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Opinions of Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Columnist: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta

Do We Need Reform Of Local Government And District Assemblies In Ghana?

BY Kwesi Atta Sakyi

A house with a weak foundation is bound to collapse. A top-down approach to development often fails because it is dictatorial, imposition and it does not engender participatory democracy. Furthermore, it does not encourage ownership of programmes and projects initiated at the top by the central government. Ghana is a unitary state with a unitary constitution, hence the development paradigm being top-down. Britain, our former colonial master, also has a unitary constitution. Yet the quality of life and service delivery in Britain is far more superior to that in Ghana. The difference is that their local governments at the grassroots tick and there is a two-way grassroots approach to development, top-down and bottom-up. Before District Assemblies were put in place in the 80s, Ghana had a semblance of the British system of local government and things were much better than the present arrangement. Streets were swept, gutters cleaned, civil engineering works were done by professionals, parks and gardens were kept spick and span. At that time, we had a non-partisan local government. The sources of revenue for local governments then and now continue to be government grants, property rates, local tolls and fees, poll taxes, licences and fines, rentals from council pool houses, among others. These sources of revenue and finance are often far below the remit of the local governments, especially with rapid population growth and urbanization, council resources have been overstretched and thinly applied to service delivery on the ground. Local governments and District Assemblies have statutory functions such as enactment of local bye-laws, maintenance of law and order, maintenance of local roads, markets, abattoirs, cemeteries, incinerators, local schools and clinics, town halls, sanitation, regulation of local trading, payment of council workers, among other functions which are not listed in the constitution. There is the theory that central government fears loss of control if it over-decentralizes or it delegates too much authority to the District Assemblies and the councils. This is an unfounded and unhealthy fear because development is a two-way street. For some time now, decentralisation has been ongoing, but sad to state, the District Assemblies have not performed to the expectation of stakeholders. They have been enfeebled and emasculated by the powers that be and are veritable appendages to the central government, as they are at its beck and call. The District Assemblies have become dumping grounds for expired politicians, ruling party foot soldiers and hardcore cadres, bootlickers, square pegs in round holes, inept sycophants and cheer leaders. This sorry state of affairs has led to a standstill of development in most towns and rural areas across Ghana. There is development arrest or paralysis and it is high time the concept of the District Assemblies was revisited to closely examine its raisen d’etre, its mandate, its functional structure, and its processes of elections and appointments of staff, among others. I think the name of District Assemblies needs to be re-christened as it smacks of the revolutionary days in the 80s. These District Assemblies have been operating like cartels with no professional ethics. Both the elections to the Assemblies and appointment of District Chief Executives are presidential prerogatives, thus they are teleguided and orchestrated from the Castle, leading to little local input. Hence, they remain as glorified and prostituted civil institutions which are devoid of credibility and professionalism. As matters stand, there is the sad situation of winner-takes-all, with not many checks and balances which Montesquieu wrote about long ago in his classic, The Spirit of the Laws. For effective governance, we should have the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances, transparency and accountability. These qualities are lacking in our current governance dispensation. Democratic governance requires effective grassroots participation in the affairs of common interest and concern. The highly partisan and politicized District Assemblies have become megaphones for the ruling political party, avenues for siphoning central government funds and conduit pipes for corruption and malfeasance. These and other things have led to neglect of service delivery and wanton wastage of scarce public resources. Some of the Chairpersons of these District Assemblies (DAs) are semi-literate, holding JSS and MSLC qualifications. How can such leaders know about the complexities, nuances, and intricacies of management principles, project management and control, budget planning, ABC and zero-based budgetary? If we want effective and efficient governance, then I think we need to reform them to make them neutral, autonomous, permanent, efficient and professional. The Local Government Act needs to be reviewed and reformed in line with modern trends. We may have to adopt the City Manager approach in the USA, where the system is based on open tender, competition and accountability. The City Manager’s position is openly advertised and prospective candidates attend selection interviews. Or we could go the way of the British where they have the Mayoral or City Mayor system based on transparent elections conducted by the Electoral Commission. We could have the alternative of a city or town clerk with ward councillors, aldermen and professionalized cadre or corp of council workers. Council workers could be hired on contracts and certain non-core services can be outsourced to private providers.


