LET’S LECTURE: Devolution of Power to Local Government – Part 2

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The Governance Commission and Ministry of Internal Affairs are conducting a “de-concentration” initiative. The goal of de-concentration is to enable residents outside Monrovia to access certain services at a county or regional center, rather than having to come all the way to Monrovia. In June, one such center was established in Buchanan, and it is issuing business registration certificates, adjudicating labour cases.

Providing the means for people living outside Monrovia to obtain basic services close by is a necessary and worthwhile thing. Time and expense will be saved; some money will be infused into the local economy where the service centers are located.

As laudable as it is, however, let us be clear. De-concentration is not the same as devolution and should not be viewed as a substitute for it. With de-concentration, power still remains in hands of the political class in Monrovia. Devolution means transferring power from Monrovia to our counties, statutory districts and cities so that the people in these places can make decisions about things that affect their lives independent of the central government.

Last week, I described the process of holding elections in Kokoyah Statutory District for the superintendent and development superintendent positions in 2005, during the transitional government period, as an illustration of devolution in action. Under existing governance arrangements, county and district superintendents and city mayors are appointed by the president, who presides over the central government and may thus not be in the best position to determine who should exercise power at the local government level.

A good first step in the direction of devolution would be to have these positions elected, rather than appointed. One immediate benefit that would result from such a change is that superintendents and mayors would have to become more accountable to the people over whom they exercise authority, rather than only to the president, as the case is right now. This would be the beginning of giving real power to the people and making government truly by the people, of the people and for the people. We are more than 160 years old. Countries much younger than us—

-Ghana and Nigeria readily come to mind—-have advanced much farther along the devolution road than we have. We need to catch up.

Devolution cannot stop with the election of executives. Once elected, these executives have to be answerable to some local body consisting of local representatives of the people who will work with them to set priorities and oversee their funding. Let us call these bodies “councils”.

There would be county councils, district councils and city councils. Their size and composition can be determined using census data. We did not have the benefit of this refinement in the Kokoyah elections, but the same voters’ rolls used for national elections could be used for local government elections.

In order to avoid excessive expense, the size of the councils should be kept small. Their job would be to approve budgets presented by the superintendents and mayors and to review performance reports, perhaps on a semi-annual basis. Thus, they would not need to sit 12 months in the year. Sessions could be limited to a few months and council members would be paid sitting fees.

Now that we have elected executives and councils in place, what should they do? A determination needs to be made as to which functions currently exercised by the central government should be transferred to these local government units. Education, healthcare and policing would seem to be obvious candidates. Elementary schools and local clinics could be carved out as the responsibility of district and city administrations. County administration would be responsible for high schools, county junior colleges and county police detachments. Universities and referral hospitals would remain the responsibility of the central government.

Local government entities cannot be assigned responsibilities without the financial wherewithal to shoulder them. How would they be funded? There are certain taxes and levies which now go to the central government that would be good candidates for local government. Real estate taxes, business registration levies and vehicle registration readily come to mind. Beyond that, some formula needs to be derived for allocating a certain proportion of central government revenues to local government. Again, we need not look much further than the Federal Republic of Nigeria for an example of how this is done.

Devolution of power has many advantages. I have highlighted some of them. But there is one whose impact should not be underestimated. Service in local government provides an excellent step-by-step training ground and pathway for people aspiring to higher office in the national arena, whether as senators, representatives or president.

The writer is a certified public accountant and a businessman. He can be reached at ([email protected])

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