Decentralization Begins at Last

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President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was herself the first Chairman of the Governance Commission, appointed by National Transition Chairman Charles Gyude Bryant in 2004.  That alone set the stage for her sustained and resolute commitment to government reform, whose primary aim is to decentralize the government and bring it closer to the people.

Following her election as President of Liberia in the 2005 elections, she resigned as Governance Commission Chair and was succeeded by Dr. Amos Sawyer.

Dr. Sawyer was eminently qualified for that position.  He is, to begin with, a student of history and a political scientist,a vocation that knows all about politics and government.  In addition, he served, beginning in September 1990, as the Chairman of the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) during the civil war.

The Commission, under Sawyer’s leadership, made great strides in establishing the platform for governmental reform.  Many documents were prepared, position papers written and numerous consultations were held throughout the country, bringing the discussions to the people—the tribal chiefs and their people, students, political leaders, civil servants, scholars and media people.

In the end, the platform was created for what the experts call “the devolution of power,” meaning the transfer of power from the central government to the people at the local level.

The devolution process began this week in Gbarnga, the Bong County capital where many of the preparatory consultations had been held over the years. During three days of discussions, which President Sirleaf kicked off on Wednesday, coordination in the delivery of services began for the devolution of power at the local level.  This will engender (bring about) greater participation of the people and cost effective operations. 

Vehicle registry at the local (county) level will be one of the key operatives here.  This means that vehicle owners, whether commercial, corporate, concession or individual, will not need to come all the way to Monrovia to have their vehicles registered and to receive license documents and plates.  Everything will be done at the county level in the various counties. 

The postal service will also be decentralized.  The county postal service will have to plant post offices in all the cities, towns and villages.  This means that when all is organized at the local level, people will no longer need to come all the way to Monrovia to send or receive mail.      

Another major step in this devolution is the establishing of school boards in each county.  These school boards will determine school policies at the local level as well as the personnel—such as District Education Officers and elementary, junior and senior high principals and other personnel.  Parent-Teacher Associations will also be coordinated.

Then there will be the local registration of marriages, indeed a history-making development.  Since 1847 and the founding of the Republic, no regular weddings have taken place in Liberia without the couples first coming to Monrovia to obtain their licenses from the Registrar of Marriages.  It may take time for Directors of Marriage Registrations to be appointed in the counties; and perhaps more time to set up their offices.  But once these are done, there would be no need for couples to travel all the way to Monrovia to obtain their licenses for marriage.

All of this is at the initial stage of devolution.

A most important part of this devolution process will be the passage by the National Legislature of the Local Government Act, which will formalize the restructuring and re-districting of townships and cities.   This Act will also lay the framework for the election of district commissioners, city mayors and county superintendents, all of whom have, until now, been appointed by the President. 

The Bill for this Act is expected to be submitted by the President to the Legislature by June 16 this year.  Once the bill is passed, the many constitutional issues embedded in the Act will be submitted for a constitutional referendum, which may  hopefully be conducted in 2016 or 2017, before the presidential and general elections.

That referendum will be earthshaking, for the Liberian electorate’s approval of the constitutional amendments will for the first time strip power, for example the appointment of many local government officials, from the presidency and hand it over to the Liberian people.

All of this will be done under Ellen’s watch which, if all goes well, will no doubt constitute one of the cornerstones of her legacy—the devolution of real power from the Liberian President to the Liberian people.  

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