Undermining Power of Local Governance?

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“Chiefs had respect. But right now, chiefs… are controlled, sometimes by both the lawmakers and the executive branch of government.”

“As you may know, the legislations are amongst the most important instruments of my government to protect its citizens and make them happy,” President George Manneh Weah told members of the National Legislature some weeks ago. “Consequently, I have decided that it was time we came together to review the Constitution.”

Electoral reform, an important national exercise that many Liberians have taken to heart over the past months, is not a standalone process. Reform is a natural and necessary by-product of national development that impacts and is impacted by other governance dynamics.

As things stand in Liberia at present, electoral and constitutional reform are two pieces of the same good governance puzzle. Another connected piece – at least according to Liberian citizens – is the matter of local governance, or responsible representation of their interests.

Once upon a time, chiefs were locally elected, based on a unique formulation of “domicile” (clan and lineage) as understood and supported by traditional law. Liberia’s 1986 Constitution integrated this formulation, and the functions of the chieftaincy, into a modern democracy. Article 58 (b) states: “There shall be elections of Paramount, Clan and Town Chiefs by the registered voters in their respective localities, to serve for a term of six years.”

Furthermore, the “new” election law of Liberia (1986, with subsequent amendments in 2003 and 2004) establishes the legal framework for conducting chieftaincy elections every six years (NEL, Chapter Two, section 1.7); as does the Local Governance Act finally passed, with much fanfare, in 2018.

The National Elections Commission, as an autonomous agency independent of any branch of Government, is granted among its powers and duties, authority to serve as “the sole judge of all contests relating to the accreditation of all successful members who have been duly elected as President, Vice President, Members of the National Legislature, Paramount, Clan and Town Chiefs and City Mayors with their Common Councilmen”.

But there have been no contests, or elections, for chiefs. And according to localvoicesliberia.com, frustration is mounting that local people have no say on who their leaders are.

In Gbarpolu, aggrieved chiefs are speaking up about what they see as the undermining of their traditional and constitutional authority. As per the Bondi-Mingingo, Bopolu District Clan Chief, “[Once], chiefs had respect. But right now, chiefs, I mean general town chiefs, clan chiefs and paramount chiefs, are controlled, sometimes by both the lawmakers and the executive branch of government.”

Loss of independent voice, legitimacy and power of office, as well as concern about the qualifications and level of constituent accountability on the part of appointees, are all at issue.

Similarly, in Liberia’s second most populated county, chiefs are raising concerns about eligibility requirements — for elective office.

Like all of the counties, Nimba has little voice in local leadership, as county superintendents and other high-level officials are appointed rather than elected. Because Nimba’s almost 280,000 registered voters can, however, vote for lawmakers, chiefs are asking for more consideration to the domicile clause as a way to build up accountability in the National Legislature.

Where Article 30 (b) of the Constitution states that to run, individuals interested in public office must “be domiciled in the county or constituency to be represented not less than one year prior to the time of the election’’, Nimba chiefs, speaking from their position of customary leadership, feel otherwise.

For Zone Chief of Kpatuo Town, Zaye Z. Bre, any candidate who wants to represent a Nimba constituency must be in place for “a good number of years” before they can be considered “locally qualified” to contest for either house of the Legislature. In that way, the aspirant will be accustomed to the various communities and know their challenges. And if elected, better able to speak on “serious issues”.

Chief Patrick Baryou, Clan Chief, Fro Clan

“The increase in years of local domicile will also help the voters to better acquaint themselves with the contestants. Voters will be able to see who they are and what he or she can do,” Chief Patrick Baryuo of Fro Clan added.

“One year is not enough time,” said Zargoue Biah, a quarter chief. “Only during the course of election we can see most of the candidates. And when they start dishing out cash, it carries the crowd and then gets them elected.

“Let me be frank. Many of these people are not from here in actual sense. They only come, ‘stay small’. They get elected, they do whatsoever they want, then they act like they doing something good for us.”

In July of this year, the Governance Commission (GC) in collaboration with the Ministry of Internal Affairs held a training in Ganta. A diverse audience of county and clan leaders were informed on topics such as inclusive governance, standards of transparency and accountability in local government and the role of the National Council of Chiefs in local governance.

At that time, Commission Chairman Cllr. A. Ndubuisi Nwabudike said that the national decentralization policy seeks to promote “grassroots democracy” that considers the views and aspirations of all citizens, boosts their participation in local governance, and produces tangible outcomes across the counties.

“It is important to note here that a decentralized governance system will play a major role in determining development outcomes in Liberia… (and) local government is the principal agent of the decentralization strategy.”

Vote-rich Nimba may be considered a “big county”, by virtue of its number of registered voters. But small Gbarpolu, along with Bomi, Grand Cape Mount and River Gee, where citizens also recently expressed similar frustrations with local government and candidate eligibility requirements, should not be discounted.

And all Liberian voters should take note of the connections between constitutional and electoral reforms, and county and local development.

Ishmael F. Menkor contributed to this article.

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