Local Councils: A pivotal but disappointing role in Sierra Leone’s socio-political and economic development debate

Local government structure in Sierra Leone essentially consists of a system of 19 elected councils, broken down into 5 city councils (Freetown, Bo, Kenema, Koidu-New Sembehun and Makeni); the municipality of Bonthe and 13 district councils consisting of the 12 districts   (Pujehun, Bo, Moyamba, Bonthe, Kenema, Kailahun, Kono, Tonkolili, Bombali, Port Loko, Kambia, Koinadugu) and the western area rural district.

While researching the role and effectiveness of these local councils since their reintroduction by the Tejan-Kabbah administration in 2004, I have been especially struck by the political power paradigm shift that has occurred in local government administration, development, financing and delivery of devolved services in Sierra Leone. For while there is understandably much emphasis on the central government’s role and responsibility for nationwide development, it is worth noting that enactment of the Local Government Act, 2004 largely subordinated the central government and Paramount Chiefs authority and powers to the supremacy of local councils for virtually all development activities in the relevant council localities.

In the case of paramount chiefs, their marginal role in the affairs of the council is reflected in their membership of the councils. The Local Government Act clearly stipulated the number of their membership in the various councils, as for example Pujehun district can only have 2 paramount chief representatives in the council and in the case of Bo district only 3 paramount chief members can be represented in the Bo district council.

It is thus the responsibility of the government, opposition political parties, civil society and especially the requisite local government entities to ensure that the decentralization model as enshrined in the constitution and laws of our country are upheld and not allowed to be subjugated to the centralized and non-representative system that operated during the Siaka Stevens era.

I am however especially concerned, as the local councils and the various majority political parties they represent, do not appear to be adequately cognizant of their legal and political supremacy role, especially in spearheading development and governance  within their various localities, and seem to be ceding to the central government and paramount chiefs , though unconstitutionally their powers. This brings to mind the recent Kenema City Council’s decision to terminate the services of the chief Administrator and the Procurement Officer and the apparent decision by the Vice-President, Chief Sam Sumana to inappropriately and unconstitutionally instruct the Resident Minister, East to have the Council reinstate the sacked council employees. Part V1 Section 32 (2) of the Local Government Act, 2004 clearly states that “…….a local council need not consult …in respect of the appointment of staff….”.

The office of the vice-president has no constitutional authority to supervise the local councils as erroneously asserted by Kenema district APC and PMDC party Chairmen in their protest letter of December 29, 2009. The appropriate constitutional body is the Local Government Service Commission, whose composition does not include the vice president, and whose members according to section 36(2) “shall be appointed by the President with the approval of Parliament”. It is my fervent hope that the Kenema City Council and other local councils will constitutionally challenge any efforts by the political parties and the central government to usurp their lawful authority in this area.

As a participatory constitutional democracy, a legal basis thus exists within the constitutional framework for political checks and balances on the central government, in the allocation of funds and resources in a transparent manner with a concomitant responsibility by the local administrations to be held liable by their constituents for failures to “initiate, draw up and execute development plans for the locality”, as mandated for the Local Government Act.

In a prior article entitled “Decentralization: the key to political and economic empowerment for local government administration in Sierra Leone”, published in 1996,  while advocating the return of elected local councils,  I had argued that “the re- institution of elected municipal, district and town councils must be enshrined in the new constitution to serve as checks and balances on the all pervasive influence of a retrogressive, self-interest oriented and inefficient bureaucracy from again hijacking the developmental aspirations of our people.  These councils must also be empowered to formulate and propagate local socio-economic developmental policies and to manage the local administration with minimal central government interference”.

LOCAL COUNCIL FUNCTIONS:

This shift is clearly enshrined in Part V, section 20 (1) of the Local Government Act, which states inter alia that: “A local council shall be the highest political authority in the locality and shall have legislative and executive powers to be exercised …..and shall be responsible, generally for promoting the development of the locality and the welfare of the people in the locality with the resources at its disposal and with such resources and capacity as it can mobilize from the central government and its agencies, national and international organizations and the private sector”.

The functions of these local councils are breathtaking in their scope and include as an example the initiation and maintenance of programs for development of basic infrastructure, works and services in the locality and the performance of devolved functions from the central government.

