John Baimba Sesay
Decentralization is gradually being applied in many African countries as one of the tenets of good governance. It ensures participation and promotes accountability, both of which are vital in sustaining democratic credentials.
Sierra Leone remains a good example in ensuring local participation in decision making process at the local level when in 2004, the decentralization process was reintroduced.
The Local Councils, being the highest political authorities in their localities, are charged, generally, with the responsibility of “promoting the development of the locality…”
Section 20(2) of the 2004 Act expect councils to mobilize human and material resources necessary for the overall development and welfare of the people; promote and support productive activity and social development; and initiate and maintain programmes for the development of basic infrastructure and provide works and services in the locality, amongst other functions.
Councils, through the decentralization and devolution of state functions, is all about service delivery. When councils are fully funded and empowered, they could do great things. Undertaking the above demands huge resources. And where resources are limited, it becomes a major challenge for their smooth operations, taking into account people’s expectations from elected officials in councils.
But how do councils get finances for their operations? They are to be financed “from their own revenue collections, from central government grants for devolved functions and from transfers for services delegated from Government Ministries,” according to section 45(1) of the Act.
Practically, it has been a controversial issue for MDAs to effectively devolve functions to councils; where some are devolved, resources in the form of cash and personnel hardly come. That said, there has been some progress with more room for growth in that area.
Quarterly allocations from central government to councils hardly arrive on time; where they are made available, those allocations are not enough to even ensure their daily operations, a serving council chairmen recently told me. Revenue collection in the form of payment of taxes is often met with setbacks; poor culture of tax payment, lack of required personnel and resources like vehicles.
Allowances and salaries for Councilors, Council Chairmen and Mayors is also vital if there should be an effective service delivery performance by our councils, especially fourteen years since the reintroduction of the decentralization process.
As it stands at present, Council Chairman and Mayors are said to be receiving Le. 2,280,000 (two million, two hundred and eighty thousand leones) monthly as sitting allowances. This comes virtually with no other benefits like medical allowance, no end of service and no Nassit contribution.
Councilors are said to be receiving Le. 830,000 (eight hundred and thirty thousand leones) monthly. And these are the people who “promote communal and other development activities in the locality.”
Part 13 of the 2004 Act, makes provision for the establishment of Ward Committees. They are an integral part in ensuring participation at the local levels and in the promotion of women in decision making because the Act says, at least five women should be part of the committee.
They are responsible to, amongst other functions, mobilize residents of the wards for the implementation of self-help and development projects; 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. What they receive quarterly as sitting allowance is said to be Le 90,000 (ninety thousand leones).
It should be stated, that a councilor is expected to know the problems the ward s/he represents is facing and then inform council for action. The council in turn undertakes development directly in a ward from revenues generated and where funds are not internally available, it goes in search of donors. This often had challenges, too.
There is more we could do if the decentralization process should be a total success. This is more so given its relevance and the progress it has made over a decade.
We should support the councils to be able to create favorable environments for private sector growth and private sector involvement. Communities must be empowered to undertake local economic development including small and medium size enterprises. Civil society role in the decentralization process is also vital by way of monitoring what the councils are doing.
When MDAs fail to devolve functions to councils, they are indirectly not supporting the process of building local council capacities. This should be a priority as well. Government, through the supervising ministry should facilitate timely, foreseeable and improved performance-based fiscal transfers to local councils.
The welfare of our Councilors, Mayors and Council Chairmen is another critical issue that must be looked into. Sitting fees/allowances may need some review. There is need for better terms and conditions for our elected officials in councils. They must be motivated, too for they undertake bulk of the work when it comes to development at the local levels.
As Jo Beall wrote in ‘Decentralization and Engendering Democracy: Lessons from Local Government Reform in South Africa,’ strengthening local government has been justified not only as a means of making government more efficient, but as a way of increasing democratic participation. Time to push for the councils/decentralization to be strengthened for an efficient governance system.