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Closing the transparency gap in governance: Enforcing critical provisions of the 2004 Local Government Act of Sierra Leone

Closing the transparency gap in governance: Enforcing critical provisions of the 2004 Local Government Act of Sierra Leone

Take a moment to think about this: In 2010 alone, the Sierra Leone Government disbursed over Le75 billion in “direct fiscal transfer” to local councils across the country. That did not include the in-kind contribution the central government made to the local councils. The in-kind contributions covered education subsidy for National Primary Selective Examination (NPSE) and Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) fees, procurement of text books and other materials, among others. Without doubt, such disbursements represent a significant contribution to local government administrations, and thus require active community participation in ensuring that it is judiciously utilized. Also keep in mind that the councils also generate significant amount of money through local tax, city rates, etc. But, there is something fundamentally wrong with the way most local councils are run. It relates particularly to the implementation of the transparency and public participation clauses of the Act. In both senses, the councils and the Local Government Ministry are evidently guilty.

In 2004, Parliament passed the Local Government Act which, among other things, sought to give ordinary people greater voice and participation in governance as well as bring about development at the local level. The legislation essentially ended over 30 years of centralized system of administration, which had undermined genuine participation in governance at the local level. The Act establishes local councils as the highest political authority in their jurisdiction, and also makes elaborate provisions for citizens’ participation in local administration. The Act transferred several sources of revenue previously controlled by the chief to the local council, including local tax, fees, and licenses. Articles 107 and 108 of the Act place a categorical obligation on both the central and local government to ensure transparency and public participation in local government. Nearly seven years after the Act was passed, though, there are persisting challenges relating to the implementation of those clauses. The 2004 Act is certainly an important legislation; just as important is the need to enforce its provisions. Clearly, there are clearly gaps in several areas.

Thanks to financial and technical support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), a coalition of civil society organizations last year commenced the “Local Government Act Monitoring Project” aimed raising community awareness about their responsibilities in relation to monitoring the activities of the councils. The project also seeks to remind local council officials of the need to implement the transparency and accountability clauses of the Act. Specifically, Article 107 requires Local Councils to “Post on a notice board in a conspicuous place on the premises of the council and on a notice board in each Ward for at least twenty-one days” the following items: monthly statements of financial accounts; annual income and expenditure statements; inventories of assets of the local councils; bye-laws and notices relating to tax rates and fees; minutes of council meetings; and development plans. 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 important, achievable and development-focused provisions. But with lots of good ideas, implementation is the key, and so there’s need to work with all concerned to enforce these provisions.

During the first phase of implementation, coalition partners undertook a comprehensive mapping of all organizations working on local government, and arranged several community outreach events to raise awareness and promote understanding of Articles 107 and 108 of the Local Government Act. At more than twelve outreach sessions across the country, films, songs, photos were used to illustrate the need for transparency and accountability in governance, particularly at the local level.

The second phase of the project, which is under way, will be implemented by Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL), the Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD), Community Radio Network (CORNET), Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (CDHR), Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), Partnership Action for Grassroot Empowerment (PAGE), and the West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR). During the next six months, coalition partners will undertake various media and community outreach events, arrange meetings with key players in local council administrations, pay unannounced monitoring visits to the administrative headquarters of local councils, screen documentary films relating to the implementation of Articles 107 and 108.

Making development happen at the local level in Sierra Leone is the ultimate goal of this project. 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. The Sierra Leone Government early this year developed a national policy on decentralization to address the anomalies for the smooth implementation of the decentralization process. The policy notes that transfer of 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 the public. A recent civil society-led research on tax collection and management showed that significant revenue leakage and mismanagement is occurring in councils. This project would contribute to preparing both the councils and community members for the challenges that they should confront before and after the 2012 elections.

By Ibrahim Tommy, CARL-SL

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