Proposition 12 for Decentralized Governance in Liberia: Power Sharing for Peace and Progress, Yarsuo Weh-Dorliae

(Book Review)


By: Emmanuel T. Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 4, 2004


Decentralization as a fundamental strategy for systemically effecting national reforms and rebuilding post-conflict Liberia is a constructive proposal. There are some strengths of the book that are worth highlighting. It rightfully begins with a critique of the excesses of the imperial presidency and a call for introducing equity amongst the three branches of government. Dorliae is also right in his critique of the political, social and economic hegemony created by the Settler elites, the centralism that they fostered; and the unequal development that such a system engendered. True, the rural sector where indigenous people predominantly reside remains underdeveloped. Hence, decentralization is one of many correctives that provide opportunities for people in the public and private sectors in local communities to play critical roles in resolving problems locally. Certainly, decentralization will break the isolation of inhabitants of the rural sector from core services often located in Monrovia. It will also provide an opportunity for increased grassroots participation, bottom-up development initiatives, macroeconomic stability, efficiency in service delivery, and ultimately lead to good governance.

Dorliae makes the strongest case for decentralization under Proposition VI, where he describes ways that decentralization can strengthen local government revenue systems through revenue sharing between the county and central governments. I agree with his basic premise that revenue sharing should be linked to population size. I also see value in his suggestion that revenues from maritime operations, national seaports, airports, etc (p. 45) should be shared with local populations. His exploration of various taxation regimes, while not detailed, provides beginning points for national conversations on how to create stable and predictable intergovernmental transfers.

Dorliae’s discussion of the property assessment processes in Proposition VII (pp. 55-62) is also an important contribution to his decentralization thesis. I am referring to his recommendations that such factors as the location, type, and physical make of the property, should influence the value of the taxation. His overview of the history of taxation in the rural sector situates the discussion in context that may be helpful to readers who lack such background.

Although Dorliae’s work seeks to deepen understanding about decentralization, the book has enormous flaws. Dorliae writes, “The Judicial Branch should not be decentralized because it is neither nor an administrative institution. The purpose of decentralization is to facilitate economic redistribution and to promote a greater participation of the people in the management of their nation’s economy…The judicial branch is not so directly involved in these matters and therefore, its national character should be preserved” (p. 8). This assertion ignores the enormity of the role that the Judicial Branch plays as an arbiter of social and distributive justice and one of the institutions that is frequently usurped by the Executive Branch, and as such invites public corruption. In a nation like Liberia where Dorliae admits that public corruption and the violation of rights are rampant, how can decentralization achieve its intended goals, if we maintain a centralized judicial system? Would the president make judicial appointments even in the rural parts? Or would local judges in the rural parts be elected by local constituencies?

Another segment of Dorliae’s work that requires alterations to enhance the quality of his decentralization thesis is the relationship between the central government and governance mechanisms in the indigenous sector. He writes, “Because the paramount chief applies traditional rules in settling disputes the Supreme Court must accept and apply traditional rules in deciding cases arising from those courts” (p. 8). Such a sentiment assumes that so-called “traditional rules” are uniform. Clearly, even among members of the same ethnic group, there are differing traditional norms, least to say among different ethnic groups. What traditional benchmarks would the Supreme Court use in such cases? Would it be that of the Manos, Kpelles, Lormas, Krus, etc?

Dorliae lists a series of functions that should not be “shared with county government” (p. 9), namely, “police, administration of justice, banking…and telecommunications” (p. 9). Dorliae fails to make a distinction between national, county, and local police institutions. Localizing police functions have been known to deliver significant benefits to communities. It has forged collaborative relationships between citizens and their local police forces and even translated to neighborhood watch programs. As a form of decentralization, local/community policing should not be confused with national security administration.

