By Abdoukarim Sanneh,
London, United Kingdom
Local Government in the Gambia and beyond is the lowest tier of government. It is closest to citizens and the communities and its response is local. Local government should always be responsive and has important role to play as an agent of social change and community development. A decentralised local government virtually address all the problems the citizens encounter such as register of birth and death certificate, education, refuse collection, community policing, road and town planning, parks and leisure facilities, street lights, water, public toilets, congestion, air quality etc.
Gambia is a centralised state and not done about political and administrative decentralisation even while we have in the constitutional provision for decentralisation to strengthen local government administration to enhance local democracy and delivery of service at Local government level. Mechanism for local government decentralisation is stipulate in section 193 to 194 and 214 of the constitution and in the Local Government Act 2002, the Local Government Amendment Act 2004, 2006 and 2006 and the Local Government Finance and Audit Act 2004. Section 193 of the Local Government Act 2002 mandates to establish and regulate decentralised Local Government system for the Gambia; to make provision for the functions, powers and duties of Local Authorities and for matters connected therewith.
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 This act superseded early Local Government Act (Amended 1984), Local Government (City of Banjul Act (Amended 1988) The Kanifing Municipal Council Act 1991 and the Provinces Act.
Today in many part of Africa with more emphasis for democratic participation and accountability governance to enhance effective in resource allocation and mobilisation, there is more drive from centralisation to decentralisation of power. This drive comes with changing the role of the state to facilitate effective response to the need of citizens due to failure of centralised economic planning to deliver equality social service.
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 based 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.
There are seven Local government areas and Chief Executive Officers who role involves managing the affairs of the council and is the accounting officer heads each of these councils. 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 the Economic Development Fund of the European Union came with Decentralisation programme. This aims to strengthen local democracy with a local government reform agenda, to enhance fiscal and functional decentralisation, regional and local planning and development, municipal administration and management public and civil society engagement in local and national development. Unfortunately, because of totalitarian nature of that regime not much has been done with decentralisation agenda to redefine the role of the state in fostering local governance because of narrow space of participatory 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.
Decentralisation is believed to increases accountability and transparency and improves governance. In public administration, decentralisation is a generic term that is used in different contexts. Gambia since independence is a centralise state and in the context of our decentralisation agenda should focus on key issues such deconcentration or administrative decentralisation, financial decentralisation, delegation and transfer of decision-making, and devolution or political decentralisation. 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 testing their party development programmes and policies. For example, in United Kingdom Conservative Party, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Greens use Local Government elections as a measure to elect more councillors. Local Government administration in UK is so decentralised that council are involved in building houses, schools, refuse collection, local business rate and taxes, street lights, parks, leisure centres, register of marriage birth and death, environment, police, fire and Ambulance service, social care, planning and development issues, noise and pollution, local transport etc. This is classic example of what is devolution and decentralisation in the context of Local democracy.
In the Gambia, 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 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.
However, 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 seven 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 feedback 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 from 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 also 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 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 in the Gambia. He implanted 1948 Land and Country Planning Act of UK into our domestic legislation. This piece of legislation in England and Wales was purposefully for development control and 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. Today England and Wales has democratised it land use decision policy. Planning decision and application are delegated by local government administration. Spatial land use planning and regulations goes through public consultation and decision-making. Gambia Government through administrative decentralisation should d Department of Physical Planning as a unit under development and planning in Local Government Administration and developed our planning laws to involve public participation and consultation to enhance land governance in local government for democratic decision making of Land Administration.
The Ministry of Local Government and Regions has the responsibility for implementing decentralisation and local government reforms from now onwards. Gambia’s local government authorities will not be able to responsive to need of our citizens without proper accountable democratic reforms and this should be a central issue in that that we are about to review our national constitution to widen the space of democratic governance. In our new 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.