SANNIQUELLIE, Nimba County— They’re a big group of new voters, in the country’s second-largest county. First-time voters in Nimba will have a major impact in next month’s election so there is a lot of interest in how they will vote. A FrontPage/New Narratives survey has found education is the overwhelming concern of these voters come Election Day.
Of 80 first-time voters surveyed in Karnplay, Ganta, and Sanniquellie in Nimba County, 47, or nearly three in five, said improvements in the country’s education system was the “most important issue” in deciding which presidential candidate to vote for.
“Education is the most good thing that I ever see underneath this sun because if you are educated everything can be simple,” said Constance Nehkarwonmah Gonwoe, a 20-year-old motorcyclist who left school at grade 9. “I am saying to all my friends come October 10 to vote person who will improve our education system because if you are educated, you live a better life. You can’t depend on your ma or pa.”
The focus on education could be a warning for incumbent, President George Weah, and Joseph Boakai, the former vice president under the administration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and their parties’ candidates for the Legislature in Nimba. Neither governments are seen to have done any good here on education. Nimba County school system has at least 992 schools, including 481 public schools that are plagued with problems including a lack of trained teachers, textbooks, libraries and science laboratories.
Educators here complained that under the Weah administration supplies to public schools have stalled. When Moses Dologbay, Nimba County Education Officer, announced last week that the Ministry of Education would finally be supplying West Africa Examinations Council textbooks critics called it a ploy to try to win votes for President Weah.
Most voters were reluctant to name their preferred presidential candidate publicly but off the record the candidate most often named was Tiawan Gongloe, the human rights lawyer and candidate for the Liberian People’s Party, who was born in Nimba County. Voters pointed to the library Gongloe and his family built in his home town of Glehyee Zorpea as a tangible example of his dedication to improving access to education. The Wilfred Kehleboe Gongloe Education Resource Center and library is named in memory of their late father who was a teacher.
Nya D. Twayen, Jr., a 40-year-old independent candidate for the senate here, has stood out among senatorial candidates as the only one talking about education during recent campaigning in the county. Twayen said if elected reform of the education system would be a priority.
In the NN/FPA survey those who identified education as their most important priority were equally split between women and men. Sixteen identified “student” as their main occupation. The rest were not currently in formal education. Four had jobs as tradespeople. Others were food sellers, farmers and motorcyclists. Other key issues raised by first-time voters in the survey included support for agriculture, employment, and healthcare.
Grace K. Karnue, 19, a student council leader of the New Sanniquellie High School
Grace K. Karnue, 19, a student council leader of the New Sanniquellie High School, will also vote for the first-time next month. The student leader said that the education system is lagging in the sub-region and needs urgent change.
“Looking at our surroundings and in the school right now, we don’t have materials that will improve our education system, that will encourage us to learn,” Karnue said. “For instance, in our school we don’t have a laboratory and other materials. Even the teachers don’t have pay. For this reason the education system has died down, and only a government that is concerned about education can solve this problem.”
She was willing to identify Gongloe as her choice of president and Sondah Geepea-Wilson, a lawyer and social worker with the Liberia Transformation Party, for the representative post of Nimba Electoral District#2 because of their platforms of providing free and quality education to the residents of the country. She is encouraging her friends to follow her lead.
“My advice to my friends out there is that they should join us so that we can all vote for someone who has the knowledge of improving the education system in Liberia. Because without the improvement of education in Liberia, we all will be less important. Because without education, you won’t be successful.’’
Josiah Worzou, 21, is another Nimba first-time voter. He sells gasoline for his brother in Karnplay City. He said he knows exactly what to vote for on October 10.
“I will like to vote wisely and vote for the person that will prioritize education,” said Worzou.” “I am prioritizing education because I want to see a government that will be able to look into education, a government that will value education is the one that I will vote for.”
He called on all first-time voters to vote on the issue of education and not based on which candidates illegally bribe voters with money or motorbikes.
“I would like to encourage all first-time voters not to follow money, not to follow motorbikes to keep courage and focus on voting on the issue of education as the most important issue now for young people,” Worzou said. ”A lot of people bringing motorbikes for us to follow them. Don’t follow them, vote for our future. And our future is quality education.”
Estella Lamah, 20-year-old first-time voter in Sanniquellie
Estella Lamah, 20, a student in grade 12 at the New Sanniquellie High School, wants to see an increased investment in schools, teachers, and initiatives to broaden access to quality education, particularly in government-funded schools. Providing local instructional materials remains a major challenge to providing quality education at government schools in Liberia.
“Looking at we the government schools, we are really suffering. Even get chalk that the instructors will be able to use to present their lesson is not available,” Lamah said. “And also looking at the chemistry lab and biology lab, we only do theory and not practical. So, I decided to prioritize the candidate with a platform of education.
Lamah message to her peers is clear: “Every vote counts and the young people’s voices matter. They have the power to shape their future. By supporting a presidential candidate who focuses on education reform, they can create opportunities for themselves and generations to follow.”
Lemuel G. Saye, Saniquellie Mahn District Education Officer
Lemuel G. Saye, 51, Sanniqellie Mah District Education Officer, said he was pleased to hear first-time voters were so supportive of education improvements.
“The children are right,” said Saye. “They want support to education to obtain quality education. If first-time voters can come up to say they will support a candidate who stands for the prioritization of education.”
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives. Funding for the story was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Monrovia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.