In addition, to suggest that banking should be the exclusive domain of the national government is an intrusion into a domain where the national government should not even be threading. Historically, the government has done poorly when it has entered the banking arena. Examples abound of corruption and inefficiencies in government-run banking institutions, (i.e.,) the National Housing and Savings Bank and the National Bank (performing its traditional banking functions). If the goal is for capitalism to thrive in post-war Liberia, then it will do us well for the government to create conducive environment for entrepreneurs (private citizens and foreigners alike) to venture into banking and other economic activities. The government should not be a direct provider of banking services. In essence, I am an advocate for privatization of government-run enterprises with some exceptions.

Dorliae writes: “Each county government should have the power to enact ordinances, make rules and regulations that are necessary and proper for the conduct of the county affairs” (p. 11). He continues, “No local regulation or ordinance enacted by the county legislature shall be contrary to national laws” (pp. 11-12). Dorliae again negates his decentralization thesis. If local regulations and ordinances are supposed to be replicas of national equivalents, what is the essence of decentralization? Shouldn’t decentralization foster local autonomy?

It is quite confusing when Dorliae calls for a “County Legislative Assembly” and yet he suggests that: “there should not be a separate roster of officials elected to serve in the County Legislative Assembly” (p. 12). The rationale that he offers here is to “avoid wasteful duplication in the exercise of legislative powers…” (p. 12). This does not achieve decentralization, but causes an opposite effect. It fosters centralization. Decentralization aims to make local governments receptive to the needs of the local constituency, and such a system of duplication is likely to undermine this important tenet of decentralization.

When discussing the appointing and removal powers of the governor, he argues: “The Governor should have appointing – but not removal – powers” (p.14). Dorliae suggests that remover of a member of the governor’s cabinet should only occur via an impeachment proceeding administered by the legislative assembly. His desire to prevent abuse of power is quite admirable. Yet, he forgets that appointments that the governor makes are rooted in mutual personal and professional trust between the governor and the appointee. In addition, decentralization generates the greatest outcomes when local governments and their administrators, in this case the governor, has the authority to hire and fire his appointees. This provides them with greater flexibility and oversight responsibility for their appointees and staff. Denial of such right is tantamount to creating a powerless and possibly an inefficient chief executive. This makes a case for an effective judiciary, whereby if a political appointee or staff were terminated without cause, he or she could seek redress through the courts.

It is confusing that while Dorliae calls for decentralization he simultaneously supports the view that government should invest in the design and construction of buildings to be rented by entrepreneurs as restaurants and fueling stations. My view of decentralization is that it should reduce the size of government. Government has to maximize its competitiveness by working only in domains that it has the requisite capacity to produce efficiencies, and being a landlord does not seem to be one.

True, each ethnic group in Liberia has activated the mass psychopathology of antagonism and hostility against one another. Dorliae’s attempt to conceive decentralization as a mechanism for social integration is laudable. However, he experiences some difficulties in clearly articulating how his decentralization regime will forge social integration. If his naming of parking stations as “Union Station” (p. 52) strategy is an example of how decentralization can foster social integration, this is a poor one. It painstakingly illustrates the trouble of attempting to discuss a topic that one has little or no expertise. How has the name “Union Station” delivered the promise that Dorliae associates with this term for Americans, the land from which he borrows his thinking? There is a need for elaboration and depth here. He lists a set of roles that the local Department of Health and Human Services will perform (pp. 17-19), but does not delineate possible overlaps between county and national Departments of Health and Human Services. This shortcoming can also be charged to his discussion of the various departments that he recommends.

Trivial as this may seem, it is an area worth responding to since it evokes the semblance of support for Socialism. When describing the mission of the local Department of Agriculture, Dorliae adds: …serve as principal agency for distribution of plant seeds to farmers…” (p. 19). As a proponent of capitalism in post-conflict Liberia, I view subjects that have a tinge of socialism with suspicion. I believe that the market and not the government should distribute plant seeds to farmers. This will promote entrepreneurship and produce growth.

Dorliae argues that: “the governor and vice governor should be considered as in the service of the nation and should be paid by the national government” (p. 31). Again, Dorliae undercuts his decentralization thesis. If governors are to be elected by local constituencies, then, to assure the full accountability to their electorates local people should be responsible to pay the governor and the vice governor and not the central government.

