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Opinions of Thursday, 23 December 2010

Columnist: Kpuusuu, Amadu

The District Assembly - A Hopeless Concept?


The concept of decentralization was introduced in 1988 and is now entrenched in Ghana. Most Ghanaians have embraced it in the belief that it helps the socio-economic development of the nation. However, I am aware that there are a few people out there who are sceptical about the concept and would be glad to see the back of it. Indeed, decentralization in Ghana has its shortcomings, but at the very least it empowers people at the grass roots level and makes the citizenry politically conscious.

If everything goes as planned, the electoral Commission of Ghana will conduct another round of district assembly elections on the 28 December, 2010. It is reported that many people have filed their intentions to stand as candidates in the elections. In the Upper West Region (UWR) alone, 669 people have expressed a desire to serve their electorate in the district assemblies. This fact alone confirms that the concept is accepted. In my electoral area (Yaala, in the UWR), there are three dynamic teachers vying for the people's mandate. Once upon a time, none of these young teachers would have put their names forward as a candidate since the general perception was that it was a job for a mature head teacher to represent the people at the assembly. I can remember the mental turmoil the elders of my village went through before I was persuaded to represent them in the assembly. Other elderly people showed an interest at the time, but I was called upon although I hadn't shown the slightest interest in politics. Basically, my record of acting in the best interest of the people had brought me to their notice. On reflection, I am happy that I accepted the challenge and to have served my people as an assembly person. The purpose of this article is not to detail my achievements as a former assembly person. It's a personal reflection on the assembly concept in the hope that a debate will be triggered.

As a former elected assembly person, I can understand why the legal framework of the concept prescribes that district assembly elections should be held on an individual and non-partisan basis right from inception. When I was an assemblyman, I observed that politicisation of the concept stamps out independent views and dissent. Assembly members who were sponsored by the two major political parties tended to be uncritical about the views of their parties. Our executive committee at the then Wa district assembly was crammed with party faithfuls and proposed policies were not subjected to thorough debate. It was also the case that illegal amassing of fortune by DCEs, senior officials of the assembly and party chairmen went without assembly persons asking critical questions. Although assembly members were aware of the situation, contracts were awarded to incompetent contractors, if they were ever contractors in the first place. Consequently, assembly funds were not put to good use and ineffective management of scarce resources meant that progress in dealing with poverty and disease and the development of local infrastructure was compromised

From experience I can say with confidence that unless we want decentralization to be a hopeless concept, there is a need to elect candidates who meet the following standards.

Although the constitutional requirement is that the elections should be held on a non-partisan basis, in practice this is not always the case. The electorate should be persuaded that it is not in their best interest to vote along party lines. If a candidate is wearing political colours, there is a possibility that he/she may be a puppet.
There could be pressure on them to vote along party lines in assembly debates. They may find it difficult to vote independently on issues raised in debate, not always in the specific interest of their electorate. The influence of political figures during the campaign period is an indication that a candidate may not be non-partisan.

Candidates should be able to demonstrate that they have served the electorate they hope to represent in other ways for a minimum period of time. This will help to eliminate the practice of candidates moving from one area to another to gain political advantage.

Candidates should have a proven record of dedication to the development of the area they wish to represent. They should be able to exercise objectivity when dealing with tribal, religious, or political differences.

Vision and good inter-personal skills are paramount. Candidates should be able to inspire confidence in the electorate. With leadership, there is pressure, so they should demonstrate the ability of operating under pressure. They should also have the ability to listen to the electorate, which will enable them to take appropriate decisions.

Their personal integrity should be beyond question.

I personally think that the constitutional review committee should consider suggesting that a fixed term for service as an assembly person should be applied, such as applies to the presidency. If a politician knows when to enter politics, they should also know when to leave. I served one term wholeheartedly and moved on to allow other people to inject fresh ideas into the system. Every system needs that regular freshening. Those who want to continue indefinitely could be despots in the making. We can see that this is a problem in some countries in Africa and we surely want to prevent it from happening in Ghana.

After half a century of independence, Ghana has made great progress. However, there is a huge amount yet to be achieved. Many people can already see the benefits of devolved responsibility. We can continue building on the advantages of the decentralization concept. This will be assisted by examining our processes of local governance and ensuring the most competent people are elected. Everyone entitled to vote should ensure that they exercise their responsibility and go out to vote on election day.