Decentralization Of Political & Administrative Power In Liberia

By Bai M. Gbala

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 30, 2004

This Paper is the revised and expanded version of the Paper delivered at Conference Vision 2024 on the future of Liberia, held at the Unity Conference Center, Virginia, Liberia, in July 1998. Sponsored by the Government of Liberia, the Conference brought together members of the Diplomatic Corps, friendly foreign and Liberian businesspeople, academics, political leaders, and professional technocrats to reflect on and analyze Liberia’s turbulent history as the frame of reference, to prescribe and recommend socio-political and economic reforms long over-due but relevant for the socio-economic and political progress and well-being of the nation and people, and generations yet unborn.

The fifteen-year (1989-2003) ethnically-driven and deeply-divisive civil war with its mind-boggling and brutal summary executions exposed to the world, graphically and dramatically, the most extreme form of hatred, antagonism, prejudice, jealousy, and envy apparently intrinsic in our Liberian socio-political nature. These conditions partly explain the magnitude of the mindless atrocities committed against unarmed, innocent men, women, and children, and the profound ethnic/tribal cleavages created.

The Paper identifies and proposes institutional reforms designed to introduce and implement fundamental, social, political, and democratic change necessary for national healing, peace, unity, security. Towards this end, it recommends re-subdivision of the country into four major provinces as constituent bodies of a re-structured, re-organized Liberian National Government.

Founding of a Nation

According to traditional oral and written contemporary history, thousands of black Africans, ancestors of the sixteen tribes that now inhabit Liberia, migrated south of the Sahara Desert during late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, in search of political freedom, fertile land and water for farming and settlement, and forest for hunting and timber.

In their journey south, these nomadic tribes paused temporarily in and passed through the countries now known as Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and La Cote’d’lvoire. They settled finally in various regions of Liberia which later became tribal nation-states, under the rule of tribal chiefs or kings. The second decade of the nineteenth century saw the immigration of yet another group of black Africans, this time freed slaves from the United States of America. With the settlement of the freed Americans, the formation of the Republic of Liberia, and declaration of political independence twenty years later in 1847, several other chiefdom/kingdom-states were incorporated into the new Republic.

The Liberia State, as much as could be traversed by road or other means of communication at that time, was demarcated into administrative/political subdivisions of five counties - Grand Cape Mount, Montserrado, Grand Bassa, Sinoe, and Maryland Counties - located along the 350-mile Atlantic coast from Sierra Leone on the north to La Cote’d’lvoire on the south, and extends inland forty miles from the
Seacoast; from the forty-mile limit, the hinterland of the country was divided into administrative districts placed under the administration of district commissioners, recruited from the settler communities of the counties on the coast and appointed by the President of the Republic, himself a settler.

Years later, in response to a new and unusual phenomenon of political consciousness and agitation for change from a repressive condition of unjust rule (as we shall see later), the Liberian Hinterland was, again, divided into three Provinces - Eastern, Central, and Western. Each of the Provinces were sub-divided into administrative districts, determined by size and population. Each district, as before, remained under the administration of a District Commissioner who reported to a newly established and appointed Provincial Commissioner who, in turn, reported to the President. These officials, as usual, were recruited from the Settler communities in the coastal counties and appointed by the President, and imported into the Hinterland.

This new approach facilitated “ease” of political administration and “management” of the rising expectations of the people for a while. For, about twenty years later in 1964, Mr W. V. S. Tubman, then President of Liberia, was forced to recognize and come to grips with the developed/developing, socio-political realities of the day. In persistent calls and demonstrations for “integration” and “unity” (code words for democratic governance and recognition/respect for the rights of indigenous Liberians), rural citizens demanded, and President Tubman abolished, the three provinces and created, instead, four new Counties - Grand Gedeh, Nimba, Bong, and Lofa. With creation of the counties came Senate and House representations. .

Social, Political & Economic Conditions

The social, economic, and political history of Liberia’s indigenous peoples (an estimated 97% of the nation’s population) had been and is painfully replete with what the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moyniham (Democrat of New York) described as “benign neglect”. In the Liberian context, this condition was and is characterized by willful, socio-political marginalization and suppression; and planned, systematic denial of civil, human, and political rights of indigenous citizens despite the guarantee by the nation’s Constitution of in 1847. Indeed, the systematic abuse of political and economic power meted out against their brothers and fellow citizens of rural Liberia by our Founding Fathers was implemented and meticulously perfected by and through the instruments of traditional rulers - powerful tribal chiefs, clan headmen, the local military detachment, and messengers - local agents of political/administrative power. This system of abuse included, among others, forced, unpaid labor practices such as recruitment for work in the construction of official compounds or residences for district commissioners, revenue agents, and barracks for military detachments. Indigenous citizens were taken from towns and villages and used as “porters” or carriers to transport “officials”in hammocks and luggages carried on heads from town to town or district to district, without the right of free choice and compensation. Moreover, thousands of rural, indigenous Liberians were forcibly recruited from towns and villages and contracted, without their knowledge and consent, to Spanish Cocoa Plantations owners on the Island of Fernando Po (now Equatorial Guinea) to work without compensation under severe conditions of servitude.

