33 Years of local government: Time for reforms
The current local government architecture was established in 1989 by the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), which issued guidelines for decentralisation to eventually shift some of the burdens of national development to local communities. The guidelines culminated in the passage of the Local Government Law (PNDC Law 207) in 1988, which provided the legal framework for a four-strand decentralisation agenda: political, administrative, fiscal and planning decentralisation.
Consequently, the local development mandate of Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) in Ghana has been underscored in the 1992 Constitution and the Local Governance Act (Act 936) of 2016. Under the current constitutional arrangement, political parties are prohibited from participating in local elections and governance in Article 55(3).
In addition, the President is empowered in Article 243 to appoint and disappoint Metropolitan, Municipal and District Chief Executives (MMDCEs) and 30 per cent of the MMDA appointees.
Regrettably, in spite of Ghana’s practice of decentralised local governance for over 30 years, the proactive development role of the MMDAs has been negligible, to say the least. It has become evident that the current local government system has become dysfunctional and some of the assumptions underpinning its setup have become obsolete.
The local economies in Ghana have not been developed to cater for the needs of the local communities. There are a large number of people in the various MMDAs with no education, jobs, healthcare facilities and social amenities that can serve the needs of their communities.
The challenges confronting the current local government architecture are enormous. First, there is credible evidence to suggest that political parties have defiantly infiltrated the local government system and, therefore, the assumption that the local government system is non-partisan is, at best, laughable. Right at the assembly level, political parties organise primaries and sponsor candidates for local government elections.
Secondly, the local government system in place has become neither participatory nor representational. Consistently, the voter turnout at district-level elections has been just about half of that of the national elections. Likewise, according to statistics from an Afrobarometer survey, the proportion of Ghanaians who regularly attend community meetings declined from 56 per cent in 1999 to 36 per cent in 2019.
From the same survey, almost 70 per cent of Ghanaians never contacted their local government councillors while only 12 per cent of Ghanaians wholly trusted their elected local government councillors in 2019. Indeed, only 6.8 per cent believe that their local government councillors always listen to them.
Moreover, in terms of women’s representation, the proportion of women appointed as District Chief Executives (DCEs) has consistently been less than 15 per cent under the Fourth Republic of Ghana.
The 2019 District Level Election also witnessed one of the worst outcomes: out of the 909 women who contested for various positions out of over 6000 seats at the local level, only 216 — representing just under four per cent — emerged winners.
Further still, the current structure marginalises chiefs as well. Article 242 (d) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana mandates the President to consult traditional authorities in the appointment of the 30 per cent of MMDAs appointed by the government.
This provision reduces the role of the chief to merely being consulted in the appointment of the 30 per cent of unelected members of the assembly, but even this is hardly done in practice. So far, the only local government structure in Ghana’s Fourth Republic in which chiefs have a direct representation is the Regional Coordinating Council (RCC).
Fourthly, the District Assemblies Common Fund (DACF) of five per cent of national revenue is too little to embark on any meaningful developmental projects and yet, even that is usually in arrears and disbursed late.
Unfortunately, MMDCEs are unable to fight for either increment in the allocation or timely disbursement of the funds due to their allegiance to the President stemming from his/her constitutional power to remove them from office.
In addition, the various assemblies are also unable to implement effective revenue mobilisation policies that harness adequate resources for their local needs mainly because such policies may make the ruling government unpopular at the local level.
The September 2021 CDD-Ghana Local Government Survey summed up the verdict of Ghanaians on the performance of the local government system. In the report, at least two-thirds of Ghanaians believe MMDAs have, for the past five years, performed “very or fairly badly” at ensuring transparency and openness in the affairs of the assembly, responding to development challenges of communities on time and soliciting inputs from community members into annual district development plans.
In addition, an overwhelming majority of Ghanaians consider MMDAs as lacking financial accountability and efficiency in the usage of the DACF and internally-generated revenue (IGR). A massive majority of citizens say they never had explanations from their MMDAs on how the DACF was spent (88 per cent), how it was used to address critical issues in the district (87 per cent), or how local taxes, rates, fees and fines were spent (88 per cent) nor used to tackle development needs of the district (87 per cent).
In light of all this evidence, it is clear that the current local government architecture needs a thorough review and reform in order to function efficiently. The President has reiterated his commitment to reforming local government once there is a bipartisan consensus and broad-based national support.
The two major political parties (the New Patriotic Party and the National Democratic Congress) in their 2020 election manifestos also promised reform of local government albeit with different amendment proposals.
There are also efforts by civil society organisations (CSOs) such as Institute of Democratic Governance (IDEG), CDD-Ghana and the Coalition of Civil Society Organisations for Local Government Reforms to ensure that the appropriate reforms are carried out. Thus, it is time to build consensus on the appropriate reforms needed to transform the local government system in Ghana.
The writer is a Researcher, African Futures and Innovation Institute for Security, Pretoria.