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08.10.2002 Feature Article

Local Assemblies Deserve Better Under The NPP Gov't.

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Dear readers, the President’s fantastic meet the press gathering has given me the opportunity to come out again. After my appeal to Ghanaians not to leave crucial issues in the hands of nye-hwee or fa ma nyame, this time, I would like once again to draw the attention of fellow compatriots and my entire reading public, to one policy area that has been dear to my heart since my adulthood – local government. I am not going to divulge into abstract notions of this government institution, referred to in Ghana as District Assemblies. I wanna speak to this government which seems to be giving us a picture of a sincere democratic government. It must be noted that the District Assemblies have provided the platform for this government to justify and rationalise the controversial HIPC status of our dear Ghana. The President had this to say during the recent meet the press gathering: “HIPC has enabled the Minister of Finance to make large sums of money available to the Districts for development projects over and above what is normally available in the Common Fund.” Mr. President thank you very much BUT the assemblies are begging for and deserve something much better and noblier. When we say Ghana, it sounds too broad and clumsy, at least, for me. My parents, like yours, don’t live in “conceptual” Ghana but in a locality, which harbours their sources for food, water, shelter and most of the basic necessities in life. By this, I am not suggesting in any way that Ghana in totality does not play any role in the life of my parents. I am one guy who happens to think that even whatever happens in US, Asia and Europe, can send waves, which can affect my parents and people at the village. Don’t be upset to hear me talk about a conceptual Ghana, for it is just my way of placing emphasis on the cruciality and significance of the districts to our parents and loved-ones’ everyday life. It is not only our parents and people who benefit when there is a better local government system in the country but, also, the central government itself. In agreement with one decentralization expert, ‘whereas the firm tries to reduce market uncertainties by controlling demand, by intelligent advertisement and judicious product-design, the state uses participatory democracy and the community approach’. This means that a viable and well-instituted local government system provides the government with, perhaps the single most efficient way of pursuing any noble rural and community development policy. It is not my interest to theorize or lecture on the pros and cons of decentralization and local government. My interest is to advance my long-held advocacy views about our District Assembly system of local government. Ghana has not as yet benefited from the blessings that local government can bring in spite of the various attempts that have been made in the country to decentralise government and to give power to the people to govern themselves. All regimes, both present and past have used decentralization as a platform for rural and community development. The past attempts have mostly and sadly not achieved the desired policy results. All the governments have had their own decentralization policies with various rationales. The colonial govt of the Great Britain’s rural developmental approach was tailored to appease the nationalist forces. The military regimes were all motivated by the need to achieve some kind of legitimacy for their dictatorial and de facto governments. The past civilian administrations have also used decentralization to gain popularity and re-election. With the various rationales for previous decentralization policies above-mentioned, it can be seen that (previous) local government institutions have been established for purposes meant to serve the interests of their architects, that is to say, the regimes than for the common good of the local populace. The political elites have mostly been unwilling to implement decentralization policies that will truly involve the mass of the people for fears that are only justifiable for their own agenda and grips on power. The true policy principles underlying decentralization and local self-government had mostly been either sidelined or marginalized. The boldest attempt to put power in the hands of the people took place in 1988 under the PNDC’s District Assembly System. This still remains Ghana’s local government approach to rural and community development. Like the previous attempts, there are certain aspects that leave much for concern and more to be desired. Politicians are good at politicking rather than going into action. The political rhetoric that may never let our District Assemblies mature is what I prefer to term the fear of ethnic nationalism. This argument is based on the fact that, making our district assemblies generals over their own socio-economic affairs may lead to ethnic divisions and perhaps mate me ho activities within the localities. The direct effects of this fear on our Assemblies are glaring, namely, their non-partisan nature and the presence of actors with central government muscles (macho-masters) at the top of command within the assemblies. I am referring to the District Chief Executives/Metropolitan