Although the Liberian Nation-State was founded and declared independent with a liberal, democratic constitution adopted on July 26, 1847, the Founding Fathers refused to recognize the indigenous or “native” population and integrate them with their compatriots as full-fledge citizens and equal partners.

The democratic practice of “checks and balances” as provided by the Constitution degenerated into decision-making by a selected few of the Founding Fathers, dominated by a powerful president who became supreme with unquestioned, effective control of the legislature and judiciary; thus, the constitutional doctrine of “co-equality” of the three branches of government and “separation of (their) powers” was and has been reduced to an ineffective, meaningless legal maxim, These conditions prompted a Liberian scholar to observe that the highly “... centralized structure of the Liberian Government and related institutional inadequacies... weakened local government”. Furthermore, the “county” designation, which formed and still is the basis for legislative apportionment and representation of the political/administrative subdivisions, was not accorded the hinterland subdivisions until 1964, while the five coastal counties - Grand Cape Mount, Montserrado, Grand Bassa, Sinoe, and Maryland, original home of the Founding Fathers and their descendants - were given this important, political right. In this way, the Founding Fathers and their descendants dominated the socio-economic and political landscape of Liberia.

Put differently, the indigenous citizens paid taxes and satisfied all other obligations of citizenship to a government that refused them recognition as full-fledge citizens, legislative representation, and equal participation in national affairs affecting their interest and destiny for some 117 of the 150 years of our existence as a Nation!

It is important to note that during and after the devastating, national tragedy in our country, vicious, hate-filled and potentially-dangerous statements and rumors persisted, with increasing arrogance, that “we (descendants of the Founding Fathers) are now back in political power and that we will put you people (indigenous citizens) back in your place”; meaning, of course, back into the state of socio-economic and political exclusion, suppression and oppression. These unfortunate statements or rumors that continue to circulate in politically-sensitive circles of our society, do not encourage peace, unity and national reconciliation

As an indigenous citizen, I have long reflected upon and am convinced that timely fundamental reforms are necessary and over-due of Liberia’s national, political/administrative power and authority structure, and its relationship to local/regional governments of the political/administrative subdivisions. Indeed, a comprehensive, socio-political, economic, and democratic transformaqtion of Liberian society will, hopefully, ensure full protection of law and participation of all citizens in the proclaimed participatory democracy as equal partners in the “new Liberia”. It was in this connection that I advanced and discussed various ideas with other Liberians, with decentralization of political/administrative power as the centerpiece. In this brief analysis, I re-state the thesis with the hope of provoking and exciting serious thought and reflections on and debate of the issues raised.

However, successful achievement of this objective - equal and equitable treatment of all citizens, equal participation in national decision-making, equal and full protection of law, and full integration of the indigenous peoples into national body politic as full-fledge citizens - lies in the re-structure of government by replacement of our present Unitary system of government which centralizes all political/administrative power in an imperial president in far away Monrovia. It became an oligarchy that dominated national decision-making mainly to protect and preserve the interests of the few, the Founding Fathers and their descendants.

Importantly, given our strong ethnic/tribal affinity, a basic characteristic of our African tradition, the highly-centralized form of government creates the perception, indeed reality, that the all-powerful, imperial president of the Unitary government may, does or will, in fact, seek to protect and preserve only the interets of his ethnic/tribal group together with his socio-economic and political associates. This condition (of perceived/real preferences) has been, and may continue to be, the yardstick for the allocation and distribution of the national pie. Considered against the fact that the Liberian Government is not only the nation’s largest, most important and sought-after employer, but also the measure of prestige, honor, and socio-political cutting edge in our society, this widely-held perception/reality views, with suspicion, government decisions regarding employment, benefits, and related considerations affecting indigenous citizens seeking employment or employed in the public or private sector.


In order to reduce and eventually eradicate this panorama of social, economic, and political ills seemingly intrinsic in the Unitary System of our Government and to ensure open, fair, equal and equitable treatment of all citizens, I suggest and recommend re-subdivision of Liberia into four regional provinces - Eastern, North Central, South Central, and Western provinces - with local autonomy to elect their political leaders presently appointed by Monrovia. By this approach, local/regional leaders and citizens will assume the responsibly for local/regional decision-making while they participate, as equal partners, in national affairs.