In addition to self-revenue generating activities within their constitutional purview, the local councils are also funded by annual block grants from the central government based on a defined percentage approved annually by Parliament in addition to payments for devolved services performed on behalf of the central government. For example, the 2007 budget by the erstwhile SLPP administration allocated the following sums to the Pujehun District Council:

  • Administration:            SLL168,152,409 (Non Salary Expenditure)
  • Health:                           SLL588,135,315
  • Education:                     SLL1,183,188,478
  • Agriculture:                   SLL137,601,435
  • Solid Waste:                  SLL14,621,753
  • Rural Water Services:  SLL36,615,541
  • Others:                            SLL54,613,359
  • Local Government:       SLL317,530,417
  • Road Grant:                    SLL 159,641,424

Thus, the total vertical allocation by the central government to the Pujehun district local council for FY 2007 totaled SLL2,660,100,130( Source: Government Budget for the Financial Year, 2007-Annex 5 Summary of Grants Allocated to Local Councils).

Clearly as people from Pujehun district or visitors can attest the above mentioned allocated sums, in addition to prior fiscal allocations from 2004 to 2006, in no way reflected the level of developmental activities, if any undertaken by the local council under the Chairmanship of Mr. Nasiru Deen Magona. This is however not only a Pujehun district isolated issue, as the same scenario can be replicated in all the local councils in the country, as an assessment and analysis of their various allocations will confirm.

PARTISAN COUNCILS:

In an effort at decentralization following the inordinate concentration of socio-economic, political and administrative decision making powers in the hands of the central government in Freetown; witnessed particularly during the Siaka Stevens era, local council elections are today conducted on a partisan basis, with candidates representing the various national political parties.  As partisan local councils, the various majority political parties are thus concomitantly held accountable for the efficient functioning and developmental strides or lack thereof being undertaking by their representative councilors, chairmen and mayors.

Of the 19 elected local councils in the country following the recent 2008 elections, the governing APC party controls all the councils in the northern and western area, including  Bombali, Port-Loko, Kambia, Tonkolili, Koinadugu, Western Area and Western Rural Area, while the opposition SLPP controls the Pujehun, Bo, Kenema, Kailuhun, Moyamba and Bonthe district councils. The PMDC opposition party controls only the municipality of Bonthe with a few elected councilors in other southeastern districts.

However a review of the socio-political and economic performance of most of these councils leaves much to be desired, as reflected in the Pujehun district council example; in both policy direction from the political parties and implementation of development programs by their agents. In fact one is left with the impression that political parties have largely abrogated their roles in the developmental process of their constituents, for which these councils were designed, and are resorting to the old model of looking forward to the central government for political patronage and largess to accomplish their constitutional mandates.

As an example, the main opposition SLPP party has continued to maintain total dominance in all city, district and chiefdom councils in the entire southern and eastern regions of the country. These councils with central government subventions, grants and self-revenue generating capacities not to mention ability to enter into commercial contracts with financial institutions and attract funding from both national and international institutions have however remained dormant.

The opposition SLPP must be made to understand that they have a responsibility to their electorates in these local council wards and our people do not have to wait until another election before development can be initiated and implemented by the local councils under their political control.

CONCLUSION:

“Power” is according to the historian and political philosopher Walter Rodney, “the ultimate determinant in human society, being basic to the relations within any group and between groups. It implies an ability to defend one’s interests and if necessary to impose one’s will by any means available. In relations between peoples, the question of power determines maneuverability in bargaining, the extent to which a people survive as a physical and cultural entity. When one society finds itself forced to relinquish power entirely to another, that in itself is a form of underdevelopment”.

The question now that deserves answering is how are the political parties and their respective leaderships engaging and utilizing the enormous constitutional authority granted all local councils in effectuating local development, job creation, provision of basic infrastructural amenities and services for their respective constituents?  They must be seen engaging these councils with their various party programs and policies to ensure that development is embarked on and undertaken.  We can no longer afford the old model of waiting for the central government to initiate development programs before services in the various localities are provided. That is the responsibility of the local councils and their respective parties, which must no longer be ceded to any central government, however benevolent, for that will be viewed as a form of underdevelopment.

Source by Kortor Kamara

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