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Paramount Chieftaincy: Necessary Traditional Institution or Impediment to National Development?
News - Opinion


The role of the institution of chieftaincy in the management of local administration and development and in the broader body-politic of Sierra Leone requires a critical unbiased introspection and analysis as to its continued relevance and centrality in the lives of our people.
The schisms that have plagued our nation's socio-political and administrative structures, resulting in the decadent path traversed for so long only seem to continue if we again fail to put forth bold and visionary ideas in establishing local administrative entities separate and apart from the traditional chieftaincy model.

Modern Sierra Leone has more than 4/5ths of her land mass and population under the direct hegemony of paramount chiefs, most of whom are selected and or elected from a very small undemocratic pool of "chieftaincy families", so designated by the British colonial administration from compliant families, as they sought to pacify the hinterland and protectorate into vassal areas in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The inordinate concentration of such socio-economic, political and administrative decision making powers in the hands of the paramount chiefs has not always been used as a force for good or development in the chiefdoms throughout the country. Rather the institution and its protagonists have allowed themselves to be misused by governing political parties and politicians and as tools for perpetuating their governance especially during elections.

In the period immediately after independence the central government in Freetown sought to utilize and harness for its own political supremacy the enormous colonial era powers  paramount chiefs enjoyed among their subjects. This resulted in the enactment of laws ensuring that paramount chiefs subsequently became unelected members of the Parliament in the period prior to the 1967 elections and the dethronement of those not compliant with the government's dictates.
This trend in the central role of chiefs, in ensuring block voting culminated with most parliamentary paramount chiefs in the wake of the inconclusive general elections of 1967 declaring for the SLPP party in power at the time, even though the party had clearly lost the majority of the Sierra Leonean electorate.

The role of most paramount chiefs in the recent 2007 elections is also highly instructive as chiefs throughout the country were used mostly as surrogates of the ruling SLPP party bent on ensuring its continued rule despite the majority of the electorate having already decided on the need for a change of administration.

As an active participant in the recent 2007 elections in the battleground areas of the south and eastern provinces, I witnessed first hand some of the undemocratic tactics used by chiefs in areas so underdeveloped and neglected that one wondered why so much effort was being made by the chiefs to maintain a government that had essentially abandoned their people to doom and underdevelopment. It was not uncommon for chiefs in places like Sahn Malen, for example, where  Paramount Chief Brima Victor Sidie Kebbie went to such extent as to even ban gatherings by the opposition People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) and condoned the burning and pillaging of homes and properties of PMDC members in an effort to intimidate and ensure that the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) maintained political power. In Bo, Chief Rashid Kamanda-Bongay did all within his power to thwart the citizens’ genuine aspirations for positive change through intimidation.

The near 30-year reign of PC Kebbie in the Pujehun district for example is a classic study of how most paramount chiefs in Sierra Leone have abdicated their roles as catalysts and agents of development and change and why the district remains the least developed in Sierra Leone and by extrapolation the least developed region in the world. As an example, with a functioning palm oil mill located in Sahn Malen and palm oil cultivation hitherto the primary business activity in the region, PC Kebbie has however overseen the complete demise of the palm oil industry in the district, despite the still high demand for the product not only nationally but worldwide. His inability to innovate and attract new investments into the maintenance and production of this very vital jobs and revenue generating infrastructure located in his chiefdom's headquarter town speaks volumes in the management or lack thereof of local administration in Sierra Leone.

The All People's Congress (APC) opposition party upon gaining political power in 1968, most likely out of poor policy judgment, embarked on a systematic centralization of local administration throughout the country. As a contemporary Sierra Leonean political analyst and commentator of this period, it is my hypothesis that the suspension and subsequent dismantling of the town, district and municipal councils and the radical diminishing of the authority of paramount chiefs was a direct consequence of the perception held by the leadership of the party that the unelected chiefs were responsible for their not gaining power immediately following the 1967 elections.

In an effort thus at asserting their power and authority over institutions viewed as potential rival centers of power, the Siaka Stevens APC government resorted to their dismantling without cognizance to the plethora of problems and probable unintended consequences and ramifications that subsequently ensued.

