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The challenges and contradictions of redistributing power and national wealth

Until politicians, economic elites and citizens sincerely address complex and sensitive policy challenges in Liberia, the quest for national development and identity might remain an elusive dream packaged in shiny slogans.

For Liberia, the 2017 presidential, senatorial, and local government elections stand to ignite a collective anxiety for both the nation and its international partners. While UNMIL looks to draw-down its forces in the near future, the country will soon witness one of the most critical political transitions since 1847 – a transition in which the current president, Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, will take her mandatory exit from presidential politics. It may also be the end of the road for most politicians in her age group, creating space for a new core of leaders to compete for political power. These elections will likely define the country’s political trajectories for years to come. The real challenge remains: how will the next generation of political activists and leaders manage this massive transition against some of the old, conservative forces still at play?

However, in the midst of the looming uncertainty are two critical policies that require the collective attention of all concerned Liberian citizens: the local governance act and the national land policy. The local governance act works to devolve power and hold government bodies and actors more accountable to the people. If the act is effectively implemented, local government elections (superintendents, commissioners, and chiefs) have the power to make the country more democratic while drastically changing the government-citizen relationship and bringing services directly to the people. The process is expected to decentralize the state and reduce the current dominating nature of Monrovia.

Following closely behind the local governance act is a progressive national land policy, which has the potential to transfer land ownership from the state to the people. If passed, the national land policy should address the complicated and often sensitive issue of recognizing historical land claims of rural and per-urban communities across the country. This transformation is expected to redistribute wealth from the hands of Monrovia to rural constituents – a process that has been tenuous throughout the country’s turbulent history.

In combination, these two policies have the potential to radically transform Liberia, both by bringing the government and the material endowment of the country closer to its people. However, there are several lingering concerns surrounding the two policies. If these concerns are not properly considered and addressed, progress could be derailed and threaten the very peace and prosperity these policies seek to achieve. Most importantly, these policies are bound to expose cultural contradictions and material limitations in the Liberian society. Transforming the social, economic, and political reality of the country will certainly be a shock to the very foundation of the state and society.

The first obvious concern is that both the local governance act and the national land policy are expensive and Liberians will have to foot the bill. Institutional framework, infrastructure needs, and human capacity for these policies, combined with implementation costs, might be prohibitive. For example, devolving the state will expand the instruments and actors of the state, thereby necessitating expensive administrative costs associated with such an expansion. Also, the cost associated with harmonizing rural land boundaries between communities, allocating rights on these demarcated lands, registering and administrating these rights, and addressing related conflicts associated with these processes could be an expensive venture for any country, particularly a post-war country like Liberia.

Some argue that Liberia will experience continued and robust economic growth over the next five to ten five years. Most analysts have warned, however, that unless efforts are double, promises are pragmatic and expectations are measured, this growth would still be insufficient to both cover the costly policies and meet the country’s broader infrastructure, institutional, and human capacity needs (development agenda). However, such growth might also mean permitting and respecting land-based concession contracts, often facilitated between Monrovia and foreign investors.

Second, there are concerns that the devolution process – in local governance, local land ownership, and their associated administrative authority– could result in duplications and confusion of functions between different structures of power and authority in the country. For example, in areas where a community’s land claim crosses over administrative boundaries, private claims and concession areas could create tensions between the different structures of authorities. This is not only costly in terms of resources and manpower, but may also distract policy-makers and create tension between the executive branch (the president is responsible for allocating these concessions) and emerging authorities now sanctioned with an electorate power or property owners empowered by laws. Such a conflict could stymie the country’s urgent quest for social and political cohesion and national development. The palpable tensions can already be observed between an increasingly assertive legislative branch of government and a historically strong presidency.

Third, local governance act and the national land policy will force Liberian politicians and citizens alike to deal with the sensitive issue of identity and minority groups’ rights, including the rights of women and strangers. In some counties, devolution of governance and land ownership will likely create avenues for majority ethnic groups and influential families to marginalize minority and vulnerable groups. In particular, ethnic groups that have a perceived ancestral claim to a county or chiefdom may try to exert control over local governance (through elections and other social and material forces). Unchallenged, this control could also extend over land and natural resources. As such, the successful implementation of both the governance act and the land policy are critical to the health of the nation.

Finally, in the absence of proper institutions, infrastructures, human capacity, accountability mechanisms, and political support, the devolution of power to local authorities and the transfer of land ownership to rural communities could lead to waste, abuse, and corruption. In fact, the recent PUP saga serves as a concrete reminder.

No matter what happens in 2017, the next president of Liberia will face the difficult task of balancing the expectationsexpections of an increasingly assertive citizenry (with regard to livelihoods, services, and infrastructure), while simultaneously being forced to address the deeply transformative local governance act and national land policy. How politicians – and in particular the different presidential aspirants – propose to deal with these challenges should dominate the 2013 to 2017 political dialogue.

However, Liberian political dialogue largely remains dominated by parochial interests, trapped by ethno-politics. Such a political dialogue has historically violated the country and deeply divided the society. Until all politicians, economic elites, and citizens are aware of and sincere about addressing some of these complex and sensitive policy challenges, the quest for national development and a national identity might remain an elusive dream packaged in shiny slogans. Indeed, the need to change our political arrangement (decentralization) and land systems should not be underestimated. BUT! If these two policies are not sincerely addressed, effectively implemented, and carefully managed, they have the potential to undermine national reconciliation, peace, and economic growth.

* Mr. Ali D. Kaba is a Program Coordinator for the Sustainable Development Institute’s Community Land Protection Program and a senior fellow at the Institute for Land Policy and Investment Studies (ILPIS). His field of interest is political economy; area of focus is land and natural resource management.