Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Liberia Decentralization Policy: a roadmap to participatory governance and development in Liberia

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

Liberia’s political tradition of hegemonic rule of an elite class was a major factor that led to the numerous civil uprisings and the subsequent violent conflict that lasted for fourteen years. Since independence, governance and development activities have been concentrated in the capital and in the hands of a very few people with the president at the center of this imperial authority. This has led to the marginalization, disenfranchisement and deprivation of the vast majority of the people in the country, particularly the counties.

Societies learn from lessons of history to correct the present and set a progressive agenda for the future. For Liberia, it is by now an established fact that the top-down approach to development has not worked well, for the same reasons decisions made from up-to-down have not generated popular support. This has been one of the problematic issues with good governance in Liberia. The need therefore to reexamine and reengineer the system of governance, and set for an effective devolution of political, fiscal and administrative powers to the people in the sub-national units cannot be overemphasized. This will get them deeply involved and at the same time strengthen democratic governance, and accelerate development across the country.

In 2006 the Governance Commission in collaboration with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs embarked on a process of laying out a framework for local government and decentralization in Liberia. The development of this policy was different from the traditional ‘arm chair’ style of making policies in the country, instead, the teams embarked on consultations nationwide in series of meetings, conferences and workshop to solicit the views of county government officials, chiefs and traditional leaders, civil society and media groups and representatives of youth and women organizations. It was from theses national consultations that a national decentralization policy was developed. This article analyses the policy and its implications for governance, democracy and development in Liberia. Here, I argue strongly that Liberia’s governance, socio-economic and development problems and/or challenges are underpinned by the over-centralization of power at the presidency, defined in ministries and concentrated in the capital; and that decentralization is not the absolute solution, but a necessary road roadmap to follow.

Overcentralization and the problem with governance
An overly centralized government is a product of hegemonic and elite rule. When a specific class or party wants to dominate all sectors of a nation’s life, it tends to gather and control the instruments of power through agent-loyalists and draft biased policies and laws at the exclusion of the people. Through this process, the vast majority of the people becomes marginalized and deprived from the natural wealth and opportunities of the country. With this, a skew process of wealth distribution ensues, and coercion, patronization, and force – used by a selective few individuals – is used to govern. This is where the rule of law is subverted, and dissents are suppressed as was witnessed under the True Whig Party in Liberia. The military dictatorship that metamorphosed to a civilian autocracy mirror-imaged the oligarchy it overthrew and governed the same way. This led to a general level of suppressed distrust and grievances, all of which led to the 14 years civil war – defined by destruction of the social and material wealth of the country.

It is therefore accurate to say that overcentralization undermines the principles of democracy as it deprives the vast majority of the people from public discourse and participation in governance. It supports corruption of state resources, and concentrates development mainly in the capital city and sometimes the home towns of the powerful elites. Besides Monrovia, a quick visit to county cities that have produced former presidents can tell the conspicuous discrimination and deprivation in development. For example, compare the infrastructures of Harper (Maryland), and Zwedru (Grand Gedeh) to Barclayville (Grand Kru) and Cestos (Rivercess).

It is also worth adding that the kind of imperial and strongman leadership that Liberian leaders have exhibited over the years is supported by the Constitution. Attempts were made by the 1986 Constitution Commission to redistribute power, but the military regime overturned the Commission’s proposal and introduced what Liberia has today through the Constitutional Advisory Council. In the Current Constitution, the appointing power of the president stretches to appointing the lowest statutory officials like district superintendent and district commissioners. The president also has the power to dismiss a paramount, clan and town chiefs elected by the by the people (Article 56 Sec. B).

Postwar Attempts at Decentralization in Liberia
The 1986 Constitution of Liberia gives the President the power to appoint superintendents, other county official and officials of other political subdivisions (Art. 54 Sec. D.). It further states in Article 56 (A) that all such officials ‘appointed by the President pursuant to this Constitution shall hold their offices at the pleasure of the President’.

