The Dynamics of voter registration in border communities: Perspectives from Lofa County

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Quick Facts:

Cross-border ethnic ties and the highly contested nature of politics have positions parts of the county, particularly, Foya, as potential hotspots for political and electoral violence

The high stake in politics and the election could partly explain the youth mobilization, recruitment, and training of militants/ militias. As expressed by the security stakeholders this could be a threat to peace and security.

Lofa is the third largest county of the 15 counties, located in the northmost part of Liberia and bordered by Sierra Leone to the west and Guinea to the north and east. Lofa has five districts dominated by specific ethnic groups. Strong cross-border ethnic ties and marriages with neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone are common. The Kissi in Foya has ethnic ties to their fellow Kissi in Guinea and Sierra Leone border communities. The same dynamic is found in Vahun, where the Mendes have their kinsmen in cross-border communities in Sierra Leone. Communities on the border to Voinjama in Liberia and those on the Guinea side have Loma, which are interrelated. Similar dynamics exist in Zorzor with the Mandingo and Salayea with the Kpelle. As noted by an official of the Liberian Immigration Service (LIS),
“People have families across the border. During the war in Liberia, people migrated to the neighbouring countries, resided, and intermarried.” 

Observations reveal that borders do not separate people; rather, they facilitate integration through shared language, values and a sense of community. 

This phenomenon speaks to a colonial legacy that the African Continent needs to address. With border lines drawn through people of the same ethnic origin and kinsmen, issues of cross-border voting are eminent with implications for elections.

In Lofa, the second phase of the Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) process was characterized by the influx of foreigners trying to register. BVR centres in communities such as Porluma and Tambah Taylor in Foya- Electoral District 1, Konie in Voinjama-Electoral District 4 and Yeala in Electoral District 5 were marked with long queues of prospective registrants waiting to register or waiting for others to finish, so they could move together back to their communities (see image 2). 

Although foreigners attempting to register are not limited to BVR centres in the border communities, the extent found in BVR centres in border communities is greater than in non-border communities. In an interaction with a LIS office on the possible registration of foreigners, he noted that they follow procedures and guidelines to interview prospective registrants to establish their nationality. He added that officers could easily detect foreigners and, to some extent, differentiate between persons from the same ethnic groups from either side of the border. As noted by a LIS officer at one of the BVR Centres, “The Luma, who are on either side of the border, are seen by how they express themselves.”

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Observations in parts of the county point to intra and inter-county mobilisation and mobilisation across country borders. The phenomenon of long queues and the sight of many people waiting for each other in or walking towards/from the registration centres in BVR centres in border communities is attributed to the mobilisation efforts by political parties. Although EISA observers in Lofa did not see trucking to BVR centres, the team observed trucks loaded with people, especially in Foya, sometimes with the people dropped off a few distances to BVR centres. In an interaction with NEC officials on the issue of groups waiting for each other at the BVR centre, the NEC registrar noted that people waited for each other since they came in groups.

Beyond the possible trucking, the issue of under-aged registrants also came out strongly. Similarly, groups of young people moved from communities including Porlumar and Borlirloe to Foya city. Interactions with them revealed they were first-time registrants mobilized by an aspirant of one of the political parties for a first-time voters’ event. Interacting with them also shows they were with their voter ID card, with some looking younger than 18.

There is a need for support towards peace dialogues. The NEC magistrate for lower Lofa noted that they have been engaging in peace dialogues, which are ongoing and facilitated by NEC and the Liberia National Police (LNP). However, these peace messages need to reach all parts of the county.

About USAID Support to EISA-IEOM to Liberia: The USAID-funded EISA International Election Observation Mission (EISA-IEOM) Activity seeks to enhance the integrity of the 2023 Liberia Presidential and Legislative elections through the deployment of an independent international election observer mission (EOM) to monitor, assess and report on all phases of the electoral process in accordance with international and regional benchmarks. The IEOM is implemented in close coordination with and the financial support of USAID/Liberia and will complement the efforts of other electoral stakeholders. EISA-IEOM has deployed international LTOs across Liberia to observe BVR Phase 2 of the registration and will compile a Phase 2 and comprehensive BVR report at the conclusion of the inspection process.