Liberians, especially those in the hinterlands, are not only craving for an accountable governance system but also a system in which they will have much more of a say—especially about the leaders that represent them at the local level.
As it appears, they no longer want their local leaders to be imposed upon them by a centralized system in Monrovia. Echoed by the definition of democracy, a form of government that Liberia, a unitary state, subscribes to—government for, by and of the people, Liberians want a voice in choosing their county’s superintendents, a new Afrobarometer study shows.
A large majority of Liberians want their county superintendents to be elected directly by the citizens instead of being appointed by the President, the survey, released over the weekend, says. Appointment by the President has usually shown a loyalty result for the President rather than the citizens.
Afrobarometer is a pan-African, nonpartisan survey research network that provides reliable data on African experiences and evaluations of democracy, governance, and quality of life.
The latest survey, conducted by a team led by the Center for Democratic Governance (CDG), says it found that under the current appointment system, relatively few citizens say they contact their county superintendents to discuss problems or share their views.
The study also unveiled that popular trust in county superintendents is low compared to other leaders and that public approval of superintendent’s job performance declined compared to 2018.
The team says it interviewed a nationally representative, random, a stratified probability sample of 1,200 adult Liberians between October and December 2020. “A sample of this size yields country-level results with a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points at a 95% confidence level. Previous standard surveys were conducted in Liberia in 2008, 2012, 2015, and 2018,” the report said.
President Wields Enormous Power?
For years, citizens have advocated for Article 56 of the Liberian Constitution to be amended to make the position of county superintendent elective. Supporters say letting voters choose local leaders to improve accountability and responsiveness.
Article 56 of the constitution says: ’B’ “All cabinet ministers, deputy and assistant cabinet ministers, ambassadors, … superintendents and other government officials, both military and civilian are appointed by the President. But the ‘B’ says, there shall be elections of paramount, clan and town chiefs by the registered voters… to serve for a term of six years.”
“It is about time that the Superintendent of each county be elected and not appointed as presently,” a veteran Educator and an Author, Edmund Zar-Zar Bargblor, said in a commentary last year.
Mr. Bargblor, an eminent son of Grand Gedeh county, could not rule out recent occurrence when he noted that the orchestrated riot that took place in Zwedru City on July 30, 2020), where some citizens of Grand Gedeh, demanding for Hon. Yekeh Kolubah and Presidential Candidate, Mr. Cummings leave Grand Gedeh, is an indication where a leadership of a county is doing everything possible to please its boss, the President.
“Therefore, the superintendent of a county should be elected by his/her citizens. This level of blind loyalty to any leadership in a democracy is dangerous,” he said, adding, “Now, the Superintendent is answerable to the President and not to the people he/she serves. So, what is playing here, a superintendent makes a decision without seeking the approval of the citizens of his /her citizens, but the President.”
“The superintendent functions at the will and pleasure of the President and not the people, in this case, the people of Grand Gedeh County. It is erroneous to blame the people of Grand Gedeh, especially when they have no power to elect their own superintendent in their county,” Bargblor.
A Local government expert, Yarsuo Weh-Dorliae, could not be more succinct when wrote in his book, “Proposition For Decentralized Governance in Liberia,” that since 1847 and throughout the history of public administration in Liberia, there has been no system of checks and balance as the nation’s Presidents have wielded extraordinary power in the management of the nation’s affairs.
“The other two branches of government, the legislative and the judiciary, have always proved powerless in invoking the power of our constitution. We have never been able to see our legislative branch questions the executive branch, nor curb the excesses of the presidency,” he noted.
Weh-Dorliae said that the major excesses of the Liberian presidency remain entrenched in its power to appoint and remove any public official at will, directly or indirectly; to set national priorities and decide what is good or not good for the country; and to determine how our nation’s financial resources should be controlled and expended.
“In the management of our nation’s affairs, all socio-economic and political decisions that impact local communities within the political decisions that impact local communities within the political subdivisions, continue to be controlled and directed by the President through officials based in the nation’s capital and agents sent to the interior,” he said.
However, a Bill has since been passed and signed into law to cut down some of the enormous power vested in the presidency.
Presented to the Legislature by the Executive Branch of Government in August 2015, and subsequently passed by the House of Representatives in December of the same year, the Bill was sent to the Senate for concurrence. However, for two years, the Senate and local and international experts, and the traditional leaders carried out consultations as a way of including the voices and aspirations of the locals.
Many of the Senators were keen on the provision in the Bill that called for the decentralization of the country through the election of local government authorities, especially superintendents, commissioners, and mayors but spoke against the election of chiefs.
President Weah signed the Act into Law on Wednesday, September 19, 2018. The LGA provides the legal and regulatory framework for Decentralization and Local Governance reforms in Liberia, which is being implemented through the Liberia Decentralization Support Program (LDSP), with funding from the European Union (EU), Swedish Government, USAID, UNMIL, and UNDP.
One of the staunch proponents of that provision was Grand Cape Mount County Senator Varney Sherman, who welcomed the election of superintendents and commissioners but did not include chiefs, who he said work under the “higher-ups.”
Sen. Sherman urged that his colleagues, who are against the election of superintendents, not to see themselves as being threatened by the strengthening of local government.
Senate Chairman on Internal Affairs and Maryland County Senator, Gbleh-bo Brown, noted at a press conference in 2018 that decentralization will strengthen the country’s resolve for peace, adding: “Since 1847, governance system has been heavily centralized, with every major decision, activity, direction coming from Monrovia, and decisions handed down to the local people, so decentralization is to give the legal regulatory framework some of the powers back to the people.”
Sen. Brown, who himself served as Superintendent during the regime of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, noted that citizens want to participate in decisions regarding the running of the country as well as decide their own fate from the clan, chieftaincy, the district, and to the county levels.
Survey Rechoes Long-Held Thoughts
The survey released under the signature of CDG Head, Oscar Bloh, indicates that almost eight in 10 Liberians say county superintendents should be directly elected by voters, including 62% who “agree strongly” with this view.
And only about one in four citizens (23%) say they contacted their county superintendents during the previous year to discuss a problem or share their views, a lower contact rate than for traditional leaders (50%), political party officials (34%), members of the House of Representatives (32%), and senators (26%).
The survey also disclosed that only a quarter (24%) of Liberians say they trust their county superintendents “a lot” or “somewhat.” Along with members of the House of Representatives (23%) and Senators (21%), county superintendents are considered less trustworthy than many other officials are.
“Only a quarter (26%) of citizens “approve” or “strongly approve” of the performance of their county superintendents, representing a significant decline compared to 2018 (44%),” it says.
The study also shows that most Liberians believe that counties should be given a share of revenues collected by the central government and that they would use additional resources wisely for development and better services.
A large majority (76%) of citizens “agree” or “strongly agree” that each county should be given a share of the revenue that the central government collects in that county (Figure 5).
A similar proportion (79%) believes that if county administrations are given more resources, citizens can count on them to use the resources wisely to improve local development and access to services.