The State of Decentralization in West Africa: Mixed Progess

Experience in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

Since the 1990s, various African countries have adopted measures of decentralized governments as a means to expedite development, improve the democratic space and enhance socio-economic inclusion. Key indicators of the success of decentralization are the amount of local government spending (as a percent of total government spending), and number of women in local leadership. Data shows a mixed bag of results. A very progressive constitutional mandate in Senegal has raised participation of women in local leadership to 47%, while Ghana remains at about 10%. Inversely, Ghana local government spending stands above 25%, which is way above the West African average of about 4%. (DELOG, 2016) The table below is a summary of local government spending and % of women in local leadership.

Country Year decentralization launched % local government spending % women in local leadership
Sierra Leone 2004 2% (2014) 19.1% (2012)
Ghana 1992 26% (2013) 10% (2013)
Burkina Faso 1991 3.9% (2013) 21% (2012)
Senegal 1972 5.9% (2013) 47% (2017)

Table 1. Summary of local government spending and women in local leadership

These countries have faced many challenges including lack of capacity at the newly created local structures, lack of transfer of enough financial resources to support the local governments, legislative ambiguities that pit different tiers against one another, low civic engagement in local governance, and lack of implementation of measures to empower marginalized groups. To find out more, we will explore the following aspects of decentralization in four West African countries: legal and constitutional basis for decentralization; gender inclusion in decentralized governments; fiscal decentralization; and public participation and accountability.


Fiscal decentralization “…constitutes the public finance dimension to decentralisation in general, defining how and in what way expenditures and revenues are organised between and across different levels of government in the national polity.” (UNDP, 2005) This involves: transferring functions and authority from a central government to the local government; empowering the local government and the public to take charge of these responsibilities; transferring requisite financial resources and control of the finances to enable the new governments to accomplish their responsibility i.e. finance follows function; and control over local taxes and revenue-generating activities. The end result is to have a local government with relative fiscal autonomy to deliver services to local constituents.

A decentralized structure delivers services that are close to the needs of the constituent communities, and especially for socially marginal groups such as women. Furthermore, the expanded political arena provides opportunity for women to contest for leadership due to lower barriers of entry; women need not travel too far away from their communities, raise substantial financial resources or have substantial political experience to participate. Local leadership, therefore, raises the profile of women leaders who may step up to contest higher leadership at the national level. It is also a platform through which women can drive a gender-focused socio-economic agenda.

As the government is closer to the people, it is expected that “… citizens will take a closer interest in how their taxes are spent, and will subject to closer scrutiny the actions of their local representatives…” (UNRISD, 2013) This scrutiny is expected to improve the quality of service delivery, increase responsiveness, and accountability of the local government. Moreover, due to an expanded political arena, increased contestation in the local political space improves participation of communities in rallying behind their local leaders, to ensure they elect the representative with the best grasp of the local needs. Local leaders are generally more accessible than national leaders, and communities can use the electoral cycles to reward or punish their representatives who fail to deliver on agreed programs.

Burkina Faso

Like many African countries, the decentralization process in Burkina Faso began in the 1990s precipitated by a rejection of the centralist and one-party rule, and an economic crisis that had led to the implementation of corrective structural adjustment programs.

Legal and Constitutional Framework

In June 1991, the country adopted a new constitutional dispensation that among other things, recognized the territorial collectivities (collectivités territoriales; CTs) as “legal
entities, financially autonomous, and administered by elected bodies.” (Dafflon, Madiès & Ky) Consequently, in 1993 the Assembly of People’s Deputies enacted five laws detailing the municipal structure, process for electing councillors, and the special statuses of the Bobo-Dioulasso and Ouagadougou communes, which were replaced in 1998 by four laws that set the legislative framework for implementation of decentralization. (Dafflon, Madiès & Ky) Further changes created regions (2001) which brought the level of tiers to three (provinces and communes were the other two); brought the tiers back to two; and elections held under the new system in 2006.

