Promoting transparency and broad participation in local government: Persisting challenges facing Sierra Leone
23 July 2012, OSIWA
When the Sierra Leone Parliament passed theLocal Government Actin 2004, it was meant to, among other things, enhance participation in
governance, promote development, and create a space for greater voice at the
basic unit of governance across the country. The Act put an end to more than 30
years of centralized system of administration, which had effectively deprived
locals from taking ownership of any development programs in their communities.
The legislation establishes local councils as the highest political authority
in their jurisdiction, and also makes broad provisions for citizens'
participation in the administration of local councils. Articles 107 and 108 of
the Act place an unconditional obligation on local councils and the Ministry of
Local Government to ensure transparency and public participation in the
administration of councils.
Article 107 requires that Local Councils post statements of financial accounts,
development plans, and minutes of meetings, among other pertinent documents.
These postings must be placed on a notice board, in a conspicuous place on the
council premises in each ward for at least twenty-one days per month. Article
108 places an obligation on the Ministry of Local Government to "promote
participatory processes in local councils and encourage citizen's inclusion and
involvement in governance”. These are significant provisions, but as with many
other good ideas, implementation is the key. Unfortunately, implementing the
Act's transparency and participation clauses has been lagging by local councils
over the last eight years.
the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) approved a grant for a
coalition of Sierra Leonean civil society organizations to monitor the
implementation of the transparency and participatory provisions of the Act. Over
the last eighteen months, the coalition has organised a number of dialogue
sessions with councilors, council administrators, and ordinary citizens across
the country to ascertain how council administrators were enforcing these
provisions. The coalition also organised monitoring visits to various councils
in Sierra Leone, and worked with local media and organized community outreach
events to raise public awareness and elicit public opinion regarding the
performance of councils. From Makeni in the North to Bo in the South, and from
Kailahun in the East to Freetown in the West, the revelations and observations
were predominantly the same - Council and Local Government Ministry officials
have largely reneged on their legal obligations to administer the councils in
ways that promote transparency and local participation.
"I did not
know that there was a law which obligates the council to inform us about its
activities. No councillor or Ward Committee member has ever organised a meeting
in my ward. I don't even know the councillors who represent this ward, not to
talk about the Ward Committee members,” an angry woman said at a community
outreach session at Kroo Bay in Freetown.
19 local councils in Sierra Leone. It is regrettable that most of them have
generally failed to implement the transparency obligations placed on them by
Articles 107 and 108. Here are a few examples to consider: Out of the 20 Wards
in the Western Rural District, only five have erected notice boards. Where
there are notice boards, they are rarely updated. Also, out of the 49 Wards in
the Freetown City Council (FCC), Council officials admitted that there are no
more than two FCC-procured notice boards in the entire municipality. Even the
two FCC-procured notice boards at its headquarters were largely plastered with
obituary and vacancy announcements. At a dialogue session last year, Council
officials in Kenema, Kailahun and Kono Districts admitted that there were very
few notice boards in their respective jurisdictions, apart from those put up at
administrative headquarters. In the same vein, there are very few radio
discussion programs sponsored by the councils, and only occasional public
notices about upcoming council meetings or Council-funded radio updates. In
short, there is no reliable channel of communication between the people and the
officials at these events have been typically defensive, blaming their failure
to erect and update notice boards on the destructive tendencies of youths and
the high level of illiteracy in their communities. Even so, given that radio is
the easiest and most accessible means of communication in the country, most
participants said it was incomprehensible that the councils have failed to
effectively utilize the media. The information and transparency gap between the
councils and the people is so large that most communities do not even know
where to direct questions on issues affecting them.
many more challenges to ponder. Ward Development Committees, which are supposed
to provide a link between the councils and the people, are either incompetent
or uncommitted to the task. At every dialogue session across the country,
people voiced concern that members of the Ward Development Committees (WDCs)
rarely convene meetings, and have done very little to keep them posted on
development issues. The selection of WDC members has been characterized by
nepotism, with councillors mostly hand-picking political cronies and friends.
The Local Government Ministry, which is obligated to promote participatory
processes in local councils and encourage citizens' inclusion and involvement
in governance, has done very little in terms of promoting mass participation in
development issues at the local level. Even where councils seek the views of
the people when preparing annual development plans, residents complain that
most of their felt needs have either been ignored or only partially
To make a
bad matter worse, councillors and the council administrators do not get along
very well in most places. Most councillors complain that they do not even know
the development projects taking place in their respective wards. They accuse
heads of councils of deliberately sidelining them in running the councils.
There is massive distrust between councillors and the council administrators.
Some administrators spoke about instances where councilors concocted minutes of
meetings purportedly held at ward levels in order to claim allowances.
eight years after the Local Government Act was passed, there are several
outstanding issues relating to devolution of functions to local councils. The
central government has been largely reluctant to devolve functions that attract
revenue and massive budgetary allocation. For instance, only 30% of central
government budget was transferred to local councils in 2010. In view of the
limited amount of tax revenue raised by local councils and the inadequate
central government subventions, local councils face serious financial
constraints. While this does not fully explain why many Sierra Leoneans are
dissatisfied with the general performance of their councils, it definitely
raises questions as to why the central government is reluctant to devolve key
functions to local councils. At the same time, however, local councils need to
think of creative ways of raising funds, as well as efficiently utilizing them.
development and increased participation in governance a reality in Sierra Leone
was the ultimate objective of the Local Government Act. In a country where
corruption in public sector remains a significant challenge, transparency and
increased public participation in local government is required to offset any
tendencies of wasteful spending. In 2011, the Sierra Leone Government developed
a national policy on decentralization to address the anomalies for the smooth
implementation of the decentralization process. The policy notes that transfer
functions from central government to local councils will be concluded by the
end of 2012. Once the transfer of functions is completed, it will impose
greater obligation on council administrations to be transparent. It would also
require more public participation in the administration of councils. For now,
it is fair to suggest that the councils need to do more to foster engagement with
By Ibrahim Tommy, Executive Director at Centre for Accountabilty and Rule of Law,an OSIWA grantee.