Decentralization: A Question Of Democracy And Governance
By J. Kpanneh Doe

If one were taking stock of some of the significant events and developments which occurred in 1998, several occasions can be cited. Topping the list would be the Dokie murder trial in which there was a miscarriage of justice; the September massacre of over 300 unarmed Liberians on Camp Johnson Road by government security forces and the subsequent shoot-out at the American Embassy in Monrovia, in government's hot pursuit of enemies.

The bottom of the list could include: the April Chicago Reconciliation Conference organized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., President Clinton special envoy for democracy in Africa; the July conference on the future of Liberia, held in Monrovia during which 2.5 million U. S. dollars was spent by the Liberian government, and, last but not least, President Taylor's unsuccessful attempt to push through legislation to make non-negroids (namely, Lebanese and Indians) citizens of Liberia.

For better or worse, these developments captured the pulse and imagination of the nation and had the people's attention focused momentarily. But there were also other important developments which occurred that went unnoticed, but do have real significance on the need for a new political dispensation and the future of democracy.

One of such developments that merit attention is the idea of decentralization. Decentralization itself is not new, but has begun to gain currency in recent times as a result of politicians engaged in a fishing expedition to show their "compassionate" nature towards the Liberian people in order to score political points; but in actuality, those who have controlled power have failed to see this applied in its practical manifestation.

Decentralization is a powerful democratic concept which involves how societies are governed. A society may choose to govern from the top, or choose to govern from below. Those societies that have opted to govern from the bottom up can arguably be said to be decentralized - their citizens are empowered and are full-fledged participants in the prevailing democratic process. This does not seem to be the case in past and present day Liberia. On the contrary, those that govern from the top down, as a matter of fact, are non-democratic and may exhibit authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies, which seems to be the case of Liberia today.

Historically, two developments are relevant here as they relate to decentralization in Liberia. Tubman's unification and integration policies, and Doe's creation of additional four counties, thus bringing the total number of political subdivisions to thirteen. What were the motivations behind these policies? Were they actually designed to achieve decentralization and empower the Liberian people?

The late William V. S. Tubman, who many Liberians viewed as a benevolent dictator for the "kinder, gentler" way in which he governed Liberia, but who vigorously opposed all forms of opposition to his rule, launched his policy of unification and integration in the early 60's having realized that he could no longer govern from the center - Monrovia - with a tiny minority elite. The creation of the "hinterland" counties - Lofa, Bong, Nimba, and Grand Gedeh - was aimed more at "co-optation" and control, rather than encouraging participation. Tubman basically needed "two wings" to fly - the coastal counties on one hand, and the hinterland counties on the other. Moreover, it was Tubman's response to the settler - indigenous cleavages that persisted. It won him acclaim, respect and loyal supporters.

The Tubman mystique became pervasive throughout his 27-year rule. Even with the creation of the new (hinterland) counties much did not change in the way the country was governed. Monrovia still remained the dominant center and the paramount national administrative authority. The cult of the presidency was omnipresent; decisions made at the local levels could not be implemented without the blessing of the president. Superintendents, District Commissioners, Paramount Chiefs, etc., all receive their marching orders directly from the president.

Unlike Tubman's approach to decentralization which had a real national significance in our historical context, it is hard to discern what the motivations were behind Doe's creation of four additional counties. These new counties, some of which were territories, but upgraded to county status, included: Margibi, Bomi, Rivercess, and Grand Kru. Bomi and Rivercess were originally territories, but acquired a county status under the Doe regime.

While it is hard to psycho-analyze Doe's thought processes when he decided to create additional new counties in 1984, a few reasons can be deciphered. First, like Tolbert who created more ministerial jobs to employ his family, friends and close associates, Doe may have done so in order to gain more support from certain quarters. Secondly, Doe may have been pressured to address overdue concerns on the part of citizens who felt they were being taxed but had no representation within the national body politic, a classic case of "taxation without representation". Thirdly, Doe whose role-model was Tubman (in fact who once said Tubman appeared to him in the Executive Mansion and told him, he looked good as a president), may have chosen to blindly follow Tubman in such lock-step fashion by creating these new counties.

Despite the relative gains in the years past, it appears like there is a determined effort to reverse this gain and give the process a "new meaning" which if applied, could inevitably have a corroding effect on our national politics. For example, in his highly publicized nation-wide tour which began a month ago and has taken him to several counties around the country, president Taylor has embraced decentralization as his new agenda for bringing development to various political sub-divisions in the country. Speaking to citizens of Nimba County in Saniquellie, President Taylor said: "you should learn to pay taxes, pay your electricity, water and telecommunications bills to the council." Further, he added: "you are going sustain yourselves."

In another development, while addressing citizens of Grand Bassa County in Buchanan, Mr. Taylor added an old dimension to the decentralization question by resurrecting the issue of the "hut tax". Further articulating his vision, he said he would propose a new law, starting next year, that would "empower local communities, towns and cities to [undertake] their own development initiative," he said.

Borrowing a phrase from the late U.S. Speaker, Tip O'neil, seems apropos here when he said: "all politics is local." The idea of empowering local communities to undertake their own development initiative is quite profound; it is the foundation of every democratic society. The methodology however, being considered by Mr. Taylor seems quite suspect.

A number of questions must be asked. What is the real meaning behind local empowerment? How does the re-introduction of the notorious hut tax contribute to so-called "development?" Who are the winners and the losers in this process?

If his current nation-wide tour and his various utterances and actions are any guide, then there exists a specter of fear and apprehension for the majority rural population. His promise to citizens of Rivercess County of "two cows and a rice mill"; his promise to citizens of Nimba County that it will "shine" during the country's 152nd independence anniversary; and, his threat to farmers in Bong County that they would be jailed if they do not return to farming, is a far cry from what local empowerment is all about.

But an even more dangerous threat that looms large, is the re-introduction of the notorious hut tax. For a country whose economy is predominantly agricultural-based and where more than seventy percent of the population lives on subsistence, from hand to mouth, and who are not part of the mainstream economy and politics, one is hard pressed to question the rationale behind such approach to decentralization, not to mention development. It can be recalled that this notorious tax was abolished by the late Samuel Doe during the reign of the People's Redemption Council government. Thanks to the democratic voices that prevailed upon Doe of the need to abolish the tax.

But while Mr. Taylor has sugar-coated his public pronouncement by saying that eighty percent of the taxes generated will go towards rural development, the notoriety of the hut tax is not lost on the memories of yester years

Listen to Tarty Teh, a noted Liberian writer and a frequent contributor to this paper, describe how this tax was collected. "... But I know the ones who bore the hammocks and brushed the farms to grow rice to buy money to pay annual "head tax", the ones who were beaten because the sun came a bit earlier than usual one season and the rice did not mature fully therefore, there was not enough rice to get tax money; let alone to eat until next harvest. And so the delinquent taxpayers were beaten for penalty and amusement."

If decentralization is the process of empowering local communities and providing balanced economic development, then what is shaping up as decentralization leaves much to be desired. Decentralization ought to go beyond the creation of mere administrative units, or new counties or chiefdoms, which basically serve as extensions of central government. It has to mean giving power to the people at the local level, which means allowing them to elect their own leaders by their participation in the decision-making process. It would mean amending the constitution to achieve that objective.