One such consequence of this policy was the creation of a void in the machinery of local government administration and development with its resultant lack of accountability to the local people. Local government functions such as trash collections, sanitation, road maintenance, public education, local taxation, town and city planning and budgeting were essentially left unattended to or responsibilities shifted to civil servants in the mammoth and inefficient Freetown based bureaucracy. Locally generated revenues which essentially had paid for such services were forwarded to the central government treasury and appropriations for developmental projects and basic services subjected to the whims and caprices of central government politicians and corrupt civil servants.

It is worth noting that this era lay bare the utter impotence of the once revered traditional chieftaincy institution which failed to challenge not only the centralization policies of the government in the face of usurpation of their institutional authority, but it also showcased the institution’s collective total lack of initiatives and vision, as to how to administer a modern community by administering to its economic and developmental needs.

With the return of the SLPP administration in 1996, the Kabbah government embarked on reconstituting the town, city, district and provincial councils with a view of promoting decentralization. The problem however still dogging this experiment is that the role of paramount chiefs in identifying, attracting and effectuating development in their various chiefdoms have as yet to be appropriately defined.

For example, as custodians of their chiefdom resources including lands and mineral rights, chiefs have tended to view these community resources as theirs with all remuneration inuring for their sole benefits. The new reform compact being proposed will clearly mandate that all community property and resources including revenue derived thereof must be used for the larger community’s development and not just for the paramount chiefs. This way, repairs of potholes, management of communal infrastructure amenities and local health will remain within the local administration's purview.

A singular failure of the centralization policies and the arms length attitude of the paramount chiefs became glaring to me as a young man in the 1970's when a pipe borne water supply system built by the French Degremont company for the community in Potoru was abandoned into disuse simply because  basic spare parts could not be replaced by the ministry in Freetown. Despite being beneficiaries of the clean pipe borne water supply, the chief and town authorities could not muster among themselves the vision and wherewithal to purchase the spare parts and are for the ministry in Freetown to replace the spare parts to this day.

As one who for long has espoused and advocated the concepts of "Pan-Africanism" with its emphasis on strong ties to our culture and traditions, the institution of chieftaincy remains the essential cog and focal point of this cultural and traditional identity. What I am however advocating in this piece is not the abolition of the institution of chieftaincy, as some have eloquently articulated, rather it is the belief that for the institution to remain relevant in the 21st century, a radical new political compact needs to be adopted clearly delineating the election and governance roles of chiefs along the following lines:

•The compact must ensure that the institution of chieftaincy is modernized to essentially function more in tune with the modern developmental aspirations of the local citizens. For as the most visible governmental authority at the local level, chiefs together with elected village councils must be empowered with responsibilities for ensuring development programs and jobs are for their localities.
•A transparent and much more democratic decision making process encompassing the talents of the educated and uneducated must be brought to bear in this process.
•Term limits and or elections after every five years, along lines as parliamentary and presidential elections, should be enacted in the new compact to provide an orderly process whereby incompetent and unprogressive chiefs can be replaced.
•The election of paramount chiefs must be participatory by the entire chiefdom electorate, rather than the current narrow Tribal Authorities, who have been known to cast ballots mostly for the highest bidder with no regard to the interests of the general electorate.
•The pool from which chiefs are selected/elected must be enlarged to encompass a broader participation of the citizens.
•Accountability and transparency must be enshrined as a tool for good governance.
Finally, it must be acknowledged that the governmental units, particularly at the local levels, today have not brought about any enlightened developmental innovations and programs that have in any effective manner impacted the economic welfare of the people. The continual relevance of the institution of chieftaincy itself as representing the political, cultural, socio-economic and administrative aspirations of the local people seems to have been greatly undercut in the current modern political dispensation. The caliber and socio-political sophistication and acumen of the candidates for chieftaincy the "chieftaincy families" are offering our localities is not only lamentable but is a recipe ensuring continued underdevelopment.
It is thus against this backdrop and realization that the institution of chieftaincy, the cog around which local government has for ages operated, seems totally out of touch and outdated not only with modern concepts of governance and administration, but rather appears to be a regressive bulwark against the modernization and structural changes required and hence the need for reform of this venerable institution.

Editor's Note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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