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Accountability and Citizens’ Participation in Local Councils: Encouraging Progress, amid Persisting Challenges

By Augustine Gulama

In February 2013, the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) received a $125,000 grant from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) to implement a project aimed at promoting citizens’ participation and accountability in Local Councils in six of the country’s 14 electoral districts. The project, implemented through three other local partners, generally seeks to strengthen governance at the local level by ensuring increased participation and tighter public oversight of development processes. In particular, the project aims to bridge the implementation gap in Sections 107 and 108 of the Local Government Act 2004.

These sections obligate Local Councils to be accountable to citizens, while at the same time encouraging the Local Government Ministry to foster citizens’ participation in the administration of Councils. More than a decade after the promulgation of the law, however, implementation of Sections 107 and 108 is way off track.

Amid the serious challenges that persist, there has been some observable progress since the inception of the project. Prior to the inception of the project, for instance, each of the Councils covered by the project had fewer than three notice boards.  For instance, the Freetown City Council, which had no more than four notice boards, has now erected a total of twenty-three notice boards.

While this is commendable, the FCC must do better to ensure that each of the 49 wards has a notice board. In Kenema, due to increased advocacy and other efforts by partners, both the Kenema City Council and Kenema District Council sought international support for the construction of Ward Committee offices in each ward.

The idea was to ensure that a notice board would be constructed at each ward office. Thanks to support from IFAD, each of the following wards has a notice board: Ward 51 – Kandu Leppiama Chiefdom; Ward 56 – Dama Chiefdom; Ward 59 – Gaura Chiefdom; Ward 57 – Malegohun Chiefdom; Ward 48 – Simbaru Chiefdom; Ward 58 – Koya Chiefdom; Ward 35 – Nongoma Chiefdom; and Ward 61 – Tunkia Chiefdom.

It is worth noting that since the inception of the project, the Kenema City Council has erected notice boards in each of the wards in the city. When the project started, there were only two notice boards in the entire city. Additionally, there were no notice boards in the entire Western Rural District when the project started. Of a total of twenty wards, the Western Rural District Council has erected a total of fifteen notice boards since the project started. In Bo City, each of the three wards now has a notice board. The Bo District Council has also erected notice boards in nineteen of the twenty-six wards, nearly 95% improvement on the previous figures. In Pujehun District, seventeen of the twenty-two wards now have notice boards. In Bombali City and District councils, out of a total of thirty wards, sixteen notice boards have been erected.

Thanks in part to advocacy and regular engagements with major stakeholders, Ward Committee elections were for the first time held in every ward covered by the project. More importantly, there is significant improvement in terms of the number of monthly meetings organized by the Committees. Council officials are showing more willingness to provide information to the public through a special Council discussion time referred to as ‘Council Hour’. Feedback from community outreach events and radio discussion sessions has shown an increasing level of interest and awareness among citizens in the activities of Local Councils.

In spite of these encouraging developments, there are still many huge challenges that require bold and sustained actions to overcome. There seems to be commitment by various Council officials to construct notice boards, but certain Councils, including the Freetown City Council (FCC), still lag far behind. Additionally, Councils are still reluctant to allocate significant funds for community and media outreach programmes to provide easy-to-understand information to a largely illiterate populace. Furthermore, even though notice boards have been built, many Local Councils are unwilling to comply with the requirement of Section 107 of the Local Government Act regarding the importance of regularly updating the notice boards. Local Councils need to do a lot more in order to inspire public confidence in their commitment to transparent and accountable leadership. Also, Ward Committees still lack adequate funds to organise regular meetings, in part due to poor central government funding and the weak capacity of Councils to mobilize more funds.

Addressing some of these challenges would require greater commitment by local government officials. Such commitment can be demonstrated by ensuring that every ward has a notice board, and is regularly updated with relevant information relating to the Council’s financial and development activities.

It is also recommended that Local Councils begin to invest more in innovative ways of sharing information as well as empowering local communities. Crucially, transparency creates a win-win relationship between Councils and citizens. It helps build public trust in the Councils, which could have a positive effect on public willingness to pay taxes as well as contributing in other ways.

It is critical that Councils open up to public scrutiny and bring along community members in undertaking development initiatives. When development projects are consistent with the needs of the public, there is increased likelihood for more success and greater ownership.

The project is being implemented in the Western Urban District, Western Rural District, Bombali District, Bo District, Kenema District, and Pujehun District. CARL’s partners include Movement for Restoration and Rural Democracy (MORRD) in the East, Human Empowerment and Development Foundation (HEMDEF) in the South, and the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (CDHR) in the North, while CARL is implementing in the Western Area.