By Abdoukarim Sanneh, London
Strengthening local government authorities through decentralisation is important in building and nurturing functional and participatory democracy. Gambia is a centralised state since after independence and not much is done to decentralise power through local government reforms to strengthen local democracy, in order to effectively and efficiently response to our community development challenges confronting our country. Coming from 22 years of neo-patrimonial state with unimaginable brutality and narrow space of democratic participation, new Gambia should set of a democratic system base on address issues of equity and social justice and one fundamental pathway towards that reality is through decentralisation and local government reforms agenda.
In many part of developing countries functional and inclusive participatory democracy comes with decentralisation. Decentralisation can be described as the transfer of power from central government to lower levels of government and these took the form of administrative and political decentralisation to enhance effective planning and management of resources, resource allocation and mobilisation, citizen participation and accountability etc. The aim of this article is to discuss the shortcomings in the implementation of local reforms, the mistakes and setback and the way forward to build a local government system with a development vision that is inclusive, transparent and accountable.
There is constitutional provision for local government administration in the Gambia. Both the 1997 constitution and before that the 1970 constitution in the second and first republic, all maintain three spheres of government and that is Central Government, Local Government and Traditional Rulers commonly known as chieftaincy and Village Alkalos. The legal framework of the Local government was Local Government Act, 2002 which was passed in the National Assembly on 9th April 2002. This act superseded early Local Government Act (Amended 1984), Local Government (City of Banjul Act (Amended 1988) The Kanifing Municipal Council Act 1991 and the Provinces Act.
There are 7 Local government areas and each of these councils is headed by Chief Executive Officers who role involves managing the affairs of the council and is also the accounting officer. It is also stipulated in the Local Government Act that Central Government provided 25% of the council’s development budgets but no specification is given when that amount of money is due and remit to the council.
During the political transition from Military to Civilian rule in 1996 to early 2000, The Government of the Gambia through UNDP and European Union Technical Assistance came with Decentralisation project that aims to strengthen local democracy with a local government reform agenda, but unfortunately totalitarian and neo-patrimonial regime of Yaya Jammeh and its lukewarm approach was unwilling to widen the space for local democracy through Local Government Reform agenda. Shortly after enacting Local Government Act in April 2002 by the rubberstamp Parliament, the following month May 2002 was the local government election through the quasi democratic process. In the past local government elections all the 7 local government areas are controlled by Former APRC Party except Banjul that elected Independent Mayors such as Pa Sallah Jeng. Mr Jeng even whilst was democratically elected as Independent Mayor of Banjul went through all forms of intimidation and harassment. The judiciary was used as a repressive arm of the government to prosecute him on flimsy and bogus charges obstructing and sabotaging his tenure in office with the aim of making it untenable. This was the beginning of efficiency and mechanisation of Local Government authorities all over the country.
In many part of developed and developing countries, Local Government Administration have gone through democratic reforms. Local Administration in many democracies is not control only by the regime in power but also opposition parties. Many opposition parties use their control local government assemblies as an experimental ground for their development programmes and policies. The Local Government Act 2002 has lot of deficiency that need to be amended. Beyond citizens electing their Local Councillors, there is no section in the Act that enforced systems for community involvement through consultation or reviews in local development action plan. Community involvement in local government decision making should and will always be the focal point for discussion of local problems and for making recommendations to the councils, or find solutions to the problems. It can also be use for mobilising residents of wards in local government areas on self help and development projects and also for educating citizens on their rights and obligations in relation to local government.
There is a serious problem of accountability and transparency in Local Government administration in the Gambia. This can be noticed by ineffectiveness of local government administration in all parts of the country. Today no local government authorities in both urban and rural areas have put in place a schedule weekly or fortnightly or even monthly refuse collection in communities and local markets where taxes are daily collected from people. Local councils apart from 25% subvention that is stipulated in Local Government Act 2002 that should have come from Central Government as budget support, raise revenue from sources compound rate tax, property rates, licences, duty fees and charges, interest, local taxes and fees from local markets etc. But given that there is no mechanism of citizens’ involvement, there is cloud around issues of transparency and accountability in local government finance. What the Government should do is to enforce transparency and accountability and makes it a requirement for all the 7 local government administrations to periodically publish council documents, budgets and accounts, development plans and council meetings to be open to public access. The civil society groups should also be given the capacity to monitor local government service delivery both to strengthen accountability of service providers to the poor and to provide feed back for policy makers .For example in every Local Government in authority is given star rating in rate to service delivery and this system enable to name and shame local government authorities based on the quality of service it provided to tax payers. Apart form that there is Local Government Ombudsman to investigate complaints from the public about the councils.
Local Government reforms in our new emerging democracy will foster not only decentralisation of power and local democracy but will also enhance effective delivery of service that is either the sole the responsibility of local government authorities, joint responsibility service with central government or discretionary responsibility. It is about time to move away from the era which Local government is seen only as Tax and revenue collection agency into partners of sustainable development. Ineffectiveness of local government administration in our country had created at a vacuum in addressing social justice in wider areas of social service such as housing, health and social care for the weak and the vulnerable in our society, roads, schools, leisure or community centres etc.
Gambia local government administration needs not only political decentralisation but administrative decentralisation. For example Departments like Community Development and Physical Planning should be transfer to Local Government Areas. Central Government should not have to take community development initiatives that should be delegated as a sole function and responsibility of local government authorities. Spatial land use planning and also development control should be a local government decision. For years, the function of the Department of Physical Planning is enforcement and demolition civil land disputes between individual community and the state. There should be proper administrative and development function of Department of Physical Planning within the local government system. Local Government authorities has no spatial land use master plan in related in housing and land use development which can be subjected to community participation and democratic decision making. Gambia is the only Former British Colony with Land Laws and administration is based on 1948 Town and Country Planning Act of 1948 of England and Wales. Thanks to Sir Philips Bridge (1922-2007) the former Chief Justice of the Gambia who started his assignment in colonial Land Office. He implanted 1948 Land and Country Planning Act of UK into our domestic legislation. This legislation in England and Wales was purposefully for development control and its enforcement to address the impact of Second World War and its impact land use planning. Most of 1948 Town and Country Planning Act are repealed. England and Wales has democratised it land use decision policy. Spatial land use planning and regulations goes through public consultation and decision making. Gambia Government through administrative decentralisation should disband Department of Physical Planning and place planning laws in local government for democratic decision making of Land Administration.
Today Local government authorities in our country for example should have gone into social housing development. This can be like a joint investment with Social Security and Housing to build affordable schemes in all the 7 Local Government Areas which would have increase their revenue/income. Now service sectors where our local government authorities had failed to invest are led to new players such as TAF and Global Property. These actors in our national housing markets are motives and driven with corporate interest of making profit and show no regard about the social impact of their investment, community cohesion, environment and corporate social responsibility.
The Ministry of Local Government and Regions has the responsibility for implementing decentralisation and local government reforms from now towards the next local government election and beyond. Gambia’s local government authorities will not be able to responsive to need of our citizens without proper accountable democratic reforms. In our national pathway to widen the space of democratic governance it is fundamental important for Gambia to reformed its local government administration for the interest of social justice to meet environmental and community development challenges.