Regionalism in Sierra Leone can empower local communities and promote national economic growth

Alpha Kawusu

15 February 2012

Sierra Leone’s overly-centralized system of political and economic governance is partly responsible for the country’s stunted political growth and endemic poverty. Not only has centralized and bureaucratic statism failed to deliver on political stability and sustained economic growth, but it has also fostered the emergence of governments with egregious human rights records.

These governments have in turn created a top-down technocratic and managerial class, whose sole interests have been the looting of public resources with impunity.

Additionally, centralized national governance has concentrated power in the hands of one man. This, as we have seen over the years is conflict-inducing. Therefore, there is a need for a more equitable distribution of power within a framework of regionalism.

Such constitutional arrangement would inexorably lead to political stability, which in turn would act as a catalyst for national economic development and the empowerment of local communities.

Regionalism involves a process of devolution of political and economic power to the various regions in the country.

Contrary to regionalization, which allows the national government to define regional policies, regionalism is a bottom-up decentralizing process that allows for a broader understanding of structural change.

In Sierra Leone, regionalism will require the transfer of decision making authority from the central government to political and administrative jurisdictions in the provinces and the Western Area.

With each region headed by a governor, regionalism will allow for a spatial reorganization of production and a revitalization of associational life that have long been stifled under centralized and authoritarian rule.

Regionalism will also draw on the social, political and economic forces associated with private sector development, within the broader context of capitalist accumulation.

Moreover, such a decentralized formation would draw some inspiration from the loosely decentralized schema that existed in the form of autonomous district councils, in the years immediately following independence.

Unfortunately, this early attempt at political decentralization was destroyed by former president Siaka Stevens, who also went on to ensure that traditional rulers danced to the dictates of the central government in Freetown.

Consequently, power became concentrated in the hands of one man, who together with a coterie of sycophants, resorted to various schemes of predatory accumulation.

And this notwithstanding, the numerous other weaknesses and unaddressed atrocities of the state undermined national cohesion, thereby plunging the country into an eleven-year civil war.

As if Sierra Leone has learned nothing from her turbulent past, predatory accumulation, political violence and other forms of conflict are on the rise again. These conflicts which are linked to state fragility and exacerbated by weak governance are also driven by parochial interests that are rooted in greed, ethnic hegemony and corruption.

Yet, empirical evidence abounds that while countries that are mired in endemic corruption and social fragmentation have lagged behind in economic growth, those whose formal representative institutions are supplemented by vibrant and participatory political, economic and civic associations are better positioned to record high rates of growth.

Globally, regionalism is gaining more and more significance in political, economic and cultural spheres. In the age of globalization, not only can regionalism be seen as a lateral trend to globalization but arguably, it has become a trend that is driven by it.

For example, in China and India where political decentralization has accorded more responsibilities to local governments, the pressure of globalization is forcing an efficient allocation of resources both publicly and privately by increasing competition in these countries.

Thus, as an exogenous force, the significance of globalization for regionalism lies mainly in its tendency to stimulate endogenous institutional and organizational change.

As a result of globalisation, governments cannot set domestic policies without an eye on international factors, which are shaped by global political and market forces. What this  means for Sierra Leone is that globalization will continue to force the government to “open up”, thereby exposing the economy to exogenous shocks.

And the more the country is exposed to exogenous shocks – the more vulnerable it becomes. However, this vulnerability can be neutralized if regional and local communities are able to gain power over protective and stabilization-related instruments.

Such greater autonomy will ensure broad local participation in public policy-making, thereby encouraging the representation of diverse political, ethnic, religious and cultural constituencies in public administration.

The consequence of this is that national initiatives and policies will be given greater legitimacy, while the foundation for national growth and prosperity is strengthened.

Thus, with regionalism, endogenous institutional and organizational change will force inter-regional competition in trade and other aspects of economic activity. This will lead to an efficient allocation of resources, which in turn will solidify the foundation of a dynamic and thriving civil society.

With a dynamic and thriving society, Sierra Leone’s richness and diversity will be unearthed as regional political, business and commercial groupings are empowered.

There are those who may argue that there is no a priori reason why a more decentralized form of government would be more democratic and efficient than a centralized form of government.

While this argument may carry some weight, it must be borne in mind that different countries must look at their peculiarities in deciding on their future path of political and economic development.

Centralized governance is not working in Sierra Leone as politics has become more polarized and dangerous, thereby hindering national economic growth.

Therefore, the need for change is self-evident. But for such a change to be progressive, it must be in the direction of a more vibrant and robust society – within a decentralized framework of regionalism.

With a vibrant and robust society, a bulwark against the negative effects of centralization will be erected, through the checking of the dictatorial tendencies of the state.

Regionalism will also raise the voices of the traditionally excluded and marginalized constituents. This in turn will enhance civic pride, broaden participation; improve the efficiency and effectiveness of local administrative functions, and promote greater accountability in Sierra Leone.









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