Sierra Leoneans have again cast their voters in less than a year after they first voted for the Presidential and Parliamentary elections. This time the votes were for Mayors/Chairpersons and councilors for different wards in the country, with a total of at least 400 wards countrywide. And I must say congrats to us all for doing that in a peaceful atmosphere. This shows we are a nation that manages its affair.
The elections themselves were, in some areas (especially in the diamondiferous city of Kono), characterized by violence, political intimidation and even persuasive withdrawal of candidates, thus leading to those areas being declared as ‘uncontested’ wards. Kabala is a typical example where 11 candidates withdrew their candidatures for the then-pending local council elections.
I am saying so because Kabala is one of the least developed districts in the country and besides, no woman was ever made to be part in the running of the council, and so ‘withdrawing’ from the race was unacceptable, to say the least.
In certain areas, the two leading political parties were at each other’s throat, trying to gain distinction in different parts of the country, especially in areas where these parties were perceived as ‘strongholds.’ So we were not surprised that, in a place like Kono, the SLPP and the APC fought it out to maintain grip but it proved not to be fruitful for the SLPP.
Again the gratuitous influence from certain sections of our political elites was unthinkable – especially for a place like Kono, where it had been the expectation that the SLPP were going to be victors. The connivance of chiefs in Kono, however, made such expectations unrealistic. Still, the APC must be careful because these chiefs were hard time cohorts of Berewa and the SLPP. They are with you today to chop, and nothing else. So, APC, be warned!
There was high voter apathy during the local council elections and this, from all indications, could be blamed on a number of factors and among them, the low voter sensitization that was done by the National Electoral Commission and even by civil society groups. This, to me, could be one lesson that everybody, especially stakeholders in the decentralization process, have learnt.
Groups and institutions like the National Elections Watch (NEW), which is new indeed in monitoring elections process, the Independent Radio Network, Search For Common Ground and even Campaign For Good Governance should not stop at only monitoring the outcome of elections, but must go the extra mile in ensuring that our elected councilors work in accordance with the expectations of the masses.
To this end, even the Independent Press must also take the lead in holding our council officials accountable to the people. This is because the media are perceived as the eyes and ears of the society.
Be that as it may, the elections were conducted on a partisan base and that is indicative of the fact that all the three main political parties in the country – namely, APC, SLPP and the PMDC – have got representations in most, if not all of the 19 councils.
The decisions by the electorate to vote all these parties into the councils must be respected by those in governance and as such, the APC government of Ernest Koroma must be in a position to support all the councils, whether in Bonthe, Pujehun or Kailahun and not just the councils in Bombali and Port Loko, to name but two. The SLPP, as a party, runs the councils in Bo, Kenema, Kailahun and Pujehun but that does not mean development funds should not be directed to them because they are a party in opposition.
They must be supported because the central government cannot be in a position to do all what is expected by the people, especially when there are other areas on which they need to concentrate.
It is a reality that people voted and the votes came because people want development in their various wards. The Local Government Act of 2004 states that the local council shall be the highest political authority in a locality and shall have both legislative and executive powers to be exercised in accordance with the act. On the functions, the act says, the councils shall promote the general development of a locality as well as seeking to promote the welfare of its people.
The local government act also specifies that the councils shall mobilize the human and material resources necessary for the overall development and welfare of the people of the locality and that the councils shall also draw up development plans for their localities, oversee chiefdoms councils in the performance of functions delegated to them by the local council, among other functions.
Also the Local Government Act provides for diverse ways through which the councils could be able to generate funds so as to enable them (council) to operate smoothly. One such way has to do with the payment of tax, property rate, and other development funds from the central government.
But to what extent are the councils actually generating funds from the payment of taxes by people remains an unanswered question. In the recent time, the Freetown City Council introduced a (legal) system of compelling people to pay their tax. Sierra Leoneans are not addicted to tax payment, but that should not prevent the councils from doing their very best in that direction.
From the Freetown City Council, to the Western Area Rural District Council, down to the councils in the South, East and Northern parts of the country, their plans and intentions would all be the same with regards development for their areas. What Chairman Bayuku Conteh in Kabala could be thinking of with regards development for his area could not differ much from what Al-Hassan Cole in the Western Area Rural District Council could be thinking about; and just the same with Dr Wusu Sannoh in Bo city council or even JS Kelfala in the Kenema City Council or Tommy N’yuma in the Kailahun District Council.
Realistically though, the councils cannot succeed without the support of the central government, and civil society groups. There is a ministry of Local Government and Community Development, headed by Dauda Suliaman Kamara. That ministry should be seen demonstrating the political will in supporting the councils, irrespective of the dominance of a council by an opposition political party.
When the SLPP were in power, they almost exhibited that tendency. They neglected the councils in Waterloo and Freetown, because they were headed by the APC. Winstanley Bankole Johnson, recent past Mayor for Freetown, could be the best person to explain the treatment meted on him by the SLPP. But that should not be reciprocated to SLPP-dominated councils by the current government, if we are to progress as a country.
The ACC must also be supportive of the councils. Over the weekend, I was in Waterloo to witness the certification ceremony of the councils and chairman elect of the council in that district by the NEC Chairperson and in the process, I met with the Council’s Chief Administrator, Alhaji Bangura, who spoke to me, in a disappointed tone, about the failure by a construction company to complete the construction of the council’s officer. This contract was given to a company, [Global Construction Company, I learnt] to have been completed in nine months period but it is now over two years, nothing positive from the construction company.
And this is where I sometimes blame government for its failure in monitoring the way its projects are implemented. The Institutional Reform and Capacity Building Project, I learnt, gave the contract to the construction company. But it is like the IRCBP cares little. The councils have a responsibility to those who elected them into offices but they (councils) could only be able to work towards people’s expectations when the needed structures are in place.
Why did the construction company fail to work towards the stipulated time is somehow disturbing. Increased prices of building materials cannot and should not be used as an excuse. This is tantamount to corruption. The ACC must investigate such.
Also, the councils could be supported by making sure that the laws being put in place for their smooth running are implemented to the fullest. The Freetown City Council, in the last three months to the recent past elections, was successful in its revenue generation drive when they got the support of other institutions and this is what even councils like the one in Waterloo, Bo and Bonthe, to name but three, must emulate.
Al-Hassan Cole, chairman elect for the Waterloo council was bold enough to tell his people that they should be ready to face the music, once they fail to do what is expected of them (tax payment). Councilors were not elected not to relax and receive sitting allowance monthly, but they must be operative and functional.
The central government can as well help the country in the area of capacity building. During the first phase of the councils, a lot of trainings were conducted for councilors in an effort to build up their capacities in areas like writing their development plans, report writing and a host of other trainings. But could the same be extended to the current councilors elect? I think the Decentralization Secretariat could do that.
It is my thought that when the councils are supported, then we are sure of reducing the bureaucratic tendencies that exist in government ministries, departments and agencies. By John Baimba Sesay