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Feature Article of Sunday, 12 April 2009

Columnist: Nyaaba-Aweeba, Azongo

Local Government and Decentralised Ghana

Article by: Nyaaba-Aweeba Azongo

Development Planner/Consultant, SMIDO

There is no doubt that the country’s decentralization programme has aged enough to require a nationwide evaluation of its efficacy in our quest to evolve an institutional process mechanism for locally-led energized initiatives in planning, resource mobilization and development delivery. The fact that ‘Local government’ is paired with rural development under a common policy unit, and has remained so throughout all the different shades of political regimes suggest a reasonable degree of national consensus and policy recognition of its mutual development correlation. The existing decentralization system within which development goals and programmes are currently pursued have not produced any significant development outcomes commensurate with the mood of optimism and the tremendous promise that heralded its adoption in Ghana.

Given the equitable development impact that could be mined out of an effective local administrative system, I would treat this subject from a more dispassionate development planning posture to provoke an institutional re-engineering of the whole decentralization concept in Ghana. I believe this would stimulate a new fervor in what I prefer to call appropriate development

In order to put this thesis in its proper perspective, it is important to correct the erroneous impression unconsciously held about the evolution of Local Administration in Ghana. Local administration has been an integral part of our political history centuries before the birth of Ghana. It was not the decentralization programme in 1987 which introduced local administration in Ghana. This premise is significant to appreciate the context-concept institutional missing link in the current local administrative system.

The British colonial administrative system in Ghana was well-grounded in historical perspectives inspired by Edmund Burke’s principle of Cultural relativism that, “Neither entirely nor all at once depart from antiquity, for a people will never look forward to posterity who never look backwards to their ancestors”. The substance of this concept gave birth to the indirect rule system that was weaved through our traditional governance system, the symbols of our collective history and humanity to render colonialism a marriage partner.

The indirect rule system which was the British colonial decentralization version was well-conceptualized than the decentralization programme in post independence Ghana. The chieftaincy institution is the imprint of the local administrative history in contemporary Ghana. The most vivid memory bank of this history is the coat of arms, the official emblem of Ghana, which has a crossed traditional leadership linguist staff and ceremonial sword in one of its four divisions symbolizing local administration. The decentralization programme in both concept and practice is clearly more of a substitutive than a complementary strand to the existing local administrative paradigm.

If we cautioned ourselves against indulging in self-deceptive rhetorical game the decentralization programme in its current conceptual texture is not at home with the local administrative realities of our development landscape.

The major conceptual challenge of our decentralization programme is its lopsidedness and unilateral focus on District Assemblies as form of central government recreation at the local level to replace Traditional Councils in local administration.

The use of the tag of ‘Local Government’ to the country’s decentralization concept is discriminatory and inappropriate. The concept smacks of lopsidedness and connotes a replica of the Central Government regime at the local level in what could be described as locally designed-elitist power usurpation mechanism via indigenous institutional exclusion.

The current system ropes out the Traditional Councils as partners of the local administrative system. The constitutional requirement of consultation with Traditional councils’ for government appointeeship is far from the fundamental challenge confronting Traditional Councils in contemporary local administration.

The time-tested grass root-oriented chieftaincy institutional structures with their life tenure leadership actors who are more disposed to undertake, maintain and sustain development processes at the community level have been sidelined in favor of experimental conceptual structures of local governance. Traditional leaders have thus been left with no option than to remain charity recipients of assistance and the imposition of new systems of leadership that could have been provided by traditional leaders given the right resources and policy mix in a more cost effective and sustainable manner

It is a sad reflection that local indigenous governance institutions which are better placed to harness the potential of the indigenous economy for poverty reduction and rural development have been by design or default left out of the existing decentralization policy with only conventional constitutional window–dressing-consultative alms to Chiefs as an expression of recognition.

The term ‘Local government’ signals more of a central Government regime at the local level than a process of Local governance which embraces all local institutional actors towards the demands of local development. It is only a replica of the Central Government at the local level.

It is wrong and fundamentally conflicts with the basic tenets of local development administration to talk of ‘Local Government’ instead of ‘Local Governance/administration’. This is crucially required to accommodate indigenous local institutions to forge independent but mutual collaboration of government and Indigenous governance institutions at the local level for a collective approach to rural development.

The decentralization programme is visibly suffering from a functionalist fallacy (glorification of spelt-out roles and an unconsciously comfortable assumption of supposed functioning assemblies).

In order to appreciate this necessity we need to break free of this conservative better-than -nothing acceptance of mediocrity to question and reform non-workable concepts irrespective of their level of global appeal. The contemporary decentralization concept in Ghana was crippled at birth to satisfy a cosmetic outlook of modernist theory even when the reality on the ground dictated otherwise.

The stream of disparaging remarks hurled at the chieftaincy institution on the alter of modernism is a mark of contemporary intellectual ignorance. The common evil has always been traditional values that retard our development, but the borrowed modern values that have reduced us to mere objects are not mentioned because they are coming from a supposed superior realm of whitism.

The most worthwhile question to ask and address as a nation should be; how we can make the chieftaincy institutional local governance system more relevant to the socio-economic development of the country rather than questioning the relevance of the chieftaincy institution in our modern era. The questioning of the chieftaincy institution on the alter of modernist relevance is part of the neo-colonial grand design to justify the erection of new structures to displace traditional governance.

The struggle against neo-colonialism should not be misconstrued as a crusade against an external invisible hand remote-controlling our development processes but fundamentally about the religious embrace and retailing of universal conventions to address our development problems which are native in nature and logically allergic to imported solutions.

My worry however is the frozen submissive attitudes to imported concepts. The signs of our preparedness to embrace change and development would begin with the day our policy actors and their intellectual class would master courage to defy perceived divine outlooks’ of borrowed concepts in the name of modernism to embraces radical reforms. We have become victims and Intellectual captives of conservative modernism. Our development landscape is so much littered with western theoretical excreta and the low appetite for change towards non-workable systems with external blessings has made it difficult to break free of this suffocating cocoon of modernism.

Manhyiasm as a badge of ancestral intellectual supremacy

The much revered Manhyia system, the envy of modern political institutions, in the 21st century could pass for a historical badge of civilization globally if we were to recast history. It is a uniquely globally competitive intellectual concept and the rallying point of an entire nation of people who are prepared to sacrifice their pride and material comfort for its preservation. Modernists who disparage the chieftaincy institution should know that the principal architects of Manhyia did not have the benefit of western education and could pass for illiterates in modernism. Whether the current crop of African intellectuals can erect a parallel lasting global legacy as Manhyia to bequeath to the next generation of Africans is the greatest doubt in comptemporary African history.

It is an irony of development that the timetestedness feature of an institution like chieftaincy could not be seen as an opportunity for sustainable development but a threat to modernity. It will demand a new intellectual course outside the conventional demands of the western text-bookish educational system to capture the very essence of our being and development planning to exact commitment for national development.

In the first place re-naming of the Ministry of ‘Local Government’ and Rural Development as Ministry of (Local Governance/ Administration) and rural development to allow for holistic planning of the local administrative system for a bi-frontal institutional approach to national development is very significant.

This is significantly important given the current global crisis to explore all avenues at adopting an inward-oriented development paradigm to optimize local development as a response to the endemic nature of poverty at the predominantly rural segments of our country of which the decentralization programme has been so much associated with.

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