The functions listed under the CGCT laws of 2004 to be performed by the CTs include land management; environment and natural resource management; economic development and planning; health and hygiene; education, employment, vocational training, and literacy; culture, sports, recreation, and youth; civil defense, social welfare, and emergency relief; funeral services and cemeteries; water and electricity; and markets, fairs, and slaughterhouses. (Dafflon, Madiès & Ky)

Fiscal Decentralization

The funding of various functions from central government ministries to the corresponding decentralized department has been delayed. For instance in 2009, only the Ministry of Basic Education and Literacy, and the Ministry of Agriculture earmarked and disbursed the necessary funds to the account opened by the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization (MATD). The central government through such legal entities as the Permanent Development Fund for Territorial Collectivities (FPDCT), provides both grants, loans and guarantees for investments; block grants for recurrent expenditures, and block grants for investments; budget allocations by line ministries. In 2013, the local governments received 3.9% central government, and generated about 5.4% of general government revenues. (OECD, 2016b)

The CTs get their revenues from taxes, revenue from communal service provision, revenue from communal property and miscellaneous revenues. The following six taxes are controlled by the central government and communes cannot set the tax rates or determine the tax base: business license contribution, residency tax, mortmain tax, firearms tax, land tax and informal sector contribution. Further, in practice, businesses are taxed on the basis of the location of their corporate headquarters, which are concentrated in the capital city Ouagadougou. Several businesses especially in the extractive industry have their major production centers in the rural areas, but the taxes are paid in their municipal headquarter locations. This leaves the rural communes without the much-needed tax bases to raise revenues. Other non-shared taxes include entertainment tax, gaming tax, advertising tax, cart tax, and communal development tax.

Gender Inclusion

Women participation in the local elections has grown over time, 10%, 20% and 30% of locally elected officials 1998, 2002 and 2006 being women. In 2009, the national parliament enacted a law to assure at least 30% representation of women in elected roles. (Hagberg 2010) However, the actual rate for women participation in decision-making at the local governments still remains lower than the statutory requirement, and it has been declining over time. In 2009, the level was at 26%, but dropped to 21% after the December 2012 elections. (Kaboré and Siboné, 2014)

Public Participation and Accountability

The March 2007 Strategic Framework for the Implementation of Decentralization adopted by the central government stated the need for ownership of the decentralization process by local authorities. This is in two parts: social ownership which includes participation by the population and civil society in management of local affairs; and political ownership to ensure the participation of constituents in the political arena. (Dafflon, Madiès & Ky)


Colonial Ghana was characterized by the British using chiefs and elders to indirectly rule on their behalf. After attaining independence in 1957, the 1966 ouster of Kwame Nkrumah resulted in subsequent military coups that undermined any prior efforts for decentralization.  (Antwi-Boasiako, 2010). During the mid 1970s, the military government under the Lt. Col. Ignatius Kutu Acheampong began to push for greater efforts empower the citizenry. However, significant progress would not come until the 1990s.

Legal and Constitutional Framework

From 1988, the PNDC government began a local government reform process aimed at “transferring functions, powers, means, and competences from the central government to the local government.” (Ankamah, 2012) This culminated in the 1992 constitution which set the environment for further legislative frameworks to entrench decentralization in Ghana. The goals of the process as envisioned were to: “strengthen and expand local democracy; promote local, social and economic development; and to reduce poverty and increase the choices of the people”. (Ankamah 2012)

Chapter 20 of the Constitution of Ghana 1992 lays out the objectives and composition of decentralization. The various articles state the role of people in participating in governance; expounds on the autonomy of local governments; “and proposes the enhancement of the capacity of local government authorities to plan, initiate, coordinate, manage and execute policies with regards to matters affecting the local people”. (JSG 1992) The initiative introduced changes in the public administrative system by creating “metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies as the highest political, planning and administrative and development authorities, as well as regional coordinating councils and sub-district structures such as urban, town and unit committees.” (WaterAid, 2009) The government has also enacted and amended several legislations and undertaken various policy documents that further strengthen decentralization. These include: Local Government Act, 1993, Local Government Service Act, 2003,  National Development Planning (Systems Act) 1994, and District Assemblies Common Fund Act, 2003.

Fiscal Decentralization

Both the Constitution and the LGA specify that each District Assembly (DA) should have “sound financial base with adequate and reliable sources of revenue” in order to ensure they deliver quality service to the people. To achieve this requires that the DAs generate their own revenue such as entertainment duty, casino revenue, betting tax, income tax registration of trades, gambling tax, rates and levies, fees, licenses, taxes chargeable on incomes of certain category of self employed persons and other miscellaneous receipts; and receive transfers from the District Assembly Common Fund (DACF)”.(Ankamah, 2012) The DAs have faced challenges that have hindered them from generating substantial own funds: lack of government support to enhance their capacity to generate own funds; lack of benchmarking to determine appropriate levels of revenue mobilization; lack of appreciation by DAs staff on the importance of own funds; lack of capacity by local land boards to perform property revaluations; and lack of collaboration by stakeholders to ensure internal control and avoid revenue leakages.

