John Pa Baimba Sesay: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 20 December 2012:
On the 14th December 2012, President Ernest Koroma delivered a statement at the House of Parliament, on the occasion of the state opening of the first session of the fourth parliament of the second republic of Sierra Leone.
Delivering a 106 paragraphs statement that lasted for over one hour, President Koroma spoke about his determination to ensure Sierra Leone’s transformation in line with the provisions in the Agenda for Prosperity, a blueprint for Sierra Leone’s development in the next five years.
He spoke at length about his plans for sustaining the country’s democracy by deepening the decentralization process.
With thunderous applause from MPs, from across the political divide, he highlighted a series of development initiatives planned for the country, ranging from his desire to utilize the youthful population for Sierra Leone’s transformation and prosperity, to deepening the process of decentralization.
The present government of President Koroma has practically given serious attention to the process of decentralization and this is due to the leadership role that Ambassador Dauda Kamara played in fostering the decentralisation process in the last five years.
Despite the enactment of the Local Government Act 2004 by the Tejan Kabbah led SLPP government, which provided for the decentralisation and devolution of functions, powers and services to local councils and for other matters connected to its achievement, it is under the Koroma administration that we saw a realistic approach to the process, through the devolution of a number of functions from MDAs to the councils and in also transmitting funds from central government to local councils.
President Koroma believes that the process is as relevant to the development of the country, as it is also to the success of his government in the next five years.
Speaking in parliament, he said that: “…the Agenda for Prosperity will treat decentralization as an important strategic intervention for the promotion of inclusive and diversified growth, reducing poverty, building local economy and delivering effective services needed for improved wellbeing of the people and prosperity of the nation.”
There is also a commitment on his part, to “ roll out the new decentralization policy and conclude the review of the necessary legislation especially the Local Government Act 2004…” and continue to facilitate timely, predictable and increased performance-based transfers to local councils.
The decision to deepen the decentralization process in Sierra Leone could not have come at a much better time.
Since it was reintroduced some eight years ago, there has been the urgent need for a thorough review of the process, to see what impact has been made, the challenges it is faced with and look out for possible ways of improving on what has been achieved over the years.
I have always advocated for a review of the Local Government Act 2004, given that there are a lot of loopholes that have always created some sense of conflict between the councils, our chiefdom authorities and even our elected Members of Parliament. This is especially so with regard to functions and limitations.
The president went further in his statement to parliament to suggest that the government will “provide direct financial incentives for Local Councils to fully enhance local revenue potentials, and ensure that local revenue contributes meaningfully to local development….”
Above all, government will introduce legislation on local government finance and property taxation that clearly establish procedures for revenue collection and sharing, between local and chiefdom councils and the administration of property rates, respectively.
This is practically reasonable and very encouraging. The vexing issue of who collects what revenue remains a challenge for and between local councils and chiefdom authorities.
Transparency and accountability
President Koroma spoke of his commitment to continuing with the promotion of transparency and accountability in local governance, by making local councils directly accountable for their actions to their citizens and nationally, while adhering to the best practices of open government.
The promotion of a transparent and accountable government has been a core value in the present political administration.
Promoting an open government is not only limited to the central government, but takes into cognizant the crucial role of local councils and the need for them to be as open and accountable as possible.
This is why the Local Government Act is very clear in terms of what is expected of councils, from the viewpoint of promoting transparency and openness.
Part XV of the Act provides for the councils to be transparent, accountable and ensure public participation. Sections 103 and 104 of the Act require councils to comply with the requirements of the Anti Corruption Commission.
Specifically, on a more specific note, section 107, sub-section 1 provides, that “Local councils shall post on a notice board in a conspicuous place on the premises of the council and on a notice board in each Ward for at least twenty-one days: (a) monthly statements of financial accounts (b) annual income and expenditure statements (c) inventories of assets of the local councils (d) bye-laws and notices relating to tax rates and fees (e) minutes of council meetings and (f) development plans…”
This is one way of ensuring transparency in the councils, but compliance has been a challenge, as well as meeting the provisions for devolving all of the functions, as contained in the Third Schedule of the Act.
The councils and especially the line ministry may even want to look at the proposed functions to be devolved, because even when there is the overriding political will on the part of the central government, the process of devolution has always been met with the challenge of limited human resources.
For instance, if a function like fire prevention and control is to be devolved to local councils, it means, personnel should be made available for this to be achieved.
But in situations where there is the absence of suitably qualified and skilled personnel, it means that this function may be devolved, but councils would not be able to effectively perform such a function.
It therefore would be prudent and also timely for the line ministry, in this case, Local Government Ministry to be well capacitated and provided with the enabling environment to be able to fully monitor the operations of local councils across the country, and see how they could recruit or develop the needed human resource.
The issue of basic and regular training for local council staff and elected councillors is also fundamental in this debate.
The introduction of local councils was aimed at ensuring service delivery at the local level and full community participation in the development of their localities.
Community participation is crucial to the success or failure of the decentralization process.
Section 108 of the Act provides that the Local Government Ministry shall promote participatory processes in local councils and encourage citizen’s inclusion and involvement in governance. But how this can be achieved is left open.
Take for instance, following the introduction of the councils in 2004, there was a rapid response program, which was introduced by government, designed to ensure local councils produce results within a 100 days period.
But for the exemplary performance of the Bo City Council, especially during the Dr. Wusu Sannoh era, the councils in Pujehun and Bonthe City had their own stories to tell, which were not as encouraging as was expected.
In the Bonthe Municipal Council, for instance, the council decided to embark on the construction of an abattoir, contrary to the needs of the people at the time, which was fixing up a landing quayside since it is an island.
The people literally demonstrated against that development and it had to take the intervention of Search For Common Ground/Talking Drums Studios for both the community and the council to reach a common ground.
It was a challenge promoting community participation in the running of the councils. If the people had been properly consulted on their needs at the time, it surely would have been a landing site.
The ward committee members also have a major role in deepening the decentralization process in Sierra Leone.
A ward committee, according to section 95 (2) of the LGA 2004, shall consist of (a) every Councillor elected from that ward; (b) the Paramount Chief of the Chiefdom, in the case of localities with a system of chieftaincy; and
(c) not more than ten other persons, at least five of whom shall be women, resident in that ward and elected by the ward residents in a public meeting.
The purpose of the Ward Committee is, among other functions to (a) mobilise residents of the ward for the implementation of self-help and development projects; (b) provide a focal point for the discussion of local problems and needs and take remedial action where necessary or make recommendations to the local council accordingly; (c) organise communal and voluntary activities.
Ward Committee members should be seen working in tandem with the overall council in a given district or city, if they are to be successful. But the challenge is for the members to understand what their roles are and how discharge those functions effectively.
The President has spoken, he is determined and it now demands that we come together and work as a country, devoid of our political differences for the good of all.