Towards this end, each province shall be comprised of the counties or political/administrative subdivisions as presently defined and geographically-located, with inclusion primarily based on proximity to facilitate effective, efficient administration. In this connection, the following shall apply:

A. Eastern Province
1, Maryland County
2. Grand Kru County
3. River Gee County
4. Sinoe County
5. Grand Gedeh County

B. North Central Province

1, Nimba County
2. Bong County
3. River Cess County

C. South Central Province

1. Montserrado County
2. Margibi County
3. Grand Bassa County

D. Western Province

1. Lofa County
2. Gbarpolu County
3. Bomi County
4. Grand Cape Mount County

For, the Unitary structure of government, enshrined in the Constitution of Liberia and utilized during the past 157 years, is not, any longer, relevant to the prevailing conditions and realities of twenty-first century Liberia. Indeed, the System has clearly out-lived its usefulness and, therefore, must be replaced by a much more democratic system of regional, autonomous provincial governments united to form a Liberian Federation.

Conventional wisdom teaches that a government close to the people, understands and appreciates their needs better, and responsively serves them best.

Achieving this goal requires repeal or amendment of the relevant provision(s) of the Liberian Constitution in order to be consistent. In this connection, it is appropriately important to note that law made by individuals in society is not only to define and equitably regulate interactions and relationships in order to protect and preserve society’s vital interests, but also to protect the Powerless from the Powerful; the Weak from the Strong; and the Disadvantaged Poor from the Privileged Wealthy. As these interactions, relationships and vital interests change over time with complexity, law must, inevitably, change in correspondence.

Writing in the African newsmagazine West Africa, February 2-8, 1998, John Sarkodie-Addo observed that the number of violent conflicts in Africa arising from ethnic/tribal (or local /regional) interests are countless. Gruesome brutalities and cruel deaths, profound human suffering, people displacement and refugees, and incalculable destruction of private and public properties, all heretofore seen on television or heard on radio news casts from far-away lands, are now on nearly every African door step. The “message is clear”, he added, “the over-riding unity of ethnic/tribal (and I add local/regional) groups now threatens the very survival of the modern states of Africa”.

Mr Addo observed further that “... modern African States can only survive under a system whereby ethnic/tribal (or local/ regional) identities become recognizable features of state-building or statehood…Here,” he continued, “federalism provides the best opportunity. Negotiation of the interests of the various ethnic/tribal (or local/regional) entities can bring government nearer to the people and pave the way for transparency (and accountability), progress, peace, and above all, general satisfaction among all interest groups in the country ... I see ethnic/tribal (or local/regional) diversity as the peg on which national stability hangs... I would oppose a strong central government ...Best of all, (regional) autonomy would ease the political constipation notoriously associated with African politics...”

Shape of Autonomous Provincial Government

The organization and structure (minus the Unitary System) of the Provincial Government shall be modeled after the present , national government of Liberia, particularly the three separate and co-equal branches of government - Judiciary, Executive, and Legislature, operating under the doctrine of “separation of powers” with “checks and balances.”

In this connection, there shall be a Provincial Executive Branch to be headed by a Governor of the Province, assisted by a Deputy Governor; a Provincial House of Assembly to be headed by a Speaker, assisted by a Deputy Speaker; and a Provincial Judiciary, to be headed by a Provincial Chief Justice.

The Governor and Deputy Governor, Members of the Provincial House of Assembly, and other appropriately-defined officials of the Province shall be elected by registered voters of the Province, while cabinet officials, executives, and other administrators of Provincial agencies shall be appointed by the Governor.

Provincial Cabinet Porfolios

The Governor of the Province shall appoint and have a cabinet comprising, more or less of the following Portfolios:

Commissioner, Department of : Finance & economic Planning
Education, Youth & Sports, Culture & Tourism
Public Works & Transport
Agriculture, Forestry & Fishery
Trade, Commerce, Industry & Investment
Labor & Industrial Relations
Health & Social Welfare
Justice, Police & Public Safety
Mines, Lands, & Energy

The Ministries of Foreign Affairs, National Defense, Postal & Telecommunications Affairs, and Information & Broadcasting shall be retained at the national level. For obvious reasons, particularly the need to ensure full and un-biased protection of the human, civil, and political rights of traditionally-vulnerable rural, indigenous citizens, police and related law enforcement agencies and services shall be decentralized. Each Province shall organize and administer its own police and public safety departments.

Taxation, Collection, & Spending Powers

Whereas it is not necessary that a unitary government have its taxing, collection, and spending powers defined and specified by law in terms of an agreement, a federation, by necessity, must have such powers clearly specified and delineated by law. As a matter of fact, fiscal arrangements - the lawful assignment of taxing, collection, and spending powers - constitute one of the most important reasons and, therefore, the basic and critical requirements for constitutional definitions of respective powers of constituent, autonomous governments which form a federation.