One of the contentious issues bedeviling our local governments is the issue of chieftaincy disputes. These litigations coming from the warring factions lead to disquiet and retrogression because they distract the DAs and District Chief Executives (DCEs) from performing their statutory duties. Besides, where the stool lands are under litigation, no meaningful developmental project by foreign investors can take place. Investors have to contend with wrangles from warring factions, land guards, court injunctions, among a host of other hurdles. A case in point is the Yendi case. Also we have the Winneba Chieftaincy dispute which has been dragging on for about seven decades. Recently, we encountered the Ga Mantse enstoolment case. We have had sporadic fracas in the north among the Konkombas and Nanombas. All these unresolved imbroglios and impasse militate against progress and economic development. During Nkrumah’s time, it is on record that he intimated that ‘the chiefs will run away and leave their sandals behind’ Ghana is now at crossroads between modernity versus adherence to moribund cultural edifices and baggage (chieftaincy). Should we leave it to fizzle out by becoming extinct like the dinosaur? I think if the pace of industrialization and modernization hottens up, the chiefs will have little time to stand and stare, and surely they will run and leave their golden-laden sandals behind. Should we reform chieftaincy and make it a token institution? Should we jettison this ’millstone around our necks, behaving like an albatross?’ Of course, it is not all the chiefdoms in Ghana which are under siege and plagued with succession dilemmas. What is the House of Chiefs doing? What is President Atta Mills doing? Is it a minefield?


• The District Assemblies, as presently constituted, are non-representative of the local people and therefore not accountable. They should be reformed and depoliticized and not used as dumping sites for failed and recycled politicians or party cadres.

• The local councils should be empowered to generate enough local revenue for their needs through embarking on public-private-partnerships (PPP) or build, operate and transfer (BOT) initiatives. Their non-core activities should be outsourced.

• Councils should undertake commercial enterprises such as building houses for renting as this will lead to properly planned layouts (Council Pool Houses).
• There should be land reform to overcome the land tenure problems which often scare away foreign investors.

• The revenue allocation formula between the central government and its constituents (regions, districts, wards) should be reviewed and reformed in favour of more revenue for grassroots development.

• District Assemblies should publish their social charters or modus operandi and regularly publish their annual accounts in the national newspapers, under the supervision of the Auditor-General and in line with International Financial Regulation Standards (IFRS).

• District Assemblies should be made accountable and transparent by making them adopt Corporate Governance Standards and also subscribing to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

• District Boards and Committees to be set up with sub-committees for Nominations and Appointments, Risk, Finance and Remuneration.

• Constantly use Remote Sensing Techniques (RST) for urban and town planning, demarcation of boundaries and creation of new administrative units to avoid boundary disputes and gerrymandering.

• Appoint City and Town Clerks or City Managers who should be appointed on merit and who should be on contract. The Town Clerks should preferably be lawyers or holders of higher degrees.

• Appoint mayors for all the areas which have unresolved chieftaincy disputes. These could be caretakers until the warring factions reconcile.

• Establish local courts (parallel courts) in the districts to help deal with numerous cases of law and order, associated with rapid urbanization e.g. unplanned buildings, littering, noise pollution, environmental despoliation and armed robbery.

• Hold competitive entry examinations to select professionals to work in the local governments and District Assemblies, in order to have quality service delivery.

• Institute exchange programmes for our DAs and DCEs so that they get exposed to best practices in the global village

• Send out our local government policy makers to see how it is done effectively in South Africa, Botswana, UK, US, Japan, Germany, among others.

• Our cities and towns should be twinned with those in the First World so as to encourage exchange of ideas and to increase inward foreign direct investment e.g. Winneba has been twinned with Charlottenville in Virginia, USA.


The author holds a B.A (Hons) degree in Economics and Geography from Legon, Ghana and an MPA (cum laude) from the University of South Africa. He also has a Group Diploma (Jersey) in Business and Management. He is a holder of Certificate A (4 year) Teachers’ qualification. He teaches Economics, Management and Business Communications, and has 41 years experience of teaching. He was the winner of the South African Institute of Public Administration (SAIPA) Trophy for the Non-Degree Programme (NDP) in 1996. He is a poet and has published two poetry books.