In the aftermath of heated elections that intensified acrimonies and produced astonishing results that are evidently disappointing for many, the old debate about dividing Nimba County that once vanished has resurfaced. I have attempted to ignore the crescendo of comical pro-division analyses and comments that have weighed in on Facebook in recent weeks, because social media debates in Liberia regrettably largely seem to neglect any sense of decency and offer few benefits, but eventually I have to give in to this temptation because our history is replete with startling events that remind that nothing can be taken for granted in Liberia. Avoidance, therefore, is not a healthy approach in our context and this debate must not escape the attention of any well-meaning Liberians in general and Nimbaians, in particular.
So, what are the potential dividends that would necessitate the division of our most-celebrated county, one whose popularity and national significance is ranked second among the fifteen, bested only by Montserrado, which understandably hosts our country’s capital, and is by such privilege a beneficiary of internal migration and diverse economic activities?
Central to their arguments, the proponents of division contend that Nimba, despite its high population, has become a victim in the sharing of the “national cake.” Their use of the phrase “national cake” is a reference to the much-talked-about county development fund (CDF), annual budgetary allocations legislated for an even distribution to the counties irrespective of the counties’ land sizes, populations, and individual development needs. Thus, pro-division Nimbaians believe with much passion that creating a new county within Nimba is the safest way to double the region’s CDF share, create more jobs, and foster development. One of the campaigners of the so-called “decentralization” proposal remarked much to my disappointment recently that “We are losing a lot, rather than gaining from our numbers.”
Although the practice of an across-the-board resource allocation certainly has a multitude of demerits insofar as a number of economic and development principles are concerned (I will reserve details of this claim for a separate discussion), division is by no means the solution for the chronic governance and development challenges confronting our country and county. Politics is nonetheless one of the crucial influences of development, however; the conception that has thrived in Liberia that governance is the mere formation and existence of dead administrative regions and the appointment and election of self-centered officials is a grave error.
Over the years, we have placed so much emphasis on political autonomy as a vehicle for economic growth and regional development. I do not intend to dispute the fact that decentralization may buttress effective administration. One may even suggest that the quest for autonomy was very necessary at one point along the course of our history when there was an urgency to bring pressure upon the despotic Americo Liberian regime, which for nearly a century (1847-1980) engaged in the domination, suppression, marginalization, and neglect of the majority native population. But the question is: how much further can we afford to partition this country, given we already have formed fifteen counties out of a tiny forty-three-thousand-square-miles space? Do we need to further splinter each square smile and assign the halves a county status and a swarm of officials in order to maximize development and experience improved governance? I am afraid not!
Recently, my former boss and mentor at Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency, Samson S. Tokpah, uploaded a succinct but lesson-packed Facebook post that addresses the ongoing governance challenges in Liberia. Mr. Tokpah frowned at some of the governance problems in the country including a lack of systems and accountability, misapplication and usurpation of functions, and corruption and the culture of impunity. This is a familiar refrain to all of us, and it echoes profoundly with the point I am striving to make. The essence of a government lies critically, in part, in its ability to establish and uphold systems of accountability, to develop infrastructures and provide services to its citizens, and to create and implement policies that drive growth and strengthen the private sector. But do we need any more partitioning of the country for government to achieve these?
There is much wisdom in a Gio parable that “An old mat paves the way for plaiting a new one.” I say this to point to a few failed cases of sheer partition-based decentralization initiatives in our recent history. Upon the platforms of job creation, accelerated development, and effective governance, River Gee and Gparpolu advocated for and received county statuses in 2000 and 2001 respectively during the Taylor regime. We are close to reaching two decades since the last split to create a new county took place (Gbarpolu from Lofa County). But one can safely say that there is less evidence, if any, that demonstrates any significant changes in the economics and infrastructures of those counties. Instead, those regions remain at the very bottom of national development index (See Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geo-Information Services’ 2014 Household Income and Expenditure Survey Report). But even many of those counties that were created more than three decades ago during the Doe regime: Bomi, River Cess, and Grand Kru have not shown evidence of progress; and this should be a lesson to us that development is not contingent upon mere compartmentization. A scientist who proceeds with a positive theorization of a hypothesis when data emerging from a testing of that hypothesis proves otherwise lends him/herself to questioning and suspicion.
Also, if mere proliferation of provinces and “municipalities” could bring positive development, Grand Kru County would have topped the list on our development index. With a population of 57,106 (2008 Housing and Population Census), making it the least populous county in Liberia, Grand Kru’s 3,895 square kilometers is dotted with administrative districts and “cities,” empty and grossly underdeveloped cities containing a handful of people, which by any standards of municipality, except Liberia’s, do not merit the status. Here, I will violate the academic precept of source provision, because this is a commonplace. Have I said all this to denigrate Grand Kru or River Cess or any of the other counties that I mentioned as critically lagging in development? No! My objective is not to vilify and relegate, but to provide critical and substantive analyses that will enable us think between the lines and make sound decisions that serve the best interests of our country. The essence of the analogies that I set above will become much clearer in subsequent segments of this discussion.
