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Why The Fuss About Decentralization And Elections In Liberia?

By Nat Galarea Gbessagee (September 9th 2004)

".... it beats my comprehension why anyone would propose that the 2005 general elections in Liberia should be postponed to implement a policy of decentralization in Liberia as if conditions exist to implement such decentralization policy in the country at the present time."

It is funny how we in Liberia are quick to jump on the bandwagon of any new ideas or topics that flow intrusively onto the unsophisticated terrain that is Liberian politics. When Mr. Bai M. Gbala introduced the subject of decentralization in Liberia in an article a few months ago, Liberian online magazines were bombarded with articles from Liberians who had less than kind words for Mr. Gbala.

But, then, Mr. Yarsuo Weh-Dorliae reintroduced the idea in a book a month later, and two former Liberian vice presidents and a former interim president of Liberia, along with countless other Liberians have joined the fray as to the rationality of the need for the decentralization of the governmental bureaucracy of Liberia. And the hysteria about decentralization in Liberia has become overwhelming so much so that some Liberians are now publicly advocating the postponement of the scheduled 2005 general elections to accommodate the tentacles of some mystical decentralization scheme in Liberia.

Nevertheless, I am bemused by the fact that three former prominent leaders of Liberia and a cadre of educated Liberians would lend credibility to decentralization in Liberia at this time, let along entertain the thought that the 2005 elections might be postponed for such unrealistic goal, given the present socio-economic and political circumstances in Liberia. But my suspicion is that after 15 years of national instability due to two brutal civil wars, the growing hysteria about the Weh-Dorliae book on decentralization in Liberia—as if the idea was entirely new, or as if Mr. Gbala did not first propose the idea only recently—shows that Liberians have yet to graduate from the tendency to embrace an idea or message not because of the quality of the message, but because of the popularity of the messenger.

For instance, any first year economic or business management student knows that “Decentralization” is an essential policy planning tool used widely by educational institutions, corporations, and government agencies to streamline business operations. And, given the variety of decentralization in the spheres of business, politics, economic, and government, decentralization can be a poisonous political tool if not used wisely. For example, on its website, under the subheading “Decentralization & Subnational Regional Economics,” the World Bank Group discusses the various kinds of decentralization, and warns that “…decentralization is not a panacea, and it does have potential disadvantages. Decentralization may not always be efficient, especially for standardized, routine, network-based services.

“It [decentralization] can result in the loss of economies of scale and control over scarce financial resources by the central government. Weak administrative or technical capacity at local levels may result in services being delivered less efficiently and effectively in some areas of the country. Administrative responsibilities may be transferred to local levels without adequate financial resources and make equitable distribution or provision of services more difficult. Decentralization can sometimes make coordination of national policies more complex and may allow functions to be captured by local elites. Also, distrust between public and private sectors may undermine cooperation at the local level” (What, Why, and Where - World Bank Group)

Of course, as noted from The World Bank Group’s assessment, decentralization is not the silver bullet that will cure Liberia of all its socio-economic and political woes. In fact, decentralization may not be feasible or workable in Liberia until the next one or two generations of Liberians if, and only if, the political will exists for the implementation of “decentralization” in Liberia, given the current chaotic circumstances in Liberia, especially the breakdown of socio-economic, cultural, educational, and political institutions.

For even under the best of circumstances, the ramifications of decentralization are far-reaching with regard to the national body politic in terms of power structures at the local, regional or national government level, vis-à-vis the participation of people in the public and private sectors of the economy. So it beats my comprehension why anyone would propose that the 2005 general elections in Liberia should be postponed to implement a policy of decentralization in Liberia as if conditions exist to implement such decentralization policy in the country at the present time.

Unless, of course, one is contemplating “political decentralization” at the expense of other types of decentralization such as “administrative, fiscal, or market decentralization.” For The World Bank Group advises the advocates of decentralization that “Drawing distinctions between these various concepts [political, administrative, fiscal, and market decentralizations] is useful for highlighting the many dimensions to successful decentralization and the need for coordination among them. Nevertheless, there is clearly overlap in defining any of these terms and the precise definitions are not as important as the need for a comprehensive approach. Political, administrative, fiscal and market decentralization can also appear in different forms and combinations across countries, within countries and even within sectors.”

In addition, it doesn’t seem logical to me that even if decentralization were a viable option for peace and stability in Liberia today, the 2005 national elections should be sacrificed for purposes of implementing a decentralization scheme in the country. Liberians know all too well the history of the formation and activities of the 1990-1994 interim government of national unity, led by Mr. Amos Sawyer, one of the current advocates of the postponement of the 2005 elections.

