The December 22nd, 2006, Press Release from the Office of the President regarding waste management in the City of Freetown, is at best another attempt at derailing Sierra Leone’s decentralization process. Sierra Leoneans see this as an attempt by the incumbent government to discredit the opposition led City Council government; hoodwink the youths of Sierra Leone with a blotched employment strategy, all in a bid to garner votes in the forthcoming elections. With a large number of unemployed youths in the city, including a large number of ex- combatants, and all of this coming a few months before the voters registration exercise for the forthcoming elections, we foresee a more sinister plot that threatens national peace and security.
A second popular opinion is that while there is semblance of a commitment to the decentralization process (for the sake of securing donor funding), government ministries are not ready to devolve administrative, functional and fiscal authority, for fear of losing economic benefits from the control they presently exercise. The press release which quotes sub-section 6 of section 97 of the Local Government Act 2004, as the basis for government’s action is a clear misinterpretation of the intentions of the sub-section. That sub-section of the Act states “Where the local council does not have the capacity to rectify the default, the Ministry shall undertake the functions on the Council’s behalf and take immediate steps to develop the necessary capacity of the council and may for this purpose consult any Government Ministry or Department”.
Things need to be put in their true perspective here. Inability and incapacity (not inefficiency) are the reasons quoted for government’s action. Lack of capacity is the key argument put forth by government for the snail pace in the devolution process. This concern may be legitimate and true for all the Municipal, Town, District and other local government authorities. But how do we expect the Councils to build capacity over a period of two years when we have given them little or no opportunity to do so? It’s like interviewing for a job only to be turned down because you lack experience!! How do they expect you to get the experience in the first place? Almost 10 years after this government took over power, and with approximately $600 million dollars of aid annually, the central government is still organizing sumptuous capacity building workshops. Apply the same performance standards to measure the effectiveness of the SLPP government and see if they will not fail the test!!
The Press release should have addressed the inefficiencies of the central government apparatus which has been responsible for waste management in the first place. Instead it picked on an elected, emerging, ill equipped and under-funded city government that took over an overwhelming urban management problem after the municipal elections of 2004; a municipal government which has just started receiving budgetary allocat1ons and trying to build its own administrative, financial and technical capacity. Judging an institution’s capacity to implement a plan designed by another is not a valid measure of the institution’s management capacity. In other words, monitoring the success of local governments can only be meaningful when there is genuine devolution of authority.
The Ministry of Youth and Sports has been the responsible agency for garbage disposal in the City of Freetown. Renowned Sierra Leonean water and sanitation experts in a document titled “Review of the Water Supply and Sanitation Sector by E.T. Ndomahina and I.S. Kabia, Final Report, 2004” point to the fact that “since 1980 the waste management for Freetown was transferred to the Environmental Health Division (EHD) of the Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MOHS). In 2003 the Waste Management was again transferred to the Ministry of Youths and Sports (MOYS) with both city council and the EHD acting as partners”. The responsible central government ministry spent almost $1.2 million (Le. 900,000,000 per year) over a 4 year period, backed by the provision of other logistics including bulldozers, skip-trucks, front hew loaders, shovels, pickaxes, rakes, wheel-barrows and other utility vehicles for garbage collection in the city. The results of the Ministry’s achievements are evident for all to see. Simply put, the decline in municipal waste management can be attributed to illegitimacy; the absence of a sustainable waste management strategy as part of the National Environment Policy; mismanagement and corruption; lack of accountability and transparency, and a general neglect for the urban management complexities facing Sierra Leonean cities today.
The decentralization objective of the Institutional Reform and Capacity Building Project in Sierra Leone is to support the Government of Sierra Leone to establish a functioning local government system as well as strengthen the policy and implementation capacity of the local authorities. With donor funds, several successful inroads have been made and the foundation for an effective local governance structures have been put in place. Now we should focus on capacity building and the devolution of responsibilities, authority and concomitant resources (funding, personnel, etc). Allow the local authorities to prepare their strategic plans, and let them feel a sense of ownership of the ideas. Fund their plans and provide staff of professional competence (not administrators) to strengthen their base. Develop trust by creating a supportive and co-operative working environment. Use international NGO’s sparingly in advisory capacities and do not devolve authority with strings attached. They may fail at one time or the other but they develop and take ownership of a sustainable system which can pay for itself over time through user fees and taxes. In any case they are accountable to the people at the next municipal elections.
When the newly elected Freetown City Council paid a courtesy call on President Kabbah, their expressed commitment to co-operate fully with the central government has not been reciprocated and now Government is playing the blame game. Instead of making attempts to decentralize, Government is now trying its hands at re-centralization. The task force established by government does not address the capacity building objective of the Local Government Act or the donor funded decentralization process. Sub-section 6 of section 97 of the Local Government Act mandates the Ministry to take the necessary steps to develop capacity of the local authorities. It does not give the Ministry the authority to set up parallel ad hoc institutions or abrogate responsibilities. When politically motivated, non-representative institutions such as the task force are put in place, there is a risk of strengthening their autocracy and weakening democracy.
The real effect of the press release is to continue “business as usual” as follows: Organize a group of unemployed youths under the guise of politically organized “briefcase NGO’s”; provide them with a couple of wheelbarrows, shovels and pickaxes; assign the new Libyan donated trucks to contractors who will transport garbage to the collection points at a fee; all of this will be supervised by a Task Force of Ministers with GTZ giving this illegitimate arrangement a semblance of credibility. $600,000 is spent to repair a few derelict dump trucks that will later be auctioned off; the project covers the administrative costs of the Task Force, and of course Madam Nour’s expatriate fees and GTZ’s overheads. The Central Business District; Hill Station and the west end may see some irregular collections; crude open dumping and burning activities are experienced for the next 6 months; and we are back to square on. It is a win-win situation for the SLPP Government and the few comprised contractors and Executive Directors of the “briefcase NGO’s”. When the money runs out, the citizens of Freetown and their elected government are left dry, with an unsustainable waste disposal system; scattered breeding grounds for flies and vernims; and a disgruntled youth that are back to square one. My fear here is that by using incumbency power and donor money, with the backing of international NGO’s like GTZ, we run the risk of cajoling unemployed youths into unholy alliances that may be worrisome for the smooth conduct of the presidential and parliamentary elections.
Like decentralization “Sierra Leone is unlikely to meet any of its Millennium Development Goals”. (Julia McKenzie, BBC2 News night 01/04/07). The next elections will be Presidential and Parliamentary elections, and not City Council elections. The people of Sierra Leone including of course the Freetonians will be holding the Central Government accountable for 10 years of unfulfilled promises. Leave the citizens of Freetown to deal with the Freetown City Council at the next municipal elections, and do not muddle things up in a desperate attempt to cover up your failures. The public respect for the SLPP has dropped to an all time low nationwide and meddling into the people’s local governance issues is making matters even worse.
Patrick Olu Beckley
City of Alexandria, Virginia, USA