This of course, has been the pattern of governance in the country. Officials of government work at the pleasure of the president rather than the people, even at the lowest unit of government, say for example district commissioner. The extent of the power of the president has even reached the two other branches of government – the Legislature and the Judiciary – through political maneuverings and financial manipulations; even though the Constitution, on the principles of ‘separate but coordinating bodies’, forbids this as a means of supporting checks and balance in government. This is another way in which the power has been centralized and controlled at the Liberian Presidency.

However, the return to civilian democratic rule in the country was a first step to bringing sustainable change. Even though there have been no constitutional reform process directed at reducing the power of the imperial presidency in Liberia or addressing some of the controversial issues in the constitution during the transitional period, the first postwar government through a presidential initiative introduced programs and decision-making processes aimed at empowering local citizens to participate in choosing county officials, and managing local development projects. By this initiative the president shared her constitutional privilege with the people by asking citizens of each county to send forth three names from which she will appoint a county Superintendent. This was done to choose the first set of Superintendents during the dawning days of the regime, but this practice had since been abandoned; the president has appointed several local officials, and changed superintendents without broader consultations with the communities. This process could have been improved upon, and would have engendered sufficient local participation in decision making had the president continued it and extended it to include the appointment of district commissioners and city mayors.

A second attempt at empowering the local county governments and decentralizing development initiatives was the establishment of the County Development Funds (CDF) through which budgetary allotments are made in the annual national budget for the counties and supervised by the local authorities. The people in the counties have also been regularly consulted in deciding development projects. A landmark achievement was the development of a County Development Agenda (CDA) for the counties. There have been lapses in the implementations of the CDAs however.
The continuation of the county development fund program is building sense of local ownerships around the country. Through this process local citizens and civic groups are usually demanding accountability from the county leaders, and this is expanding debates on development decision making and expenditures. In some counties, citizen’s demands for accountability in the use of the CDF have exposed the corrupt maneuverings of county officials, and in some cases, led to their dismissals by the President. With this experiment, one can just imagine how improved governance and accountability would be if the people are involved with decision-making, and are allowed to take ownership of development projects.

These developments cannot be considered as substantial efforts at decentralization due to the lack of a legal regime, as well as a general lack of sustainability and administrative frameworks. Second, they remain a presidential project and as the president has shown in preserving the privilege of appointing county superintendents and other local officials, she can also stop the CDF initiatives. A well carved and legally mandated decentralization framework remains the means to participatory democratic governance and sustainable local development in the country. It is in this direction that the Governance Commission led a nation-wide consultation process to develop the Liberia National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance.

The Decentralization Policy
The National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance has been adopted by the Cabinet, and the President of Liberia has written a Foreword to it, expressing her endorsement and support to its provisions.

This policy, as mentioned earlier is a product of mass consultations with local leaders, scholars, professionals and Liberia’s international development partners. It lays the framework for an ambitious devolution of political, fiscal and administrative powers to the sub-national political units of the country – counties and districts. Its rationale is to legally establish and promote local self-governance and advance mass citizens’ participation as a foundation for democratic governance. In a system of semi-autonomous and effective local governments the prospects of improved service delivery at all levels of society and economic empowerment abound. How then does the policy intend to attain decentralization in Liberia?

Three main types of decentralization and several precepts of democracy and development are proposed from a careful review of the policy. The three types of decentralization proposed are: Political, Fiscal, and administrative.

Political Decentralization: This type of decentralization is concerned with the process of political decision making and power distribution at the sub-division level (county level). Its key features include elections, power redistribution, participation, representation, etc. The policy aims at a radical distribution of power and decision making among the people of Liberia and the presidency. It proposes elections of superintendents, district commissioners, and city mayors. It also promotes the establishment of lawmaking structures in the county to make local ordinances, plan development, pass budget and decide on county expenditure. The benefit of such is that the Liberian people will participate more effectively in local affairs and build ownership – as it will devolve power to the responsible local bodies elected by the local people, who will also decide what development they want through public consultations. Development decisions that are taken by the local people is usually bottom-to-up and most likely to produce substantial impacts.

