayah said, the NEC must make an effort and establish a polling station closer to their community so that everyone has a chance to exercise their constitutional right of voting, especially since the voting is about amendments to the law of the nation.
Youth President of Wornukai, Philip Kollie, said that lack of access to a proper road does not only mean voter suppression, but complete disconnect from the rest of the country and abandonment by leaders seeking votes.
He believes the leaders are not interested in significant investments to areas with small numbers of votes.
“I think the only reason politicians are not bringing development to our area is because we cannot highly contribute to their elections. The road condition is responsible for everything because if motorbike or car were coming here, you could see more people leaving from here to go and register to vote” Kollie explained.
He alleged that the National Election Commission has failed to establish a polling center in their area which, he said, has also greatly contributed to low voter turnout.
In 2017, only 54.5% of the total registered voters in Bong county cast their ballot. Bong also registered one of the highest numbers of invalid votes, suggesting that the people were not properly educated on how to cast their ballot. The NEC has not published voter turnout results for Belefenai polling center.
When contacted, NEC Upper Bong Magistrate, Daniel Newland, said that establishing polling a center can be done by the NEC, maintaining that it is not an event –but a process.
Newland said they usually establish polling centers based on proximity, adding that “[i]t cannot be done on individual call, but the NEC can investigate by carrying on [a] facts finding [mission] because whenever we establish a center, we will have to increase the budget for that center,” he clarified.
He clarified that before establishing a center, the NEC head office -not the Magistrate- will mandate it.
“This polling center establishment has been a cry all over, so not only the people of Tinsue and surrounding communities, for example, in Gbarpolu County, you have people walking for more than four hours so that is not only happening here in Bong County,” Newland noted.
Mr. Newland promised to forward the information to the Board of Commissioners of NEC but also urged citizens to engage their lawmakers on the issue, instead of only depending on the NEC, on grounds that the lawmakers are the ones responsible to make allotments for NEC operational budgets.