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Central government should stop undermining local governments

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By Madi Jobarteh

The intention of the 1997 Constitution is to decentralise the governance system of The Gambia to ensure sustainable national development. Section 193(3) states that, “An Act of the National Assembly shall make provision for the functions, powers and duties of local government authorities…” to provide infrastructure and development of the area, encouragement of commercial enterprises, the participation of the inhabitants in the development and administration of the area and the provision of essential and other services including the management of land, and protection of the environment, among others.

In 2002, the National Assembly indeed passed the Local Government Act. In the Act, it is clearly stated that central government will transfer most of the development and social service functions (Section 49) as well as community development staff to the local governments. This is to support local councils to provide quality public goods and services such as education, healthcare, natural resources management, forestry, agricultural, and environmental management, secondary road construction, and provision of utility services among others as stipulated from Section 61 to 80. The Act clearly states that as soon as the law comes into force, ministries will transfer such facilities such as schools, hospitals, roads, forests, and so forth to the council in whose jurisdiction these facilities are located. Because the aim of the Act is to ensure that local councils provide development goods and social services, it therefore created various planning, delivery and monitoring structures for the effective and efficient running of the councils.

Further, it also imposed an obligation on the central government to support and build the capacity of the local councils to perform these functions (Section 91). In this regard, the Act states in Section 128 that the central government will also provide 25% of the development budget of each council. Unfortunately, since 2002 when the law was created, Yahya Jammeh and his regime became the greatest violator of the Act. Not only had he refused to transfer the necessary powers and functions to the local councils, even worse, he also changed the Act several times just to disempower and control local councils such as the creation of the position of governor. He also abolished the election of seyfolu and alkalolu by the people and gave the power to appoint them to the president and the minister respectively. Further, he took away most of the revenue sources of councils to hand over to central government institutions such as GRA, police, Gambia Tourism Board and others.

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Finally, he politicised the councils to turn them into de facto APRC bureaus and donors. In the final analysis, the local councils were incapacitated, underfunded, and undermined thereby turning them into useless and corrupt entities. Enter Adama Barrow in 2017. Since assuming office, the Barrow regime has demonstrated that they are even worse than the Jammeh regime. For example, we have seen how the Minister for Regional Governments interferes with the councils, especially those under opposition control, to prevent them fighting corruption. Instead of providing the capacity building and support envisioned in the Act, the Barrow regime turned itself into an opposition to mayors of Banjul and Kanifing Municipality as well as the chairpersons of Brikama and Mansa Konko area councils simply because they are in the opposition. For example, the Mayor of Banjul was completely sidelined in the Banjul Roads Rehabilitation Project contrary to Section 90 of the Act.

Similarly, we saw how in 2021 the former Minister of Regional Governments blatantly interfered with KMC in its efforts to combat corruption. As if those were not enough, we are currently seeing the central government inconveniencing the Brikama Area Council in the name of a so-called road clearing exercise. Above all, we also witness the Central government establish a Local Government Commission of Inquiry without the involvement of local councils which are the subject of the inquiry. Thus, what both the Jammeh and Barrow regimes have demonstrated is their total disdain for the Local Government Act and disregard for elected local councils contrary to the purpose for which the Constitution created them in the first place. It must be said that indeed local councils especially in Banjul, Kanifing and Brikama are performing far better than before despite the obstacles placed in their way. The initiatives conceived by mayors Lowe and Bensouda and Chairman Darboe are unprecedented in the history of local government in this country. This goes to show that if local governments are indeed supported as required in the law, surely all the local councils could be effectively responding to the development needs of communities hence enabling the country to attain a holistic national development. The central government should therefore refrain from interfering with these councils. The so-called road clearing exercise within the communities is not the job of neither the Ministry of Regional Governments nor the National Roads Authority or the Gambia Police Force. It is entirely the job of the local governments. Apart from primary roads, all secondary roads are the responsibility of local councils as per Section 80 of the Act. Section 79 of the Act defines a secondary road as any road which is not a trunk road or highway. Therefore, the roads within our communities in our villages and towns are mainly secondary roads. Furthermore, Section 35 of the NRA Act stipulates that NRA will cooperate with other public authorities in the discharge of its functions which is road construction and maintenance. Road clearing is not road construction or maintenance. Therefore, if these institutions still want to embark on road clearing, they must recognise that they need to first consult with and obtain the cooperation of the local councils. But that is not happening as it should. Thus, this so-called road clearing exercise is yet another attempt to interfere, undermine and obstruct Local Councils from performing their functions. The Ministry for Local Government, NRA and the GPF have no business with these roads in terms of clearing them. The ministry or the police, or the NRA is not a road cleansing service nor a road clearing agency. Rather central government institutions should provide all necessary technical assistance to the councils to plan, build, clear and maintain all secondary roads. Therefore, President Adama Barrow, Minister Hamat Bah and IGP Seedy Muctarr Touray should be advised to stop this so-called road clearing exercise and limit themselves to the law. Instead, the government should begin the full implementation of the Local Government Act to transfer all powers and functions stipulated therein and provide the necessary support to the local councils as stipulated in the Act to facilitate the development of The Gambia. It is high time justice minister Dawda Jallow provided the necessary guidance to these institutions and officials. Local governments are the vehicles for national development. Nations that have developed so high did so thanks to robust local government systems in place. Anyone who visits the UK or The Netherlands or Canada, will see how regional or city councils and municipalities spearhead the development of their villages, towns and cities such as London, New York and  Tokyo hence the entire country. Therefore, let us tell the government to respect the law and stop interfering with and undermining local councils if it is interested in national development.

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