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“Obstacles to Decentralization” – Democrat: A Commentary

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Indeed, there are many, many consciously-intended, planned and implemented obstacles to Decentralization by the nation’s founders and successive, political leaders, with advice by their academic, public policy counsels, up to this day and date.

One of most important subjects of the Theory of Organizations, Decentralization is the transfer of functions or power from central authority or center of executive power to sections, departments of an organization. Decentralization has not been practiced in the public or political domain, because the Liberia has been a Unitary State since its founding in 1847. The idea or notion has been discoursed only in academic, scholarly terms.

However, in the light of our nation’s turbulent past as a democracy, utilized the Unitary structure of government for more than a century, with negative, devastating results of a “failed state”, Federal structured Decentralization was introduced about 17 years ago, in July 1998, at a National Conference 2024for the future of Liberia, as a viable, alternative option, for consideration. This approach, it was and is claimed, has been tried, tested and proved, relatively, to be successful.

Federalized Decentralization

Decentralization, under the Federal system, basically, is in support of and encourages “Suffrage” or the Right to vote. In a democracy, the right to vote, particularly, in the election of important ,public officials (election, rather than by appointment, as it is now under the unitary system) – such as our local mayors, Town, Clan& Paramount Chiefs and Superintendents of provinces or counties -is regarded NOT as a privilege, but rather, an inalienable right that inheres to adult citizens by virtue of their citizenships. Indeed, it is the primary means of ensuring that governments are responsive to the governed. This is the essence of democracy.

The Major Obstacles

As expected, however, and known, there is fundamental, powerful opposition to change, reform, transformation; powerful political, socio-economic forces deeply entrenched, organized and dedicated to oppose and create new obstacles to decentralization, in the effort to secure self-interests at the expense of people. These include the following institutions.

The Constitutions of the Nation – 1847 & 1986

The most, critical impediment to decentralization – equal treatment, equal partnership in national decision-making, equal and full protection of law – lies in the present, prevailing Unitary system which centralizes all socio-economic and political power in an imperial president in faraway Executive Mansion, Republic of Monrovia. The Unitary system, characterized by the pyramid span of management, places all executive, crucial decision-making power and authority in a president. This system has been, and is ,prescribed by our Constitutions with “democratic checks and balances” (?)but the Unitary Government became, very early, an oligarchy, dominated by an emperor/president.

Given our strong, Liberian, ethnic/tribal affinity, a basic characteristic of our African tradition, this unitary system of government creates the perception or reality that the all-powerful, imperial president may or will seek only the interests of his/her ethnic/tribal and socio-economic and political membership. Moreover, this condition may become the yardstick in the allocation and distribution of the national pie – goodies from the Ministry of Finance or “the paymaster who collects from the people that he (or she) pays”.

Considered(this whole ball of wax) against the reality that the Liberian Government, dominated by an imperial president, is not only the nation’s largest, most important and most-sought-after employer, but also the source of prestige, honor and socio-political cutting-edge in our society.

But the Unitary system has out-lived it usefulness; it is, no longer, relevant to the 21st century realties of democracy the world-over, not only Liberia, and must be replaced. However, successful achievement of this objective, the effort to eliminate or eradicate the panorama of socio-economic and political ills intrinsic in the unitary system requires a revisit of our Constitution for repeal/amendment of the relevant provisions.

The Counties

The creation of four (4), additional counties in 1964 demarcated the nation into nine (9) counties or recognized, political sub-divisions and constituents of the national government under the unitary structure. Although this approach marked a significant way forward, but the nation has not been able to deliver adequate, public services effectively and efficiently and that successive administrations compounded this condition by creation of six (6) additional counties out of the existing counties for a total of fifteen (15), but this added insult to injury, because:

a) The Counties were created out of the existing counties purely on the basis of political considerations – to create the position of superintendents, senators, representatives, etc. without the required population, but for friends and cronies, an expensive burden on the meager, state resources;

b) Others are very small, in terms of geography, also population, the lack of human and natural resources; they do not have command of the required resources to perform as “Counties”;

c) Almost all the newly-created counties lack all of above – population, geography, absence of human & natural resources and the necessary requirements for efficient/effective performance of the functions of a political sub-division as reasonably and rightly prescribed by the Government Policy on National Decentralization & Local Governance.

But in order to correct this condition it is necessary to amalgamate and re-demarcate the nation’s fifteen (15) counties into four (4) provinces– Eastern, North Central, South Central and Western Provinces – and given lawful right, authority and status of semi-autonomous governments to elect their local, political leaders, now appointed by “Monrovia”.

Amalgamation and re-demarcation of the nation’s counties into four provinces is inevitable, because the term or nomenclature of “province” not only raises the stature of regional constituents to national political/administrative sub-divisions in which the county is a sub, sub-structure or division of the province, but also, that the province incorporates geographical size, population, human and natural resources necessary to perform functions of a national sub-division. A province is recognized, connotes or represents semi-autonomous, regional sub-division of a sovereign state. As a matter of fact, our current county capitals are referenced as provincial capitals.