Why do pro-division Nimbaians believe that creating a new county will land more jobs? The jobs they are referring to obviously are county officials and legislators. The long-held notion in Liberia that government is the only source of employment and the heavy reliance on public-sector jobs as avenues for economic prosperity continue to impact us negatively. No wonder why the country has become so politically charged and combative as evidenced by the atmosphere of belligerency and widespread acrimonious reactions that attended the 2017 elections to a proportion that we never had witnessed previously in our recent history. Job creation cannot be limited to maintenance of few bureaucrats (ministers, superintendents, commissioners, etc.). Appointing more officials—especially when a vast majority of the population is unemployed and languishes in poverty—does not in any way translate into development.
In fact, is it not laughable what some people are calling “national cake” for which they are championing separatism? Current CDF allocations are ridiculously trivial considering the enormous prevailing national development needs. Apportionments for each county for the 2015/2016 and 2016/2017 fiscal years were $200,000, a total of $3 million for each budget year. Meanwhile, for the same fiscal periods, allocations to the municipal government sector (excluding Monrovia and Paynesville) for basic salaries, allowances, and goods and services combined were $8.9 million and $9.4 million respectively (See Liberia’s 2015/206 Budget, 117 & 127 and 2016/2017 Budget, 94 & 102). A look at government’s spending pattern shows less investment in tangible projects and more spending on salaries, allowances, consumables, and other goods and services that significantly go toward the maintenance of top officials. With the upkeep of officials already taking a heavy toll on government’s coffers, the proposal to multiply government officials through the creation of a new county is tantamount to orchestrating a suffocation of the country. Even so, there is no guarantee that once a county is born, it will begin to enjoy an incessant supply of its full CDF share, because in the wake of progressive inflations and fiscal deficits experienced in recent years, development allocations have often been susceptible to austerity as compared to salaries, which are legal obligations.
A fascination with public sector jobs is often a recipe for failed expectations, disappointments, and disenchantments especially among lay persons. The prospects for providing viable and substantial employments and for promoting sustainable development come with building and maintaining a vibrant private sector. Again, government needs to create the necessary conditions for such a process.
But even with marginal governmental intervention, we Nimbaians proudly have embraced self-sustenance over the years and have endeavored to promote private sector development. Take for instance the likes of private businessmen such as Floyd Tomah and Prince Howard, who have invested heavily in the mining, hospitality, and energy industries; Dr. Peter Weato, Sen. Prince Y. Johnson, and Representative Jeremiah Kunn who have large ventures in the health and education sectors; Phareze Dakpah and Sam Brown who continue to support grassroots development through informal but viable micro-finance programs; and a host of other middle-level businessmen and women who have stores and warehouses lined up in Ganta, Sanniquellie, Karnplay, Saclepea, Tapita, Bahn, Yekepa, and elsewhere in the county. Without adequate data to inform an in-depth analysis, it is reasonable to project that these sons and daughters of our great county, in their private capacities, have employed thousands of people, and their investments and efforts continue to bring a positive outlook to our communities. Also, ordinary Nimbaians have largely demonstrated commitment to productivity, and competition has reached a point where residents in many of our towns and villages, despite overall economic challenges they face, are making efforts that are reminiscent of President Tolbert’s slogan, “From mat to mattress” and I will add, “From mud to brick houses.”
The remarkable progress that we have made, arguably outperforming other counties in trade, education, and infrastructural development has been possible because of our passion to embrace competition, a strong entrepreneurial spirit, a sense of shared values and belonging, and a true loyalty to our county and country. This, many other Liberians have acknowledged, have admired and envied, and have yearned to copy. We have done this with a ONE Nimba and there are no salient justifications or predictors that division will guarantee betterment.
Speaking of division, I have heard some people, in an attempt to make a case for their proposed decentralization agenda, pointing to cases of administrative subdivisions in some developed countries, particularly the states and counties framework in the United States. One of them commented on Facebook, “En America get 52 states.” This kind of comparison is telling of one of the major problems we have: the notion that we can import wholesale any ideas or practices from the West or elsewhere, regardless of whether they are appropriate to our context. This is erroneous because the fact that learning and adaption are essential to growth and development does not necessarily mean that any foreign ideas should run through our systems immune of scrutiny and compatibility testing. Learning and adaptation themselves are products of evaluation. Not all ideas and practices are applicable in every setting. Sometimes adjustments and modifications are necessary. Democracy for example, is a relatively plastic ideology that is subject to customization. Britain and the United States for instance, both subscribe to democracy, but each practices a different form of the ideology. Britain has a representative democracy and the US by extension, a constitutional democracy, in which courts restrain in some measure the democratic will. Regrettably, many African nations (Liberia included) crave to import the Western versions of this form of government unaltered regardless of contextual applicability.