The DACF is funded each year by Parliament with statutory levels ensuring at least 5% of central government revenue goes to the local governments, which stood at 26% in 2013 (OECD, 2016a). Between 2000 and 2010, allocations to DACF have grown over 1700% from GHC 18 million to over GHC 340 million. However, disbursement of funds experiences delays which hinders budget plannings at the district assemblies. Revenue mobilization to district assemblies is also highly unpredictable. For instance, “An analysis of Bongo district budget revealed significant variations between expected income and what is eventually mobilised each year”, making planning for development programs very challenging.  Funding is also segmented, making tracking of expenditures difficult. For instance, some funds are not channelled through the sector ministry to the respective district assemblies, while others channelled as intergovernmental transfers have no clear lines to guide allocations to the sector. The lack of coordination of funding, therefore makes managing the funds and reporting difficult. (WaterAid, 2009)

Other challenges include the fact that a portion of the funds transferred from central government to the districts is tied to specific functions. For instance, in 2006, about 46% of the common funding was determined at the central government. (WaterAid, 2009) Further, the line ministries also retain some funds for purposes such as procurements. These factors reduce the available funds for the district and undermines the fiscal autonomy of districts. Further, district assemblies have little say on sectoral budgets, even though in principle they should inform the sectoral budgets. The district budgeting calendar is at variance with the national process thus making it difficult for the sectors to incorporate district sector information into their budgets. (WaterAid, 2009)

Gender Inclusion

The Constitution of Ghana provides equality between men and women. Ghana has also ratified several international conventions on gender equality, affirmative action and promoting women’s rights. However, participation and representation is still very low, with only 8% and 10% representing women at the national parliament and local assemblies respectively. (UNDP 2013) Cultural prejudices, discrimination, traditional beliefs and monetary requirements play a huge role as barriers that prevent women from running for political office. For instance, an Afrobarometer research showed that 34% of men and 21% of women sampled agreed that men made better political leaders and ought to be elected to public office. (Afrobarometer 2012)

Public Participation and Accountability

Article 240(2) of the Constitution provides that the government should provide a system for people to participate in local development. The district assemblies are responsible for “…facilitating public participation in the development process and disseminating information on all matters related to development.” (WaterAid, 2009) However, civic engagement in the development process remains low. A study carried out in Upper Western region of Ghana on public participation in local development revealed that the top reasons for not participating include: a lack of incentive to participate, lack of information and lack of formal education. ( Bebelleh & Nobabumah 2013) Local community bottom-up demand for accountability and transparency from their elected leaders such as members of parliament (MPs) and members of their assemblies is weak. Further, citizens do not know their responsibility in the governing process. This lack of grassroots participation results in planning, budgeting, procurement processes being carried out without any input from the respective communities.(UNDP, 2013)

Several audit and accountability reports have concluded that there is little accountability by the elective and appointed district level officials. For instance, “the Ghana Round 5 Afrobarometer research mentioned that 68% of the constituents had not contacted their local government officials to demand accountability, 52% said their councillors never listen to them, while 87% perceive their councillors to be corrupt”.(UNDP, 2013)


Senegal has long since established decentralization as an approach to development. When it gained independence from French colonial rule, the highly centralized state began experimenting with various measures to devolve power to the local communities.

Legal and Constitutional Framework

The government has implemented decentralization by enacting various legislations and policies in three progressive phases. The first phase enacted Law 72-25 in April 1972, establishing local authorities to manage and administer communities. The second phase enacted Law 96-06 created the regions while Law 96-07 transferred powers to these regions, communes and rural communities (11 regions, 110 municipal communes and 320 rural communities). The Constitution of 2001 further entrenched the place of local governments (collectivités territoriales: CTs) as the channel for citizen participation in running their local affairs. (World Bank, 2015)

The government launched the National Local Development Program in 2006 which incorporated a “community-driven development (CDD) approach to promote the effective, efficient and sustainable local development.”  (World Bank, 2015) This enabled the government to set up guidelines for participation in local development. In 2013, the government adopted the third  phase of decentralization policy with the aim to harmonize the decentralization and local governance efforts.