Administrative Decentralization: This involves the transfer of responsibilities for planning and management of public/government functions to sub-national governments or to sub-national agencies of central government in the sub-national units. Either of the two are forms of administrative decentralization, but the transfer of responsibility from a hierarchical central agency to sub agencies in the political units can best be described as deconcentration, and its agents report to superiors in the central administration rather than local authorities or the people that are affected by their operations. This is the current wave of ‘decentralization’ in Liberia. And the problematic issues with these ‘decentralized’ programs of the ministries and agencies are that they lack efficiency and inter-agency coordination. With local offices in the counties some key primary functions are still decided in Monrovia. For example, even though the Ministry of Health has County Health Teams and administrations, birth certificates are only prepared and issued at the Ministry Head Office on Capitol bypass, and while the Ministry of Transport boasts of a decentralization program, driver licenses are still only given at the Ministry’s offices on Broad Street. How then does the policy address the issue of administrative decentralization?
Under the National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance, local governments in the counties will plan and administer their own institutions of service delivery, and these institutions shall function as departments of the local government unit. For example, it is expected that programs of health will be implemented by the local department while the Ministry of Health at the national level will lead, develop, supervise and coordinate national health policies. The same for basic public services like education, water, electricity, transportation and infrastructures. The county government will employ its own staff to run these departments.

Fiscal Decentralization: This involves the devolution of fiscal power to sub-national governments. Its key features are (i) assigning tax (revenue) collection responsibilities to local governments and (ii) legally empowering local government to expend local revenues for service delivery. Both are proposed under the decentralization policy. Under our current system of government revenue collection agents from the Ministry of Finance are found actively working in the counties with no direct link to the local administrations. These agents collect revenues that rarely return to the counties as we can see the level of underdevelopment in the countryside. In every county there is an effective revenue collection mechanism, but there are not effective service delivery institutions. The need therefore to empower local governments to collect taxes, generate revenues for local development, and make expenditure decisions independently cannot be overemphasized if Liberia must advance as a develop nation.

Under the decentralization policy county governments will collect taxes and raise revenues from licenses and permits issued to local business. A system of inter-governmental transfer will also be promoted through which the national government will give annual subsidies to the county governments and local taxes redistributed among the counties and the national governments.

The above three are the forms of decentralization that development experts have described in so many discourses as effective and common internationally. Liberia seeks to radically transform its system of governance by decentralizing in all three dimensions. What then are the potential benefits of decentralization and what are the precepts of democratic governance that this system will advance in Liberia?

Overall, decentralization can help to advance a number of democratic principles and socio-economic development initiatives. If decentralization works in Liberia in line with the policy advanced by the Governance Commission it will engender mass participation of citizens in governance and promote downward accountability in the use of the country’s resources. Participation and accountability are distinct principles of democratic governance. In terms of economic development, legally empowered and functional local governments in the counties can enhance responsiveness to the range of citizens’ demand for basic services in health, education, electricity, water and infrastructures.

Nature and Structure of Local Governments
Liberia is embarking upon a form of decentralization that will make local governments autonomous but within the unitary state system. Liberia therefore, according to the policy ‘shall remain a unitary state with a system of local government and administration which shall be decentralized with the county as the principal focus of the devolution of power and authority’. There is no federal state system created here, as some critics of the process, including government officials would argue.

To ensure the protection of the national sovereignty several issues including those of foreign affairs, national defense and security, immigration, law enforcement, money and banking, and administration of justice are left exclusively as functions of national government.

The county governments shall be headed by a superintendent elected by the people and the county legislative branch (named in the policy as County Legislative Assembly) shall comprise of citizens elected from the districts of the county, and all paramount chiefs. This body shall meet quarterly to make local ordinances, plan development, and pass a budget for the year.

