Hard Talk: On Empires and Vampires

17 July 2008 at 04:22 | 593 views

By Mohamed Boye Jallo Jamboria.

As a continuation of the last article on post local council elections and with regards to some of the issues dwelt on it is but fitting to examine other issues of a very serious consequence to the ultimate development of our motherland,Sierra Leone.

In that article the following questions were posed: “So what is the way out for effective national development? Is it through the present structure or is it through a more decentralised, transparent and socially accountable structure that will accommodate the needs and aspirations of every region, ethnic group and political party?

In this article attempts will be made to find answers to these questions based on the overall question: What kind of society do we want our motherland to be?

Do we want to build an empire that cares and caters for every citizen out of what we have now or do we want to continue with the vampire game or both?

If the answer is empire, then is it not advisable that we take a very close look at the institutions we are building now against the background of a political culture developed and institutionalised over the years with the aim of creating a sustainable democracy in which every clan and kind will feel catered for and be ready to participate without undue limitations and without having divergent agendas that will not help to build a united geopolitical entity?

How can we use the decentralising role of the local councils and delegate powers to them that will make each and every region, district or chiefdom active and developmentally self sustaining? Also what level or extent of autonomy and powers can be given to these local institutions without duplicating and /or obstructing those of the central institutions or rendering them powerless and hence useless?

Decentralising is one aspect of democratisation that is not only good but as per our political culture necessary. Some schools of thought frown on the idea of effective decentralisation in the sense that they tend to look at it as creating states out of a small country.

In as much as they have a point, yet is it not expedient that we consider doing some loosening up of power for more and total participation in the pertinent issues and processes that will allow development to be effective without fear or favour?

Or is it that some still harbour the wrong notion that effective decentralisation will reduce the hold of the central authority and make some parts more progressive and powerful than others? On the other hand is it that some who want to participate in politics feel that they will be ultimate losers if decentralisation is effectively implemented?

To attempt to answer the questions above it is necessary to look at the geopolitical entity called Sierra Leone from a multi faceted perspective within the framework of her geography and resource distribution, ethnicity and political culture and above all the long term effects of decentralisation along these parameters mentioned above.

First, let us look at what was inherited and how that affects what is happening now. Meredith, Martin (2005) in the introduction to his book The State of Africa-A history of Fifty Years of Independence wrote: “The maps used to carve up the African continent were mostly inaccurate; large areas were described as terra incognito....,European negotiators frequently resorted to drawing straight lines on the map ,taking little or no account of the myriad of traditional monarchies, chiefdoms and other African societies that existed on the ground....,Europe’s new colonial territories enclosed hundreds of diverse and independent groups ,with no common history,culture,language or religion."

"Having expended so much effort on acquiring African empires, Europe’s colonial powers then lost much of their interest in them. Colonial governments were concerned above all to make their territories financially self-supporting. Administration was thus kept to a minimum; education was placed in the hands of Christian missionaries; economic activity was left to commercial companies. The main function of government was to maintain law and order, raising taxation and providing an infrastructure of roads and railways. There seemed to be no need for more rapid development. Colonial rule was expected to last for hundreds of years.”

With this kind of scenario it is clear that independent Africa was ill prepared for self governance and had little or none of the necessary infrastructure for self sustenance after independence.

Alongside this ill preparedness was also the fact that “By the time the scramble for Africa was over, some 10,000 African polities had been amalgamated into forty European colonies and protectorates” (Meredith, 2005: 2) which were never effectively taught the lessons of self governance and public administration from a centralised institution. European rule was more or less by treaty with some traditional rulers or by conquest where there was resistance. In the process of using treaty as a means of governance “some chiefs were carefully selected for their willingness to collaborate; others had no traditional legitimacy at all.

The small educated elites that colonial rule produced in the 1920s and 30s were preoccupied with their own status, seeking to gain for themselves a role in administration in preference to the chiefs whom they regarded as rivals for power. They paid little attention to the welfare of the rural masses.”(Meredith, 2005:7).

Thus with such a confused state and rivalry were most countries given independence, Sierra Leone inclusive. Keen, David (2005:9) in commenting on this in his book Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone wrote “Under British rule, there had been minimal efforts to sow the seeds of a democratic political culture. In effect, the British ruled through institutions like the army, police and unrepresentative legislative councils (Sesay, 1993:165)....Deference and patronage prevailed over representation and rights.” So in effect we have never had any democratisation process, as some schools of thought claim, up till now and in place was what Mamdani(1996)called “decentralised despotism” which in according to Keen(2005) was “...British colonial tradition of indirect rule, the powers of the most important chiefs, Known as Paramount chiefs were increased.”

The question here is, as per that tradition of chiefs and district officials having more say and scope to rule, what new approaches can we develop to use this system in an effective manner to develop and maintain a national hierarchy that will see the institutional capacities develop in a smooth way such that there will be a free flow of policies and actions from top to bottom and vice versa?

Well of course this can be implemented but do we have public officials who are honest and sincere enough to run such a system? This question is posed based on past experiences .Local government officials and even Paramount chiefs had in the past misused and abused these powers of autonomy and had created a lot of problems ,some of which became parameters of the last war.

One such rash behaviour has been described by Keen(2005) as resulting in “Discontent at chiefs’ abuses was common in Sierra Leone, often centring on excessive levies, unpopular land allocations, forced labour and punishment of dissenters.” This, as a matter of fact was one underlying factor in the last war that saw some chiefs and families who had used their positions against the weaker members of society being targeted by rebels who joined the ranks of the warring factions to seek revenge for wrongs they or their families had suffered. It was also one reason for the war taking a senseless dimension with atrocities that seem to lack explanation being committed.

So if we are to embark on decentralisation what can be done to ensure that in as much as powers will be delegated to local authorities yet these authorities do not misuse such powers by acting ultra vires their vested authority?

Another fact about local councils and authorities is that if we are to get the actual benefits from the role of such institutions then there must be limitations as to the misuse of such institutions by politicians and political parties who may want to build their base through using such institutions and authorities.

Legal instruments that clearly outline the duties, responsibilities and limits of the powers of these institutions and authorities must be put in place to ensure that overlaps and duplications of roles do not occur.

Also these institutions and authorities must be given targets to be fulfilled within given periods with proper accountability to the people who were the participating population and the nation as a whole. In the light of this it must also be by legal proclamation that participation in national politics must be measured from previous participation at these local levels. Those who will aspire to become members of parliament must have participated in these local councils and their abilities to deliver have to be seen and measured from these previous duties. This will be constitutional implication mean that the President must have been a direct participant in one of these local institutions and that the nation as a whole has the opportunity to measure the abilities of their president even before that national role is assumed.

To be continued