Comments on Bai Gbala’s Decentralization
Of Political & Administrative Power In Liberia
By George D. Yuoh
July 2, 2004
Rarely do I comment or pass judgment on articles written by other Liberians as published on the various Liberian websites, but Mr. Bai Gbala’s paper, “Decentralization Of Political Power In Liberia”, as published by The Perspective on June 30, 2004 is so thought provocative that I started hitting my keyboard before I could even complete reading the article. For, any view that is geared towards moving Liberia forward, always gets my undivided attention and takes up a special place in my heart, no matter how belated, as in the case of Mr. Gbala’s.
While I believe that Mr. Gbala took part in the exploitation of political power in Liberia and the resulting unequal distribution of economic and social benefits, by the fact of his prominence in successive governments in Liberia over the past years, especially during the years dominated by his kinsmen at the helm of state power, a period in our country’s history blemished by gross and “rampant” corruption and the wanton abuse of human rights, I must look at the greater picture (Liberia) and see his article for all the good intentions it carries. And while I am, unashamedly and undeniably, one of those Liberians who believe that certain political figures of the past must be ostracized from any political arrangement in Liberia if the country is to progress, I have to subordinate such thoughts and feelings to the good of the country as well as to the rights of the individuals as provided for by the constitution of the Republic of Liberia. Besides, if Liberia never needed the contributions of all of its sons and daughters before, it does now. Although my views of these scrounging politicians are well founded, judgment and condemnation are not mine… So, Mr. Gbala’s publication of his paper is a welcomed contribution to Liberia’s quest for sustainable peace and tranquility, and the attainment of political, economic and social equality. That is how it should be viewed.
The issue of decentralization of state power in Liberia has been discussed before, but none as succinctly and practically, as outlined in Mr. Gbala’s paper. There are several versions of the reasons for the devastating turmoil experienced by Liberia and Liberians over the past 14 years. But Mr. Gbala’s statement that, “…the indigenous citizens paid taxes and satisfied all the conditions of citizenship to a government that refused them recognition as full-fledged citizens, legislative representation, and equal participation in national affairs affecting their interest and destiny for some 117 of the 150 years of our existence as a Nation,” cuts to the core, and is arguably the most correct reason behind every violent conflict in our nation’s history. Put differently, and to borrow a line from the many visionary comments and views of the late A. K. Yuoh, “taxation without representation is colonialism in disguise.” It can be said no better of how wrong unequal participation in a supposed-to-be participatory arrangement can be.
Liberians everywhere need to join in supporting the idea of a federation, even if limited. We are aware of calls of other democratic institutions and pressure groups for the decentralization of power and authority in Liberia, but these efforts need to be concerted and galvanized. It is evident that our unitary system of government has been abused, and therefore has failed us as a people. Liberia is so underdeveloped it becomes an understatement when any comparison is made. And just a few decades ago (in the 1960s), the per-capital income of Liberia was said to be higher than that of Indonesia (Indonesia’s main export product then was rubber). But look at the difference between Jakarta and Monrovia today: incomparable.
As evidence of the negative effects of centralization, especially in the Liberian administrative structure, where revenue earned in a locality has no way of impacting development of the area, let’s look at a few common situations: (1) The stretch of road (less than 20 miles) between Kakata and Bong Mines has never been paved by successive administrations, even though millions of dollars in taxes were received from businesses (including the BMC) in the Kakata and Bong Mines areas. (2) Besides the paved road from Monrovia to Tubmanburg, which was constructed by the Tolbert administration, once you step outside the LMC (Liberia Mining Company) fence, the rest of Bomi County is nothing but dust and the roads are not fit for vehicles, if there are any. (3) To this day, the only high school in the Firestone area is the Harbel Multilateral, built by the Tolbert administration. Firestone Company generates its own electricity, but once you are not a staff you get no power, even if you haul 10 tons of rubber latex every day. The story is the same in Nimba, Grand Bassa, Maryland, Grand Gedeh, and even in Monrovia, where the Monrovia City Council has no say in the generation and disbursement of revenue generated in the city. The situations would have been far different and better if these counties were to administer their own affairs, including revenue generation and disbursements.
And so as we debate this very important issue, here are a few suggestions and or additions to those of Mr. Gbala’s. These views are by no means absolute, and a clearer picture of this idea of federation will begin to take form once we all accept the need for this fundamental reform of our system of government, and opt instead for a system that will guarantee equal participation in political administration and distribution of economic resources.
While I concur with Mr. Gbala on the preference of a federated system of government for Liberia as opposed to the current unitary system, a provincial approach as structured and suggested by Mr. Gbala would still create some form of centralization, and perhaps a future domination of the leadership of the provinces by individuals hailing from the most populous counties making up each province. Instead, the counties structure should be maintained, but with modifications with an eye especially on the endowment of the country’s natural resources. In addition, repealing the acts creating Gbarpolu and River Gee counties should be strongly considered. A political sub-division should not be carved out because a president wants the history books to reflect that he created counties. What was the yard stick used in creating those two counties in the first place? When you consider the constitutional provisions for forming congressional constituencies (population equaled to about 20,000 per constituency), I doubt if River Gee and Gbarpolu counties can each come up with 2 representatives to represent them in the House of Representatives.
In addition to those suggested by Mr. Gbala, the county attorney should be an elected position for obvious reasons. The public prosecutor should hold allegiance to the public. But if appointed by the head of the county, it is obvious that he/she would seek to serve the interest of, and patronize the one making the appointment, thus creating the propensity to compromise justice against the interest of the public.
The Way Forward
Mr. Gbala’s paper is clearly a very good point of reference for departure. In addition, a major question needs to be considered as we take up this challenge: Which National Legislature would be ideal to begin considering the necessary constitutional amendments? Not to cast additional distrust on the current legislature, but doubts are abound about the ability and legality of the current legislative arrangement to effect any major and far reaching national transformation. What can’t be disputed though are the needs to debate this issue thoroughly, and convene a national conference that would discuss, confirm, and map out the details, including process and implementation of the idea of a federation, as well as tackle other needed reforms within the necessary constitutional and legal frameworks.
This debate, and the need for a federated form of administration in Liberia now, is not a usual topic for rhetoric and theoretical portentousness, rather, it must be viewed as a pragmatic approach to curing the major cause of our economic and social backwardness, and the process through which we would guarantee for ourselves the much needed political stability. It is not for us to decline participation and contribution to this process that could move Liberia forward, as were the cases recently when, separately, Dr. Amos Sawyer and Dr. George Klay Kieh, each declined to assist with governmental reforms in Liberia at this crucial time of our nation’s reconstruction. While I respect their individual justifications, albeit their rights to accept or decline preferment, the thought of disservice to Liberia, by two individuals for whom Liberians laid down their lives, and for whom Liberians bear perpetual scars of brutality, continues to pop up in the horizon in the confines of the valuation of their individual contributions to the motherland. We will see… Meanwhile, the debate for reforming Liberia’s power structure is on, and the conceptualization and implementation will be daunting, but the benefits immeasurable. Let us all get challenged for the sake of mother Liberia.