For back in 1990, in the face of relative peace in Liberia, key Liberian politicians were impatient to permit the sitting president to serve out the remaining one year of his six-year term of office over differences that emanated from both the 1980 coup and 1985 elections, and spilled over into political, philosophical, administrative, and military disagreements. As a result, the Liberian nation and people were subjected to the worst forms of human cruelty and humiliations in modern times, only to elect the leader of the 1989 military invasion six years later (in 1997) in an elections governed not by direct votes of the Liberian people but by prepositional representations conceived with the blessings of outside mediators.

Interestingly, back in 1997 when the socio-economic, military and political circumstances in Liberia were by far worst compared to the present, Liberians were all too willing to hold national elections such that 13 political parties participated in the 1997 elections. Therefore, I am greatly disappointed that some former national leaders of Liberia would seek extension of the mandate of the current transitional government in Liberia, or settle for a new interim government arrangement, over the flimsy arguments of decentralization. And I use the word “flimsy arguments” deliberately to drive home the point that if efforts in the 1970s to institute a decentralization program in Liberia did not materialize as former Liberian vice president Bennie D. Warner indicated in his recent reaction to talks about postponing the 2005 Liberian national elections, then I don’t see how a decentralization proposal in a book could be the impetus for postponing an entire national election. Unless, of course, someone is contemplating taking the Liberian nation and people on another joy ride as in 1985, 1989, 1990-1994, and 1997-2003.

I think it is hard time that Liberians begin to evaluate not only a public message, but also the sincerity and truthfulness of the messenger. We in Liberia need to get away from this infatuation with personalities and channel our energies toward building national institutions in Liberia by which all Liberians can grow, prosper, and live in peace. We must not allow partisanship to drive us toward unrealistic and unworkable goals. We must learn to get beyond the rhetoric and platitudes inherent in a public message, and evaluate the message for what it is. Because if we do, decentralization will not stand in the way of the scheduled Liberian elections in 2005.

Moreover, the facts remain that none of the various kinds of decentralization mentioned earlier (political, administrative, fiscal, market decentralization) can be implemented in the absence of appropriate public, private, and state institutions. And right now, Liberia has no institutions in place to restore basic social services such as water and electricity to the national capital, let alone the entire country. Liberia does not also have any institutions in place at the moment to repatriate and resettle Liberians in refugee camps abroad, to provide adequate shelter for internally displaced persons in Liberia, to equip public schools and universities, to pay the salaries of teachers, civil servants, and local officials on time, or the ability to build the relevant road networks, national infrastructure, and administrative institutions for the implementation of a national decentralization program.

Hence, given the current political, social, and economic realities in Liberia, I do not foresee in the short-term a situation in which decentralization would be debated and implemented while Liberians at large linger in internally displaced camps at home and crowded refugee camps abroad; while the standards of living in Liberia remain below appreciable levels, and while the entire country remains in complete darkness due to lack of electricity, save Liberian officials, foreign dignitaries, businessmen, and others who can afford power generators at home or office. I therefore believe that the circumstances in Liberia today are so grave that the best option is not to extend the term of office of the current dysfunctional transitional government, or create a new interim administration, but to elect new Liberian government leaders that will have the mandate to rebuild the shattered institutions of Liberia. And, in my estimation, decentralization is not a remote option of consideration in the drive to promote peace, national unity, stability, democracy, good governance, and national development in Liberia.

Besides, I do not see any reasons for all the fuss about decentralization as a viable alternative to the centralized system of government in Liberia. To me, the current lack of peace, national stability, development, and progress in Liberia is a result of greed, selfishness, and pretense, which will not change even if the operations of the government of Liberia were decentralized today. In other words, as long as some Liberians are ready and willing to collaborate with other Liberians or foreigners to bankrupt Liberia, it will not matter in the long run whether or not Liberia retains the current centralized system of government or opts for a decentralized system of government.

The policies and activities of the various Liberian governments from independence in 1847 up to 2004 can attest to the fact that the Liberian people are the root of the continuing violence and instability in Liberia, not the Liberian political system or governance structure. The Liberian constitution does provide appropriate checks and balances for smooth and stable governmental operations, but individual greed by Liberians at the official and unofficial levels of society have been the cancerous worms eating at the very fabrics of the Liberian state.

Yet the advocates of decentralization are quick to suggest that centralization, especially with respect to the powers of the executive president in Liberia, is the root of the problems in Liberia. But I think advocates of decentralization such as Messrs Weh-Dorlie, Sawyer, and others may be off-target regarding the issues of centralization vs. decentralization of the governance structures in Liberia. . The 1986 Liberian constitution, drafted by a commission headed by Mr. Sawyer, codified specific safeguards regarding the kinds of checks and balances that must exist amongst the three branches of the Liberian government to ensure efficiency, transparency, and accountability in government.