The point of the above analogy is to caution that “decentralization,” which has become a new element of a massive set of empty clichés and slogans in Liberia, may not apply the same way in Liberia as it does in the US or elsewhere. Although every country deserves a governance structure and a hierarchy of administration, including regional formations, it would be an exhibition of uncultivated naivety to think that since America has fifty first-level administrative layers, Liberia deserves the same. The United States is a vast body of land, and at 3.5 million square miles, constitutes about 6.142 percent of the world’s land area (WorldOdometer 2014), compared to Liberia’s 43,000 square smiles. The state of Tennessee, where I currently stay and study, and which ranks 36th among the fifty states in terms of land area, measures 42, 143 square miles, almost about the same size of Liberia. Alaska, the largest state, has a land area of 663,267 square miles (US Census Bureau, 2000 census report), which is more than fifteen times the size of Liberia.
Yet, regardless of land sizes and populations, decentralization does not entail the mere act of slashing a country into pieces and creating more internal boundaries for political purposes. Decentralization in federal systems like those of the United States and Nigeria has involved, among other things, securing regional fiscal and economic autonomy, where each state takes charge of its own revenue generation and administration. This drives development, especially in a case where the state government is responsible and accountable. This is different from our current system where revenues are consolidated and policies and decisions are centralized despite the existence of multiple counties. Creating additional counties that are dependent on and muzzled by Monrovia would not bring any development. We don’t need to migrate to a federacy, but we certainly need an accountable government, some form of regional fiscal autonomy, and an integrative decentralization process (most especially the decentralization of services).
How we develop and implement this kind of model is a complex process which I cannot address fully in this article, but some have already begun efforts in this direction. One of them is Cllr. Yarsuo Weh-Dorliae, a public-sector executive and a current member of the Governance Commission (GC). In a 2014 volume title, Proposition 12 for Decentralized Governance in Liberia: Power Sharing for Peace and Progress, Weh-Dorliae outlined twelve proposals that emphasized a comprehensive decentralization process, including economic and fiscal impact criteria for national development (Weh-Dorliae 2014, 39-40). Weh-Dorliae also frowned on further partitioning of the country, adding, “I propose that the first legislative action is to abolish the townships and autonomous districts. We all know of the open secret that these subdivisions were created initially by the presidents to keep loyalists and friends on the government payroll. Later, the idea created a floodgate for political employment” (p. 41). This type of work should provide us the foundation for developing an effective governance and decentralization framework.
Here is another issue. Fair resource distribution and economic prosperity is a public version of the current decentralization argument. This part of the premise is like that beautiful baby whose parents would gladly showcase it. But there is a disguised version. Some Nimbaians have enlisted themselves in this decentralization campaign because of their displeasure with the current county leadership, their disagreement with majority’s decisions particularly at the 2017 polls, and the perceived threats to their political careers and ambitions. Some are simply imbued with a sense of self-supremacy and continue to hold unto the idea of profiling and stereotyping others. Another decentralization advocate, who has held Facebook hostage for a while with his “divide Nimba” campaign posts, remarked on the platform, “We need to divide Nimba because of the foolish decisions of the majority illiterate people.”
Illiteracy is a facet of underdevelopment. Isn’t it an irony and a comedy to purport to be advancing a proposal for development while suggesting that the illiterate people among us should belong to a different planet of their own? This kind of mindset also raises questions about the kind of education we have acquired. Education without a sense of humanity is dangerous. It is exactly what American liberal education advocates Christopher Flannery described in his 1998 article “Liberal Arts and Liberal Education” as producing “computer programmers, scientists, business managers, doctors, and lawyers, who are at best technocratic barbarians” (p. 2).
Profiling and stereotyping people, as we witnessed in our recent history, is a recipe for conflicts and atrocities. Decentralization will make no difference if our goal is to sever ourselves from those we perceive as different from ourselves or as enemies. There is neither a guarantee that everyone on each side of a divided Nimba will always concord on issues, ideologies or interests.
Finally, the proposal for division lends itself to many questions than answers. To divide Nimba, what is the criterion for demarcation? Is it tribal? District-based development indicators? Educated vs illiterate? What become of our shared resources? Will we divide Mount Nimba so that each side has a fair share? Or will we share the social development fund, since the supposed aim of division is fair resource distribution and equitable development? Which names do we give each of the new counties and which part will have entitlement to the existing shared emblems and county symbols?
Division is a joke; a united Nimba is the way forward! Kwado, Kwado, Nimba Kwado!
By: Samson Wonnah