In the Liberian context of the unitary system in which, over time, there has developed and exists a culture of monopoly (on the part of the government) of the taxing, collection, and spending powers, a condition with results of glaring unequal and in-equitable expenditures on socio-economic developments of the counties and the subdivisions, it becomes very important, indeed critical, to decentralization success, that taxing, collection, and spending powers of the federal as well as the constituent provincial governments, be clearly delineated by law. For example, taxes on personal and corporate income, and royalties on natural resources such as timber, gold, diamond, iron ore, etc., exploited from the provinces should be collected by the national government and shared equitably with the province(s) of origin. Levies for provincial road use, mining licenses, taxes on properties developed and registered in the province(s), taxes or fees for business registration (proprietorships, partnerships, and/or corporate charters) should be collected by the provinces concerned. This example is by no means complete.

Regional autonomy of the provinces will be an exciting opportunity for serious commitment to responsible, local self-rule. It will certainly afford provincial economic development planners the challenge to attract, in an aggressive and professional manner, foreign investment and capital, and tourism to the provinces. More exciting and rewarding, it seems, will be the policy and program designed to attract foreign and domestic investment that should be conducted in a free, friendly, but competitive environment among the provinces and the national government.

Primary Benefits of Decentralization

Detailed, comparative cost-benefit analysis of decentralization in socio-economic and political terms at this point, is beyond the scope of this Paper. However, for our immediate purposes and the need to inform, educate, persuade, and convince, it is necessary to identify the primary, important benefits for an insight into the prevailing conditions and the logic of our proposal to enable one to reflect momentarily on the crucial, national decisions now being made by Monrovia without the objective input by the vast majority of the Liberian people.

Firstly, though legitimate under the present system, these decisions have had and continue to have profound negative impact upon regional, indigenous citizens. The decisions include arrest and detention; trial and punishment; recruitment, selection, and placement in suitable positions in national as well as county governments; taxation, collection, and expenditure; access to quality education, healthcare, and social welfare; equal and equitable social & economic development of the subdivisions and the coastal counties; and equal protection of the law, to name a very few.

Secondly, autonomy will afford officials the opportunity to make many appointments; in other words, provincial administrations will assume the responsibility to provide employment opportunities for citizens of their provinces, thus eliminating perceived/real discrimination against regional citizens in employment. These employment opportunities include appointments to provincial cabinets at top, middle, lower ministerial, director, and manager levels. In each of these many areas, there will be the need for thousands of support staff recruited in the provinces or citizens of the provinces recruited from outside.

Thirdly, there will also be Houses of Assembly and Judiciary branches of the Provincial

Governments. The Houses of Assembly will need assemblymen and assemblywomen, while the Judiciary will need lawyers for judges as well as district, county, and provincial attorneys. These appointments will be made by the provincial governments, utilizing citizens of the provinces.

Fourthly, and most importantly, the provincial employment opportunities will certainly serve as a beacon to attract qualified province professionals, now living in Monrovia and elsewhere, to return to their home provinces. They will return, take up employment, build homes, and contribute to province development. In this way, social, economic, and political progress of the provinces will take on improved and meaningful scope; thus, reducing and eventually eradicating “rural brain-drain” and the painful exodus of rural dwellers to urban centers with which they are unprepared to cope, in terms of marketable skills necessary for socio-economic survival.

And Fifthly, with a national illiteracy rate of about 75% and upwards of about 80% un-informed among the indigenous citizens, this proposal will accelerate education, if adopted; education will provide the necessary, important information that unreasonable political agitation which, more often than not, leads to violence and crime hardly lays the foundation for the introduction and establishment of just and lasting social order under the rule of law.

Indeed, a change or replacement of the present structure of government with one which incorporates and empowers the citizens to assume local self-rule and to participate as equals in making (these) national decisions is a rational, democratic, and peaceful revolution in our times, and a benefit of enormous magnitude. Significantly, it was the inequity of the present, highly-centralized rule that gave rise to the formation and establishment of four counties in hinterland Liberia, with legislative representation for indigenous citizens in 1964.


Finally, according to the words of political wisdom of Mr. Wubare-Kuti Okorodudu (“Power Devolution,” WEST AFRICA, May 18-31,1998), I quote:

“Decentralized structure of governance in any nation makes for better delivery of services and hastens employment in every nook an corner of such a nation, thus enhancing its prosperity and greatness in the long run. It requires that every component section of the union fully participate as this makes for greater practice of democratic principles and is good for the nation in general.

“It is a fact that the stable and prosperous nations of the world are those with strong economic and political democracies which evolve a decentralized form of governance, such as the United States and Germany. The advantages of the concept and practice of power devolution in any nation of the world, far outweigh the disadvantages. The stability and prosperity currently being enjoyed by such nations bear testimony to this.”