Over a Decade, decentralization Still Fraught with Challenges

John Baimba Sesay

Decentralization is defined as the process of political devolution, fiscal and decision-making from central government to local level. With the enactment of a Local Government Act in 2004, Sierra Leone laid the foundation for a move towards a decentralized system of governance. The Act provides for the devolution of functions, powers and services to local councils, all in an effort to ensure an inclusive and participatory approach to governance, an important process in the democratic development of the country.

The re-establishment of the local councils was to foster proper service delivery at the local government level. The Councils mobilized human and material resources necessary for the overall development and welfare of the people and also promote and support productive activity and social development. Since 2004, successive governments have been unable to achieve full devolution. This requires greater political will and above all, financial resources.  

There is also now a new paradigm shift. When functions were created for devolution, they were statutorily mandated by an instrument. But some of these functions were fused together and now there is a whole new model. For instance, there was a Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport; then it changed to Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. Now, you have two ministries of education. These are also seen as core troubles to the devolution process, added to what had appeared as lack of will on the part of some MDAs to devolve some functions.

Fiscal decentralization implies the transfer of responsibility for revenue and expenditures from central to local government. A greater percentage of the nation’s budget should go to the councils. The country cannot achieve the targets it has set for food security if it only gives 19-22% of its entire gross domestic product to the over twenty local councils. The political will is being demonstrated at the high level in ensuring MDAs devolve the required functions to councils. Inter-ministerial meetings have been held and discussions are ongoing to see what could be done.

“We have the denial syndrome”, said head of the country’s Decentralization Secretariat, Alex Bonapha. There are people at the central level who think that just withdrawing power from them to the periphery is a difficult thing to do.”  This has been the true picture for close to two decades. Directly or indirectly, this has been undermining the effectiveness of councils to deliver services and in fostering participatory governance at the local level.

Meanwhile, a news release by the Decentralization Secretariat during the month of March 2019 disclosed, that at an Inter-Ministerial Meeting presided over by the Vice President, Dr. Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh, twenty-eight functions were declared devolved to the local councils. They included among others, Registration of Births and Deaths, Information Services, Preparation of Land Use Plans, Local Sports, Youth Affairs, Land Surveying, Strategic Local Planning, Enterprise Development, Community Development Funds, Maintenance of Primary Feeder Roads and Fire Prevention and Control. It also has set aside, for reconsideration, eight functions, seen as highly technical.

Procurement of drugs happened to be one of the functions to be devolved, but now set aside for reconsideration. This is same with the Establishment and Maintenance of Fish Ponds and In-Land Lakes, Coordination of Mining Licenses, Land Registration and Control of Illegal Sales of Land, etc.  For Alex Bonapha, much as the procurement of medicines is an international and very complex issue, there should be a general hub at the line ministry, which should be doing the bulk of the procurement, “housed at the central medical store from where councils can procure.”

Overall, the announcement of the devolution of the twenty-eight functions is an encouraging development, given that, since the reintroduction of the decentralization process fifteen years back, much could not be pointed at, as achievements by the councils. Councils are trying to perform but the Local Government Act has not been fully complied with, with critical issues to be addressed.

One critical aspect is revenue mobilization. Councils are mandated by the Act to collect revenues on their own for their smooth operations. Section 45(1) of the Local Government Act, says, local councils 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.” Central government’s quarterly allocations to councils rarely arrive on time. When they do, they are not enough for their operations.

With this, there is the need to go beyond political declaration and rhetoric. The recent announcement of the devolution of 28 functions must be followed up with practical transfer of funds to the councils if those functions are to be fully devolved. Revenues in the form of tax payment are paltry; not only is there poor culture of tax payment, councils also lack the required personnel to embark on effective revenue generating and collection measures.

Fifteen years since its enactment, the Local Government Act 2004 would need a review. A new policy should be devised that will inform the amendment of the Act. As it is now, the lowest level in the local council administration is the Ward Committee. Beneath that, you cannot monitor certain deliveries. In any new or amended law, there is a need to capture the Village Development Committees and the Chiefdom Development Committees.

The welfare of elected council officials should also be looked at. Ward Committees are vital components in the decentralization process, same with elected councilors, Mayors and Council Chairpersons. Councils need resources, ranging from experienced and qualified personnel, social infrastructure, to capital funding. This is something they have been battling with and that trend should be discontinued.

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