By this approach, a province shall be comprised of the counties as presently defined, but with criteria for inclusion and boundary demarcation based, primarily, on geography and proximity. Criteria for individual settlement – ethnic/tribal kinship and socio-cultural commonality – shall be left to the citizens’ personal preference, consistent with democratic principles of freedom of choice. In the effort to facilitate efficient/effective, reformed administration, particular emphasis shall be placed on population, human and natural resources(of the constituent village, town, clan, chiefdom and district) of the county or province.

Creation of Sub, Sub-structures

Creation of new, but non-existent, towns, clans, chiefdoms, townships, districts (statutory, etc.) is the new attraction for “consultancy”, mainly, in obstacles to decentralization.

In an article elsewhere, we reported that “our recent research shows that county administrations, nationwide, are saddled with policy contradictions and confusions due to administrative decisions and policies made and dispensed by bureaucrats sitting in Monrovia, creating more and more new sub-structures such as clan and paramount chiefdoms, townships, administrative and statutory districts, in addition to existing sub-structures created by ancient Law governing rural Liberia, without benefit of current, research information”.

We noted, for example, that there are eight (8) new sub-sub administrative structures, districts with newly-appointed sub-sub administrators and deputies in Grand Gedeh County (my home county), created out of and in addition to the main, three (3) districts – Tchien, Konobo and Gbarzon – Administrative, sub-Districts. Perhaps, this new approach is intended reform, in response to possible, rapid population growth and expansion; but, there are glaring, disruptive, confusing and overlapping of administrative authority, with unnecessary creations and duplications, including unnecessary costs to the state.

On January 28, 2013, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf drew national attention to this disabling condition when she observed that “. . . the challenges of the Decentralization Policy . . . the present local (in the counties) governance structures are bloated, and difficult to manage. For example, there are more than 149 cities – 33 in Sinoe (County) . . . 93 Administrative Districts; 251 Paramount Chiefs; more than 689 Clan Chiefs; 1,410 General Town Chiefs; and 250 Township Commissioners. The government has to deliver services to more than 16,000 Towns and villages. As if these statistics were not daunting enough, the boundaries of all these localities overlap, leading to confusion over jurisdiction and administrative authority . . .”(President’s 2013 Annual Message, The Executive Mansion, Monrovia).

The statistics quoted by the President are essentially different from those reported by the Honorable Minister of Internal Affairs from Greenville, Sinoe County.

Obstacles to National, Economic Development

Obstacles to decentralization are, in fact, obstacles to national economic and political development in our country.Over time since 1847, we have had government agencies that were and responsible forFinance,Economic Planning & Development, leading to the current over-paid salaries & allowances, over-staffed with possible dual citizens living permanently in foreign countries, but earn fabulous incomes and pay rent here; managers of agencies on bloated, annual budgets of estimated hundreds of millions of US dollars in donor aid, grants& related financing pouring into government accounts and then sleazed into private pockets, whilethere are no meaningful economic development, such as all-weather, safe, efficient roads/highways, in rural Liberia.Take, for example, the recent encounter between the City of Monrovia Street Merchants and the National Police Director:

A newspaper (FrontPage, December 5, 2011) reported that hundreds of thousands of Street Sellers – market men, women, and teen-age boys and girls – within the city of Monrovia and its environs, under threat of forcible removal from street-selling with a deadline of December 15, 2011, by the Police, responded, “let this new police director leave us alone; where does he want us to go now? . . . His December 15 deadline will not hold, where he has to take us? Let him leave us yah”.

The question raised and statement made by the street sellers express the importance and magnitude of the required national solution – decentralization–of a social, economic and rural & urban Liberia, especially, over-crowdedness and related problems that needpositive action and commitment. Is it not, now, about time that we create,by rational policy and implementation, thedesirable, socio-economic and political incentives in the counties, particularly, rural Liberia, designed to attract themigrants – economic/refugee &political, now in Monrovia,back to their homes in the counties.This includes not only the street sellers, but also doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, economists, bankers, politicians, businessmanagers, educators/academicians, investment promoters/capitalists, tourists, professional technocrats, information technologists, sportspersons/managers, etc., etc.

Finally, obstacles created in 1847 in anticipation of federalized decentralization had beenaffirmed/confirmed when we were told by the Governance Commission that that “Liberia 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” (Section 1.0, page 2, National Policy on Decentralization & Local Governance, January 2011).

But the policy theoreticians know thatBoth Federal and Unitary systems refer to or define “devolution” as decentralization of power. However, there are distinct, important differences and conditions, critical to successful democratic practice and results, particularly, in the light of Liberia’s past. In the Federal system, devolution-decentralization is guaranteed by written constitution, with terms and conditions binding upon the central, federal government and its regional, semi-autonomous constituents. Whereas, in the Unitary system, devolution-decentralization is non-constitutional and that the central, unitary government reserves the right to alter, re-arrange or abolish the devolved-decentralized powers without consultation and/or consent of the regional constituents, because, unlike federal system, the regional constituents lack constitutional right to exist, in the first place. This NOT what the people want!!

With Bai M. Gbala, Sr.

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