In his proposal for electing county officials, Dorliae notes that: “candidates seeking positions in the county government must not be members of, nor represent political parties. Candidates for county government positions must present themselves as and campaign as individuals….” (p. 34). One can deduce from Dorliae’s argument that only nationally elected officials should campaign and be elected under the auspices of political parties. I believe that political parties should have a role in local communities because it provides an institutional framework for conditioning the behaviors of self-seeking individuals (politicians). Local political parties would empower local people to gain practice in being members of political parties. Furthermore, it would allow local people the opportunity to form locally-based political parties (at a county level), if that is what they deem necessary.

Another recommendation in Dorliae’s book that concerns me is his view that: “paramount chief and clan chief must be at least 65 years of age and must be elected for life” (p. 35). Dorliae advances his support for age discrimination further when he writes: “We must resolve to build a judiciary and legislative branches of our government through the wisdom of our elders; and the executive branch through the new thinking and stamina of the middle and young generation of political leaders” (p. 73). While these suggestions reflect a desire to foster sensitivity to traditional norms, they support age discrimination, an inequity that has no place in post-conflict Liberia.

I disagree with Dorliae’s suggestion that a government commission be created to oversee the activities of professionals. Instead, I suggest that professionals create their respective licensing boards, which would provide a more efficient oversight process – mutual accountability. The logic here is threefold: professionals are better equipped to oversee one another; this will prevent the intrusion of politics into professional matters; and it will reduce the size of government.

Dorliae alleges that that “our country has never really had a program for the education, training and licensing of individuals who would qualify for journalists” (p. 87). This assertion depicts a complete lack of knowledge regarding Journalism history in Liberia. As far back as the Tubman administration, the Liberian government instituted a program to train journalists, the most prominent beneficiary being E. Reginald Townsend who studied and earned a graduate degree from American University in Washington, DC. Townsend established the Bureau of Information and that evolved into the Department of Information and later the Ministry of information, responsible for administering national issues related to journalism training and credentialing.

Several Liberians trained abroad supported by the Liberian government or under its auspices, including T. Nelson Williams, Sr, G. Henry Andrews, Eustice Smith, Temynors Kla-Williams, Johnny McClain, Alhaji Kromah, Weade Kobbah, etc. Furthermore, the University of Liberia established a Mass Communications Department, headed by T. Nelson Williams and later by Lamini Waritay. This department graduated such journalists as Rufina Darpoh, Annie Broderick, Emmanuel Abalo, Elizabeth Enoayi, and Arthur Massaquoi. The Liberian Broadcasting System also operated an annual training program for journalists in collaboration with VOA that graduated Patrick Manjoe, Cyrus Badio, and many others. Booker Washington Institute also trained many Liberian journalists, including Tommy Raynes. In addition, the government established the Liberian Rural Communications Network (LRCN), which trained many Liberian journalists to deliver mass communications services in the rural sector. Therefore, Dorliae’s claim requires significant modifications in light of historical facts.

Finally, much has been written about his suggestion that the term of the National Transitional Government (NTGL) be extended for a year to effect his decentralization regimes (p. 92). Like many other critics, I disagree with his suggestion. Decentralization is not a quick fix nor is it a cure-all; and to suggest that we wait for a year for a constitutional amendment and referendum under an ad hoc government is not a strong case. A newly elected government can build the infrastructure to implement decentralization if this is the will of the Liberian people.

If decentralization aspires to foster economic growth, one wonders why Dorliae fails to mention the roles of civil society and the market in fostering decentralization. To discuss reforms in post-conflict Liberia without discussing how civil society, the market, and state interface to deliver democracy seems to me to be a gaping hole that must be filled if one is to produce a “thoughtful” reflection on decentralization. Civil society is the “watchdog” that curbs corruption, while the market is the engine for economic growth. It would seem that with these apparent shortcomings, Dr. Sawyer’s accolade to this author is excessive, especially since some of these prescriptions negate key propositions the book offers.

Author: Emmanuel Dolo and his family live in Maplewood, Minnesota.