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Decentralization, state governance and Sierra Leone’s democracy

By John Pa Baimba Sesay

Chapter eight of the ‘Agenda for Prosperity’ deals with the plans by government to strengthen the country’s democracy. An overview of this chapter states, that prosperity and stability are a far cry in any state that is neither democratic nor peaceful and that it is the observance of the rule of law and the rights of the individual that are the very foundations of a democratic system. It is the view of a number of political pundits, especially those from within the governing party (the All Peoples Congress) that the years, prior to 2007 failed to overhaul the system that experienced vandalism during the civil war and virtually left the institutions essential for the foundation and sustenance of democracy very shaky.  Sierra Leone’s democracy and good governance is faced with series of challenges, just as in the case with any democratic state; managing the transition from a “failed State” to a stable democracy and growing economy is a major challenge.

Local governance and the aspect of decentralizing state functions play an integral part in the promoting and strengthening Sierra Leone’s democratic principles.  It was in 2004 that the process of decentralization was reintroduced in Sierra Leone by the then Tejan Kabba(h) led government  as “an Act to consolidate with amendments, the law on local government, and to provide for the decentralization and devolution of functions, powers and services to local councils and for other matters connected therewith.” The process has gone through the second phase, now entering the third phase, with tremendous success having been scored by past and present governments in terms of actualizing the previsions of the Act. The decision by the government then to reintroduce   local governance was aimed at; 1) ensuring participatory governance and, 2; ensuring an effective service delivery system through elected councilors.

Prior to 2004, government and governance were centralized, but following the enactment of the LGA 2004 and the subsequent implantation of the provisions in the Act, we saw how   government decision making process was taken to the community level and how the participatory approach to governance took a center stage in present day governance in Sierra Leone. Today, progress made in the decentralization process indicates the level at which Sierra Leone is moving- councils are now working, wards now functional and budgets now decentralized .Government, from all indication is working towards deepening the process of decentralization and at the same time wok towards strengthening local governance. This is a commendable venture.  The Ernest  Koroma led government has in the last four years invested hugely in building the capacity of local councils to enable them execute their statutory functions. In fact it is reported, that central government fiscal disbursement to the local councils has more than double since 2007 thus enabling councils to scale up the provision of social services, including primary and secondary health, primary and junior-secondary education, agricultural extension services, rural water supply and solid waste management.

Notwithstanding these positive trends in the local governance process in Sierra Leone in the last couple of years, there still exists series of challenges. Take the aspect of ward committee members as a case study. Part XIII of the Act provides for Ward Committees. Section 95 makes provision for the establishment of Ward Committees and Section 96 provides for their functions. Section 95(2) stipulates, thus “A Ward Committee shall consist of– (a) every Councilor elected from that ward; (b) the Paramount Chief of the Chiefdom, in the case of localities with a system of chieftaincy; and (c) not more than ten other persons, at least five of whom shall be women, resident in that ward and elected by the ward residents in a public meeting.”  Now, Section 96 provides, that  A Ward  Committee shall– (a) mobilise residents of the ward for  the implementation of self-help and development projects;   (b) provide a focal point for the discussion of local problems and needs and take remedial action where necessary or make recommendations to the local council accordingly;  (c) organise communal and voluntary work, especially with respect to sanitation; (d) make proposals to the local council for the levying and collection of rates for special projects and programmes; and (e) educate residents on their rights and obligations in relation”

Author…John Pa Baimba Sesay, Sierra Leone’s Information attache to the Peoples Republic of China

But in all of these functions they are to perform, subsection (4) of section 95 states, that “Ward Committee members shall not receive any remuneration or allowances.” This is a crucial challenge, in my view. And if the decentralization process is to continue making the required impact, this should be looked into. Ensuring an effective Ward Committee to be able to function properly still remains a major challenge, perhaps, as a result of what I just referred to above. Another crucial challenge is the role of chiefs in the decentralization process. This often comes into play when discussed from the perspective of roles and responsibility, plus the aspect of who is the highest political authority in a given locality, between a given chief and a councilor. The Act said, “A local council shall be the highest political authority in the locality and shall have legislative and executive powers to be exercised in accordance with this Act or any other enactment…” (Section 20 of the LGA). This has often been a challenge.

There is also the area of roles and responsibility. I will suggest a form of orientation for our in-coming local council officials, especially in orientating them on what their roles and responsibilities are, as prescribed by law.  Section 20(1) a council shall be responsible, generally for promoting the development of the locality and the welfare of the people in the locality with the resources at its disposal and with such resources and capacity as it can mobilise from the central government and its agencies, national and international organizations, and the private sector.  Section 20(2) says, without prejudice to the generality of subsection, a council shall (1), it shall be the function of a local council to– (a) mobilise the human and material resources necessary for the overall development and welfare of the people of the locality; (b) promote and support productive activity and social development in the locality; (c) initiate and maintain programmes for the development of basic infrastructure and provide works and services in the locality;” But the level of them being able to understand these provisions is as crucial as the need for them to be able to perform effectively . And this is where the civil society groups should come in.  Coupled with accelerating the devolution process, there is also the challenge of the councilors been able to collaboratively work with their elected Members of Parliament from the viewpoint of advocacy for projects and projects implementation. Being able to effectively comprehend the provisions as contained in the Local Government Act 2004, in terms of what they are expected to do is as challenging as the need for them to also work with MPs in taking development to their wards and constituencies. It is high time we got a complete review of the Local Government Act itself as a way of us wanting to strengthen the decentralization process.

I have taken a closer look at the ‘Agenda for Prosperity’, President Koroma’s blueprint for national development in his second term in office. I am practically impressed with his plans for a better devolution process. With what we have seen in the last five years in terms of providing the needed leadership for national development, I am left with the feeling that   local governance will continue to capture the attention of this government. Government will work towards strengthening the capacities of the local councils to perform effectively and efficiently, government will fully devolve functions by Ministries Departments and Agencies, as contained in the legislation, government will promote participation and inclusiveness for all societal groups and above all ensure the conclusion of the revision of the LGA 2004.

The 2012 Manifesto for the governing party makes provision for strategies in fostering the decentralization process in the country. They include, but not limited to; 1)Revise the Local Government Act 2004 as a matter of urgency; 2)  Roll out the decentralization policy and ensure its periodic assessment and review; 3) Ensure the MDAs devolve residual functions and build local council capacities; 4) Facilitate timely, predictable and increased performance-based fiscal transfers to local councils; 5) Establish procedures for revenue collection and sharing between local and chiefdom councils and the administration of property rates respectively; 6) Establish a Social Equalization Grant to enable rural district local councils to attract investments and qualified personnel; 7) Strengthen Local Government Monitoring Systems and the role of civil society in the decentralization process; and  8)  Support local councils to create conducive environments for private sector development and empower communities to undertake local economic development including small and medium size enterprises.

When these are achieved, it means, we can utilize our decentralization process to strengthen our democratic credential. Sierra Leone is at a crossroad and we all should be part of the process, for our dreams to be actualized in the next five years. God bless us . I thank you for reading and forgive my typos or mistakes.

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