Chief Executives (DCE/MCE) and the 30% govt appointees. These are representatives who have no co-equals at debating tables or at the assembly halls in the districts. Their major interests are to satisfy the central government even at the expense of the local good. The ordinary assembly member is psychologically bullied on constant and daily basis by their bosses whose authority and power they can neither control nor alter. This imposition of political untouchables within the local assemblies is the direct cause of massive corruption, contempt for the assemblies by the local people, arrogant behaviour during assembly meetings, lack of self-confidence by assembly members, suspicion and we-and-them attitudes. It is self-evident that these events militate against unity and progress in our districts and I need not go any further. It may look like the Assemblies are faring well under the NPP government. Looking at it from the recent disbursement of “HIPC profit” worth millions of cedis to the 110 district, municipal and metropolitan assemblies. Official sources also had it that the assemblies’ share of the Common Fund is now paid on time and funds in arrears are cleared. These are good stories for rural developmental efforts by the assemblies in the country. The government has won many applause and respect for that. But many Ghanaians' long-held wish to see our local government system to be local and democratic is still not satisfied. The DCEs/MCEs are still appointed, assembly members are seen merely as volunteers (not paid for their services), local politics are still non-partisan and, not only that, but also the argument that making the Assemblies partisan will generate unhealthy divisions and competition at the local level is still entertained by our law-makers and still going strong and, last but not least, the presence of the 30% central government appointees is still intact. These confirm my own (and perhaps others’) doubts that this govt is not being exceptional compared to PNDC and NDC on the future of our District Assembly system. The President and his local govt ministers and experts have impressed us by their views on these basic flaws and concerns about our Assemblies. One can realise that the current leadership is sympathetic to the argument that it is wrong to sustain dictatorship within a democratic dispensation like our. That, local electoral issues must be made partisan - meaning assembly-membership elections should be organized and run on party basis and that, the DCEs/MCEs must be elected to their positions on party cards under the electoral principle of universal adult suffrage. I have always been glad to hear positive views expressed by government officials on the assemblies. For me, this was one of the most attractive campaign promise by the NPP during both the1996 and 2000 presidential and parliamentary elections. This promise constituted the major gravitational force that drew and held me tightly to the course of the then opposition NPP camp. It is argued in some academic circles that water undergoes natural purification. This means giving the least chance to settle, even the dirtiest water will move towards its natural tendency of being pure. The same principle can be used to explain the Ghanaian local politics. The local populations are compelled by law to engage themselves in non-partisan manner. But any objective observer will notice that this doesn’t and cannot work in practice. I happened to be in Ghana during the 1998 district assembly elections and had every justification to condemn the central government (NDC at the time) for the continuous suppression of the people from organizing themselves on partisan basis at the local level. All candidates were openly known to belong to one of the major parties in the country. The DCEs/MCEs and the other central govt agents were also openly campaigning along party lines. The story, I was told, was not different in this year's local assembly elections. It is understandable that the local people do contrary to what the Constitution exhorts them to do during local elections. No matter how much the central government tries this tendency to do what is tenable and natural cannot be stopped. The only workable reality is to abolish this dictatorship within our young democratic dispensation. I therefore appeal to Kufuor-Aliu leadership to take the challenge and to lobby for the political will in and out Parliament to effect all necessary changes that will make the local governments viable and efficient means for rural and community development. I mean as soon as practicable. It must be noted that, it was a campaign promise of the NPP that the Assemblies will be relieved from this nightmare they find themselves in. Being a campaign promise means, the modalities for action are already drawn and well-thought out and are only begging for the political will to see the day. The electoral and political advantages that the current arrangement hold for any ruling party is garing but, for the sake of the common good and the suffering masses, this should be an obligation that MUST be fulfilled at all cost. Peter Ohemeng Tano District, Bechem, Brong Ahafo Region (writing from Norway)

Peter Ohemeng
Peter Ohemeng, © 2002

The author has 12 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: PeterOhemeng

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