Article 1 of the 1986 Liberian constitution designates the Liberian people as the custodians of power in Liberia, while Article 34 designates the Liberian national legislature as the protectors of power and socio-economic activities in Liberia. So I do not think any level of decentralization in Liberia would change the tides of ineptitude, mismanagement, and corruption in Liberia today, unless Liberians muster the political will to alter the status quo. In other words, simply changing governmental operations in Liberia from a system of centralization to a system of decentralization would be meaningless if Liberians are not first conscientised as to the benefits of decentralization, and the duties and responsibilities required of them as citizens and residents of Liberia in a decentralized system.

In fact, if we apply the constitution of Liberia correctly, decentralization may not be possible in Liberia without major structural and constitutional changes. For example, Article 3 of the 1986 constitutions states, “Liberia is a unitary sovereign state divided into counties for administrative purposes. The form of government is Republican with three separate coordinate branches: the Legislative, the Executive and Judiciary. Consistent with the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances, no person holding office in one of these branches shall hold office in or exercise any of the powers assigned to either of the other two branches except as otherwise provided in this Constitution; and no person holding office in one of the said branches shall serve on any autonomous public agency.”

In addition, the key arguments of the advocates of decentralization—the election of county superintendents—is in contravention of Article 56(a) of the 1986 constitution, which subjects county superintendents to the appointment powers of the president of Liberia. But, interestingly, many of the advocates of decentralization today made up the nucleus of the group that wrote the1986 constitution, and the only local officials they thought ought to be elected were paramount, clan, and town chiefs, as noted in Article 56(b), “There shall be elections of Paramount, Clan and Town Chiefs by the registered voters in their respective localities, to serve for a term of six years. They may be re-elected and may be removed only by the President for proved misconduct. The Legislature shall enact laws to provide for their qualifications as may be required.” Here, of course, the sages now advocating decentralization in Liberia still felt an elected paramount, clan, or town chief was subject to the dismissal powers of the president, and special unexplained legislative “qualification” standards outside the regular age requirements set for other public offices in Liberia.

In other words, the educated persons and astute politicians, economists, sociologists, educators, and religious leaders who drafted the 1986 Liberian constitution felt that only lowly paramount, clan, and town chiefs had to be elected while the chief executives of the counties, the superintendents and district commissioners, ought not to be elected. Of course, these politicians, educators, and others might have had compelling reasons back in 1983 and 1984 during the drafting of the constitution as to why they felt county superintendents and district commissioners should not be elected, and they might have compelling reasons today why they think county superintendents should now be elected. But the Liberian nation and people should not permit themselves to dance to the whims and caprices of indecisive politicians and national leaders.

For example, if decentralization and the election of county superintendents are to be a consideration in Liberia, it must be done in accordance with the Liberian constitution, not on the whims of some politicians having nightmares over indecisiveness. For Article 2 of the 1986 constitution clearly states in part, “This Constitution is the supreme and fundamental law of Liberia and its provisions shall have binding force and effect on all authorities and persons throughout the Republic.” And this means that any changes to the unitary state structure of Liberia must be done in accordance with the constitution of Liberia. Therefore, the Liberian people should not be asked by a former interim president and other politicians to postpone scheduled national elections in 2005 intended to elect a stable national government in Liberia after 15 years of internal warfare, under the illusion of implementing some far-fetched policy of decentralization.

I sincerely believe that any potential policy of decentralization in Liberia must not be pushed down the throats of Liberians, just because some politician writes a book on something called “decentralization.” The Liberian people must be given the opportunity for spirited public debates on the merits and demerits of decentralization, and whether or not a system of decentralization is practicable to the social, economic, political, cultural, educational and institutional developments of Liberia. Liberians need to get away from this attitude in Liberia where we become visionaries and reputable experts on national issues only after we are no longer in power. We saw this game plan at play during the changeover from True Whig Party to PRC rule, the changeover from the NDPL to the interim government of national unity (IGNU) rule; the changeover from IGNU to NPP rule, the changeover from NPP to the national transitional government of Liberia (NTGL) rule, and God knows whose rule it will be in 2005 after the NTGL.

Hence, I think Messrs Sawyer and Weh- Dorliae may mean well to call for the postponement of the 2005 elections, but I do not think their calls are in the national interest of Liberia at this time. The current transitional government in Liberia is woefully behind schedule in the implementation of its two-year mandate, and a one-year extension of such mandate might not do any good. If Liberians were able to elect Taylor as president in 1997 when conditions in Liberia were worst in comparison to conditions in Liberia in 2004, I sincerely believe that Liberians will be able to elect their leaders in 2005, come rain, sun, on storm!


About the Author: Mr. Gbessagee is a former director of public affairs in the Liberian Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism. He resides in the Washington, DC metro area, and can be reached at


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