WDCs have not lived up to expectations. In many cases members have been handpicked by politicians rather than elected, in contravention of the Local Government Act. Most appointees are there as a political reward, not as a matter of merit. This contributes to local tensions or apathy.
Many WDCs face acute financial problems and are unable to hold meetings regularly. Under-resourcing and weak oversight foster corruption. Procurement procedures are a particular problem, as council officials encourage their relatives and friends to set up companies that are then awarded contracts. The Anti-Corruption Commission has been working with local councils and civil society groups to address this, but with limited success so far.
A lot of problems in the local government system stem from uncertainty about how different parts relate to each other. The line demarcating the functions of the local councils and chiefdom councils is blurred. They are meant to support each other but the extent of collaboration expected is not clear. For example, Paramount Chief Alhaji Issa B. Kamara-Koroma of Gallinas Perrie chiefdom in Pujehun district complained about ‘the exclusion of chiefdom functionaries from the implementation and monitoring of development projects in their chiefdoms’, which he called ‘a major sticking point between local councils and chiefdom authorities’.
Development is implemented mainly at the chiefdom level. However, when contracts are awarded by local councils, no reference is made to chiefdom authorities, who are excluded from the process. As a result, contractors do not allow chiefdom authorities to monitor the work they do, although local councils still require chiefdom authorities to report on the progress of projects. Chiefdom authorities have refused to provide reports, which has led to tensions with councils.
The Local Government Act has transferred paramount chiefs’ responsibility to set tax rates and spending to local councils, while maintaining chiefs’ responsibility to collect taxes. This is seen by many people as a barrier to sound financial accountability. Some chiefdoms are denying local councils access to collect revenue. In Lower Banta Chiefdom in Moyamba district, the Paramount Chief has not allowed the council to collect dues from fishermen and has stationed vigilantes around the jetty. There are similar cases in Gbondapi in Kpanga Kabonde Chiefdom, Pujehun District, and the Barmoi Lumor (Trade Fair) in Mambolo Chiefdom, Kambia District, where there were stand-offs when the Kambia District Council first attempted to collect dues, and it took the intervention of the Minister of Local Government to resolve the resulting impasse. Local councils have also refused to approve budgets for chiefdoms that delay payments from local taxes.
Another source of tension relates to decision-making between chiefs and Members of Parliament (MPs). A conflict between the paramount chief of Sahn-Malen Chiefdom in Pujehun District and the local MP arose when the chief leased land to an agricultural company, SOCFIN, for 50 years without consulting local people. The MP confronted the chief, who regarded this as undermining his authority. The conflict polarised the chiefdom, resulting in violence. When the MP’s supporters prevented SOCFIN staff from accessing their lands, supporters of the chief responded with machete attacks. The Provincial Security Committee was unable to manage the dispute. Violence was eventually quelled by the Pujehun District Council Chair after civil society requested his involvement. But no agreement has been reached and tensions have been mounting again.
Centrally appointed District Officers (DOs), who had been removed following the establishment of local councils in 2004, are now being re-introduced. DOs settle land and chiefdom boundary disputes, supervise chiefdom authorities and serve as a hub for governmental activities. But parts of their role are perceived to usurp functions played by district councils and chiefs. Many feel the Local Government Act and also Chieftaincy Act (2009) obviate DOs and that their reintroduction cast doubts over the government’s commitment to the decentralisation of power.
Chiefs also organise (technically illegal) local arbitration processes, widely referred to as ‘kangaroo courts’. Chiefs and designated community elders determine verdicts on cases presented by fee-paying ‘complainants’ and ‘defendants’. The losing party is usually ordered to pay a fine and the winning party’s court costs. This can generate grudges and polarise communities. The fined party often feels aggrieved and seeks revenge. To pay fines many people resort to selling cherished property or borrowing at high interest rates. Where an offender is unable to pay, they sometimes flee their communities for cities where conditions are often poor.
Local MPs are not admitted to local government structures, as they are not members of WDCs. Some MPs use this to avoid supporting development efforts in their constituencies. Even where they receive money and other resources for the development of their communities, some MPs clearly do not use them for the intended purposes.
There is no provision in local councils for special representation for young people – even though they form the bulk of the population. They contest elections like everyone else, but in most cases stand little chance of being elected for economic and cultural reasons. In the 2008 local council elections in Small Bo Chiefdom in Kenema district, the major political parties denied youth aspirants the ‘party symbols’ they needed to contest the polls under party banners. The youths consequently stood as independent candidates and lost, with most voters continuing to vote on party lines. In the event, many youths resorted to civil disobedience by refusing to pay local taxes or participate in communal work. It took the effort of NMJD ‘Animators’ to get them to cooperate with the local authorities.