Constitutional reform and the prospects for government decentralization in Liberia

By Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei, 29 August 2014
Liberia's President Sirleaf Johnson
Liberia's President Sirleaf Johnson

Liberia’s fourteen-year long civil war—as those familiar with the country’s history and politics in the last few decades can attest—was never by accident, but a consequence gross governance failures, which were brought about in part by exclusionary politics coupled with excessive executive powers and over- centralization. Reforms in the 1980s, it was thought, would address these issues, especially that of devolved government and excessive presidential powers. These hopes, however, were shattered when the military government (1980 – 1985) rejected the 1984 Constitution Commission’s proposals, which included a system of local self-governance in the counties and a reduction of executive powers. Eleven years after the civil war, and after eight years of civilian democratic rule, Liberia remains a highly-centralized state. Executive powers, especially with respect to the selection of public officials, are excessive. The President of the Republic appoints and dismisses all officials in sub-national units – from county superintendent and city mayor to district commissioner. In addition, the president retains powers to remove even elected chiefs for cause. Further, local officials function as staff of the Ministry of Internal affairs and have little or no say in the collection and allocation of revenue. nor do they have deliberative and legislative powers.

However, since the return to civilian rule in 2006, the question of political decentralization and local governance was made a central item of the first post-war government’s reform agenda. A  Governance Commission was set up to lead consultations on decentralization across the country, resulting in a guideline document entitled National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance (2012), from which a Local Government Act was drafted in 2013. Both the policy and the draft Act provide for popularly elected local government authorities, with full powers to generate and expend revenues, promulgate ordinances, and design and implement service delivery programs.

This initiative, though widely hailed as a giant step towards reforming governance shortcomings by Liberian CSOs and by numerous academics and politicians, has unfortunately never been translated into practical action by Monrovia. One reason for this is the current Constitution itself. Article 54(d) thereof empowers the President to ‘nominate and commission superintendents, other county officials and officials of other political sub-divisions’. Such a provision clearly defeats any objectives that could have been intended by the policy and the draft Act, not to mention the fact this has never become law and the Constitution remains supreme in any case. This constitutional obstacle has encouraged the emergence of a clientelist culture, in which corruption and impunity thrive from the corridors of power in Monrovia down through to the counties.
This  status quo is increasingly coming under attack. With the launch of a Committee to review the Constitution in 2012 coupled, with growing political and civic consciousness among many Liberians, support and arguments for decentralization have overwhelmed the current constitutional reform discourse.
‘The current centralized system has become obsolete and appears to be the deadwood inhibiting good governance and socio-economic development’, says for instance, Eddie Jarwolo of NAYMOTE-Partners for Democratic Development—a civil society organization advocating for local governance and decentralization that is engaged with local communities on civic education.. Such criticisms are also increasingly accompanied by calls for the CRC to come up with recommendations to curb the powers of the central government and to devolve these powers to the sub national units.

Unsurprisingly, this has not been without objections from Monrovia, where central government officials continue to constitute the major opposition to decentralization. They have raised in their defense two main arguments: firstly, inadequate resources and capacity at the county level, and secondly the need to maintain the unitary character of the state.

Both arguments—the resource one in particular—have dominated the decentralization debate for a very long time. Based on experiences from implementing the County Development Fund (CDF) and the County Development Agenda (CDA)—initiatives from the central government, which are aimed at  accelerating development in the counties through local planning and the transfer of funds— decentralization activists argue that the resourcedefense is superfluous.  . The CDA and CDF experiences, they contend, show that given the opportunity, local peoplecan accelerate self-governance and service delivery programs in efficient ways. Through the CDF local communities have facilitated building of schools, clinics and farm-to-market roads, and have introduced numerous channels of accountability through local advocacy networks in the counties
The second argument is also interesting. Underlying it is the fear that decentralization may precipitate further demands for a federal structure or even secession by richer counties. It is worth noting that the closest subnational units have ever come to rebelling against the centre was in the 1800s when several tribes and regions who wanted to maintain control over their territories mounted resistance to the extension of central government authority. So for politicians seemingly motivated by nothing but political self-interests to use such arguments to reject legitimate claims for decentralized governance is not only ridiculous but outright dishonest.

How this debate will play out, ultimately, remains uncertain, but at the moment the pro-decentralization camp seems to be gaining upper hand. One reason for this is that central government officials who mainly oppose it have stayed out of public debate on the issue, if only because  arguing against  something which most Liberians desire would be politically damaging.

To some people, rightly or wrongly, the argument at this stage seemsto be no longer about whether or not government should be decentralized, but rather the extent to which the Constitution should deal with it. On this issue, opinion is also split.

Yarsuo Weh-Dorliae, a publicist on decentralization in Liberia and Commissioner at the Governance Commission, for instance, supports a Constitution that ‘gives the people the power to elect their  local officials and local government authorities power to collect and expend resources and strengthens the role of the legislature in assigning additional powers, functions and responsibilities to local authorities.’ Legal experts, on their part, argue that the new Constitution should only deal with the general principles and leave the operational details for subsidiary legislation.

Sources close to the CRC, however, indicate that any proposed Constitution is unlikely to get into details regarding functions and responsibilities of local governments but will provide for the election of such officials like superintendents, district commissioners, mayors and chiefs. The same sources further suggest that the Constitution will go on to provide fundamental principles and entrust the legislature with the powers to make further laws for the functioning of local governments.

This may be a positive indication that the CRC is treating the decentralization debate with enough seriousness to include it in its recommendations on the new Constitution, at least in so far as the selection of local government officials is concerned. However, not specifically making recommendations on what the powers of that government will be overlooks important questions about how revenue is generated and spent. It ignores one of the key reasons people are demanding decentralization, which is not just the power to elect their own local officials but also the power to have a fair say in how revenue collected at the local level is shared and spent.In other words, it is not just about political but also economic, power.

As comparative experiences from the Constitutions of Ghana(1992) and Kenya (2010) demonstrate, these two must go together for local self- government to have any meaningful effect. The Constitution needs to have a clear formula for how questions of economic governance are resolved, and in particular for how resources are allocated. For example, which taxes should be levied by the central, and which by local, goverments? What formulae should beuse in making allocations— e.g whether to use indexes such as population size, level of development, good governance practices, capacity, etc? These areall questions that must be answered. While the Constitution need not necessarily get into these details, it must at least recognize their necessity at the constitutional level as something which any subsequent secondary legislation must operationalize.

Any Constitution that recognizes elected local self-government, without clearly and fully delineating the powers of each tier of government and their relationship to one another in all aspects of governance—political and economic,—creates dangerous ambiguities. This could facilitate the retention of more powers with the central government and possibly lead to recentralization of resource collection, allocation and expenditure.
Despite indications from sources close, to the CRC as mentioned earlier, that the issue is indeed on the CRC’s agenda, the big question that remains is whether the current political leadership will be committed enough and not indefinitely postpone progress as was the case in 1984. The evidence so far, as demonstrated earlier, only suggests the contrary.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


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