Challenges
It is worth noting that decentralization – the devolution of power and authority to local governments – has its own limitations and challenges. The challenges to decentralization in Liberia range from political and constitutional issues to technical and financial/economic issues. For decentralization to work in Liberia as laid out, the policy has to be passed into law by the Legislature and be submitted to a process of constitutional amendment to accommodate legally conflicting provisions of the policy. This challenge is now left with the Liberian people to call on the Legislature to begin hearing on the policy and pass laws that promote decentralization. However, due to limited and poor information, most Liberians are not aware of the benefit and processes of decentralization. This can be overcome by local civic organizations and ordinary citizens engaging and lobbying with their lawmakers on decentralization. It is also important to engage individuals seeking higher positions in government, particularly in the legislature, and begin to ask questions on how they will support decentralization in the country.

The technical issue with decentralization is associated with capacity – both financial and human resources. Liberia is currently ranked amongst the poorest countries in the world, and with a significant portion of its people illiterate. The country’s public sector is also faced with a human resource deficit which Liberia’s international partners are assisting to resolve by sending and funding expatriates, including Liberian Diasporas to work for the government. The financial ability to run effective local governments in the counties is also a potential challenge particularly in the case were most of the counties lack economic activities and active markets. Effective decentralization does not stop to establishing local governments and making them autonomous; it requires capable administrative units in the local governments to respond to the local people. If county governments and officials are unable to deliver functions that local citizens expect from them, the potential benefits of decentralization are unlikely to be realized. If this happens in Liberia, the country will be compelled to do recentralization since the local governments cannot perform the functions required of them. In order to avoid this, the process of implementing decentralization must begin with building technical human resource capacities and creating economic corridors around the country.

And finally, decentralization means that local power and social dynamics might disadvantage some groups. Women, youth, and strangers (or minority groups) might be negatively affected. Therefore, a well functioning and participatory process is needed as the lowest social unit – at the town level.

Conclusion
Decentralization is the way forward to sustainable democratization and economic developments in Liberia. With a National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance, Liberia now has a unique opportunity to build upon in advancing the rights of its people to participate in making decision that affect them. Decentralization has been a language long introduced in Liberian political discourses and attempts by successive administrations have not attained enormous benefits. The current administration has led a breakthrough by endorsing a decentralization policy. It is now about time for mass citizen awareness and support for its enactment into law and subsequent implementation.

The process of decentralization will not end at passing the policy into law and amending the constitution, it continues with building institutions of good governance in the counties, and laying the foundations for democracy and the rule of law to prevail. Encouraging the development of the skills of young Liberians in engineering, governance and policy making, medicine, economic, business and finance and other relevant fields is critical to countering the potential human resource challenges that will face local governments in the future.

It is however worth cautioning that expectations will have to be controlled because with such a deeply entrenched political culture, Liberia cannot break the yoke of its overly centralized and imperial system of governance in a few days. Let it therefore be made clear that this process has to evolve over time through a systematic process of planning and implementing.

2 comments:

Orlindic said...

Well Articulated!

Papanunu said...

This is a good article from Mr. Nyei. However, let me make these observations from your concluding statements. You stated that the "process of decentralization will not end at passing the policy into law and amending the constitution; it continues with building institutions of good governance in the counties, and laying the foundations for democracy and the rule of law to prevail". Quite true. But then how do WE encourage the development of the skills of young people? Encouraging is not enough; we must DO SOMETHING practical, something visible. Young people will only get into engineering or mechanics when there are visible signs of employment in those areas. I definitely will not study in an area wherein I won't see visible signs of employment. Of course this has been the normal way here in Liberia. But things need to change. And then so what?

Please write more articles. I'm proud of you and your work at the Governance Commission. A graduate from AMEU also, now at Ricks Institute. Email: eponga@inbox.com.