30 January 2013

Liberia: Mitigating Challenges to Decentralization


Few years after he ascended to the presidency in 1971 following the death of his predecessor, President William R. Tolbert urged the residents of scattered hamlets and villages within proximity to amalgamate into towns that would be inhabited by large populations, making it easier to be well served with the dividends of development, including feeder roads, schools and health facilities.

Under this policy, clans were divided into amalgamated towns with chiefs that were elected and placed on the payroll of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

But the last election held for these local government officials including paramount and clan chiefs was in 1986 and their fate since remained in limbo though a few of them having connections or exerting will power are still on the payroll in the absence of re-election.

The National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance, completed by the Governance Commission was launched a year ago in Salala, Bong County, aimed at ensuring greater participation of the Liberian people in decision-making and in the provision and delivery of public services at local levels of governance.

But as that policy is being implemented to shift from centralized to localized governance, there are emerging challenges that must be recognized and mitigated.

It appears as an irony that the present local governance structure is bloated, and difficult to manage, as President Ellen Johnson warned yesterday in her state of the nation address to the legislature.

It is unimaginable to note that there are more than 149 cities in Liberia, with 33 in Sinoe County alone, thus bringing to mind a discussion in a geography class at the University of Liberia in 1972 with Prof. Hasselman who attempted comparing Bentol City with New York City.

The comparison irritated a student from Bentol City, who shouted: "No Prof., you cannot compare the two. If you do so, it will be like comparing a rat with an elephant."

But the German Professor, who prepared the physical geography of Liberia, calmly insisted that the definition of a city should be uniform for localities that are called that name without distinction.

Now, we hear that Sinoe, one of the smallest counties in the country, has 33 cities, leading us to seek the criteria for declaraing cities in the country. Do most of them worth the name and status when, in fact, most of them do not have any basic amenity of a city?

In fact, the beginning of destroying Tolbert's amalgamation policy was the declaration of territories with one or two districts as counties because few elite there desired political aggrandizement on the same plane with large areas that had county status.

This phenomenon suffocated passage of a threshold that would have restricted some small counties without the requisite population to have one or maximum two representatives. Recalcitrance on that constitutional issue unduly delayed delineation of constituencies by the National Elections Commission.

We believe there is need to systematically solve these hurdles facing successful implementation of the decentralization policy.

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