Decentralization in Liberia: A giant leap into the future

Liberian President Sirleaf

Liberian President Sirleaf

On Wednesday, February 18, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf launched the National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance. The policy is aimed at decentralizing governance in Liberia, and the launching is in response to the long yawning of the Liberian people to see tangible evidence of decentralization. 

For all practical reasons, this is an expressed commitment of the President’s desire to change the trend of events in Liberia. And, by all accounts, this program will go down into history as her greatest signature program.

Launching the program, President Sirleaf correctly recalled that “Since the emergence of Liberia as a nation-state, our system of governance and public administration has remained highly centralized in Monrovia, a factor which has not allowed adequate legal opportunities for the establishment of a system of participatory local governance.”

Indeed, we agree with the Liberian leader’s reflection that “It has also impeded popular participation and local initiative especially in the provision of public goods and services.”

As the President rightly put it, “our highly centralized system of governance has resulted in a big gap in economic growth and development, access to social and economic opportunities and human wellbeing between Monrovia and the rest of Liberia.” 

The President’s evaluation of the overall governance direction of our country since it’s founding in 1847, presents a graphic picture of the perennial issues that have haunted our country, which, by extension, reverberated in years of civil strife that the nation found itself immersed in for more than a decade.

But why, as a nation, did we have to wait to reach this peak of self destruction? Was there never a time in the course of our political development, when the sons and daughters of this soil envisaged the idea of making opportunities available to that critical segment of the population outside the forty-mile radius of Monrovia? Was decentralization never a part of the national dialogue, even where other African Countries like Ghana, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Rwanda, etc., were looking in this direction? If we did, where did we short circuit the process?

Indeed, by some estimation, one government after the other had envisioned decentralization as a national policy that would deliver the benefits of democracy to the people. It has to be stated with clarity, however, that there was never a time as now, when a more systematic approach to attainting this milestone, was crafted. 

Beginning with President Tubman, there was a desire to increase rural participation, not only in terms of political participation, but also in the economic mainstream of the country by announcing what was known as “Operation Production.” During activities marking the fourth National Unification Program held at the newly constructed Fairground Hall in the City of Buchanan in 1966, Lofa County won a prize of ten thousand dollars ($10,000.00) for being the county of highest agricultural production that year. This system of awarding sub-national units for performing with excellence in national service was a key approach aimed at motivating the citizenry, especially in an attempt to encourage decentralization.

In further demonstration of his policy orientation in the direction of decentralization, the President encouraged the holding of Executive Council Meetings in the rural parts of the Country. In 1945 President Tubman held Executive Councils in Zwedru from April 3rd to 22nd and in Webbo, from April 29 to May 5. Then came President William R. Tolbert with his Mat-to-Mattress Policy. The crux of this policy was to develop Liberia into one body politic where each citizen would have a feel of the dividend of democracy or of having a sense of belonging to the state.

Additionally, few years after assuming the Presidency, Tolbert urged the residents of scattered hamlets and villages within proximity to merge into towns that would be inhabited by large populations, making it easier to be well served with the dividends of development, including feeder roads, schools, health facilities and markets.

When the Tolbert Administration came to an end, anticipation was high, especially amongst the indigenous population, as to popular participation of citizens in every facet of national life.

And so, on assuming the Presidency following the death of Tolbert, President Samuel K. Doe took a policy direction that was much the same as leaders before him. He launched the Green Revolution Policy that had a focus on local participation in the running of the country.

People in rural communities were being encouraged, as also were urban dwellers, to produce more food to build a strong pillar for sustained national growth across the nation. The Green Revolution, in the view of President Doe and his adherents, was intended for maximum food security, with local farm-to-market roads, and highways linking all county capitals to each other and to the nation’s capital, Monrovia.

President Charles Taylor’s Vision 2024 also incorporated much of the elements of delivering the goods of democracy to the citizenry irrespective of where they resided. First, his Vision 2024 Conference sought to ensure national reconciliation and healing amongst the people. Then, the way would be paved for a progressive national development effort.

These synopses of accounts reflecting the mindset of our national leaders to bring about participatory governance and economic opportunities for all, were good efforts that if methodologically implemented, would have lifted our country to a higher realm of development and thereby serve as a platform for peaceful co-existence. 

Unfortunately, they were simply couched in the personal visions of the leaders and were never scrupulously pursued.

From the ashes of our years of civil strife, it seems clear that Liberia has got no alternative but seek the path of genuine conflict transformation that incorporates a comprehensive review of past policy options with a view of knowing our pitfalls and calving a new policy direction anchored in conflict transformation.

That is why with the help of the international community, this government has learned the lessons of the past and is on the progressive road to decentralization.

The skeptic would ask, why should we build any hope that decentralization will become a reality? To address such a concern, one would have to take an objective look at the things that have been done to propel this policy to reality. First, a series of nation-wide consultative meetings were held to gauge the disposition of citizens regarding this evolving governing process. Next, the Governance Commission drafted a policy of decentralization incorporating views that were gathered from the citizens. Subsequently, the policy was approved and launched by the President. The entire requisite institutional framework has been put in place to ensure smooth progression in the implementation process. 

With the implementation of this program in its proposed two phases, Liberians can finally take a deep breath and say goodbye to the wrong notion that “Monrovia is Liberia,” and that opportunity can truly be available to every Liberian.

For once, Liberia shall not remain the same. We are on the way to building a new nation for ourselves and posterity.

We call on all Liberians to put aside their individual persuasions and rally around this national program.

Ministry of Information, Liberia