Decentralization Of State Power In Liberia: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

By Abraham James

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
May 9, 2007


The thesis of the author is that there is a need for a comprehensive Local Government Legislation to decentralize state power in Liberia. Decentralization is considered here in connection with the transfer of state power from central to local authority. It relates to the reorganization of centralized institutions to give greater autonomy to local bodies throughout Liberia.

Historical Setting
The issue of decentralization of administrative authority in Liberia can be traced to circumstances that existed when the nation declared its independence. At the time of the birth of the nation in 1847, very little provision was made for a meaningful local government system. There was a major communication problem. There were only forty-six miles of road from Monrovia along the coast. Geographically, the country was divided in numerous places by rivers flowing from northeast to southwest, which widen considerably as they reach the Atlantic. The section of Liberia referred to as the "hinterland" (the former Eastern, Western and Central provinces) and areas away from the administrative seat of government in the old coastal counties known as the "interior," where most indigenous Liberians live, were inaccessible.

The interior areas of the counties along the coast and the hinterland provinces were partitioned into districts, which were in turn subdivided into paramount chiefdoms, and again into clans and town chiefdoms. The administrative divisions called paramount chiefdoms evolved over time. It was part of provincial and interior administration and features in both the new and old county systems. Roads did not begin to link even the original coastal ,counties of Montserrado, Bassa and. Sinoe until the mid-1800s.

Officials in Monrovia could not exert effective authority over areas that were not within reach of the government. The system of governance that was adopted for Monrovia and the coastal areas differed substantially from those that were introduced in the interior and hinterland. Therefore, it was not even possible to extend citizenship to the inhabitants of those areas until 1904, when President Arthur Barclay unconditionally conferred citizenship on all blacks living within the territory claimed by the government of Liberia.

A joint study by the World Bank and two United Nations organizations in the early 1980s, found that only twelve out of seventy-five developing countries around the world had not embarked on a program of transferring political power to the local government. Liberia was not listed among the seventy-five countries.

Special Developments
Over the years, the idea of transferring power and administrative authority from center to local units has been an emotional issue. Under our unitary system of government, decentralization has been viewed by most chief executives as a political undertaking aimed at divesting the executive branch of power and securing it at the periphery. Therefore, the local governance arrangement that exists has been carefully designed and intended to comply with the wishes of the central authority to whom it is responsible. Currently, representatives of the Ministries of Education, Finance, Justice, Health and Social Welfare, among others, serve in an advisory capacity in the counties and are required to report to their respective ministries in Monrovia. The problem with this arrangement is that there is no accountability to the people in the rural areas whose daily lives are affected by officials from Monrovia.

Another problem has been the creation of a large number of statutory districts and cities in various parts of the country in response to the wishes of politicians, but with little or no meaningful devolution of authority from the center to the rural areas.

Major Existing Constitutional and Statutory Provisions
The major relevant provisions of the present constitution are Article 34(a), which authorizes the Legislature to create new counties and other political subdivision and readjust existing country boundaries. Article 54(d), which empowers the president to nominate and, with the consent of the Senate, appoint and commission superintendents and officials of other political subdivision. Article 25(a) of the Statutory Laws of the Ministry of Internal Affairs mandates the Ministry to oversee the successful conduct and improvement of local government. There are also a number of statutes relating to the establishment of cities and statutory Proposal for Reform

In light of the aforementioned experiences and the new democratic culture that has dawned in Liberia, decentralization of state power in Liberia should be viewed as an idea whose time has come. The idea can be achieved by the enactment of a comprehensive local government statute that provides appropriate institutions for "changes” at the center and that ideally distributes responsibilities, resources authority and autonomy from center to periphery. Constitutional changes can be postponed for now.

The proposed local government structure should be based on the "county" as a unit under which there will be lower-level administrative units including cities and districts. Local government units should include the following:

1. Districts

2. A sub-county/city division council

3. A municipal council/municipal division council

The new structure should be designed to:

• devolve state and political power in order to empower people in the rural areas to participate in their own decision-making and to extend the benefits of Liberian democracy to them as a right

• provide good governance and ensure socioeconomic development of people in rural areas

• enable rural inhabitants to share in their resources and revenue
• include in the national economic development plan specific allocations for
the individual counties

• amend some of the existing statutes, especially those that created the large number statutory districts and cities around the country.

An effective local government system with decentralized structures would help to spur the growth necessary to achieve Liberia's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - a set of targets to slash a host of social ills, including extreme poverty. It would also help to provide appropriate incentives at the rural level for displaced persons to return to their homes and communities. Additionally, it would also help to promote national unity by forging new bonds between urban dwellers and indigenous inhabitants that live in the rural areas.

The author graduated from the University of Liberia and is a Counselor of Law. He also studied in the United States and England.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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