Fiscal Decentralization

The decentralization law transferred the following areas of responsibilities to the communes: land planning, public land administration, urbanization, health, education, environment, youth and sports/culture. The law also established the Decentralization Endowment Fund to finance current expenditures and the Local Communities’ Infrastructure and Equipment Fund to finance local investment. The government estimated that it would need to allocate about 25% of public expenditure (80 to 100 billion CFAs) in the year 2000 to finance the decentralized responsibilities. However, the amount budgeted for the same period was only 9 billion CFAs, less than 3% of consolidated expenditures, while the actual amounts transferred were well below the allocated amount. (Ndegwa & Levy) Expenditure reports as at 2013 show that 5.9% of total government expenditure is at the local level.  (OECD, 2016c)

Gender Inclusion

In 2010, the former president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade signed the Gender Parity Law. This piece of legislation “obliges all political parties to place women and men in an alternating matter on candidate lists, aiming at a male-female ratio of 50%.” (Tøraasen, 2017) The law empowered the electoral commission to exclude parties that did not comply, and reject their lists of nominees. Consequently, the number of women representatives at the national assembly in the 2012 election almost doubled from 22.7% to 42.7%, while it almost tripled in the local elections of 2014 from 16% to 47%. (Tøraasen, 2017) This has ensured greater female political participation both at the local and national levels.

Public Participation and Accountability

The General Code of Local Government provided the institutional framework that gave the LGs responsibility over designing, and implementing programs for socio-economic development of communities. Further, local executive bodies are tasked with establishing community participation frameworks to include the interest of the local communities in the planning, implementation and accountability. However, civil engagement in governance is weak, with little done to ensure that local needs are incorporated in CTs’ priorities.

Accountability of the CTs leaders has been weak. For instance, many CTs do not keep full accounting records with tax rolls not provided in time to account for revenues collected. Further central government action has at times gone against the practice of the sub national governments by exempting some companies from taxes “without informing or compensating the CTs concerned. (The Hunger Project, 2014)

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone emerged from a decade-long civil war in 2002. One main cause of the conflict was the “overcentralized system of rule that led to the exclusion and marginalization of areas outside Freetown”.(Srivastava and Larizza, 2011) Postcolonial elected local councils were abolished by President Siaka Stevens in 1972 and the responsibilities moved to the central government. Consequently, traditional chiefs became responsible for collecting local taxes, despite having no service delivery or development function.

Legal and Constitutional Framework

After the 1996 multiparty elections, the Sierra Leonean government launched a national policy document, the Good Governance and Public Sector Reform Strategy, that emphasized the role of decentralization as a tool for reform especially in rural areas. In 2004, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) government of Abdul Tejan Kabbah reestablished local councils when it passed the Local Government Act of 2004 (LGA). This initiative provided the legislative framework for political, fiscal and administrative decentralization through devolution of key central government functions to local councils.(Srivastava and Larizza, 2011) The new dispensation was especially popular with SLPP political leaders whose interests had been adversely affected during the single-party rule of the All People’s Congress party. The new local councils were also seen as balancing out the power of the oppressive paramount chiefs that ruled during the single-party era.

The new law included transitional provisions as the country moved to develop new policy guidelines on decentralization and chiefdoms. However, the law maintained ambiguities in the relationship between chiefdoms and local councils. By law, chiefdoms are subordinate to the local councils. In practice, the chiefs disregard the hierarchy. The local councils set the local tax rates and the chiefs are supposed to collect them, and hand them over to the local councils, a situation Chiefdom Councils are not comfortable with. There has been delay in repealing laws governing the chieftaincy and enacting new ones that reflect the new dispensation. These ambiguities have led to tensions between the two institutions, dampening the process of decentralization.

Fiscal Decentralization

The LGA provided a framework for fiscal decentralization. The law recognized that local councils would be unable to generate own revenues, at least for a certain period. The Act identified local council revenue sources as: transfers from the central government; own revenues generated from fees, taxes and dues; other loans and grants. For devolved functions, the law provided for tied funds to deliver the service at the pre-devolution standard in the first phase (2004-08), and at an “appropriate” standard post-2008. The law was unclear on revenue-sharing formula or the definitions for terms such as “equity” and the standards to be used to gauge the level of service delivery. (Srivastava and Larizza, 2011)

The government has seen a moderate transfer of resources to the local councils, with transfers increasing by 45% between 2005 and 2009, from Le 19 billion to Le 34 billion. The ratio of actual to budgeted transfers grew from 70% in 2005 to 98% in 2009. (Srivastava and Larizza, 2011) However, these transfers to local councils are still low, representing about 2% of total government expenditures. (CLGF, 2014)

Another challenge has been the low own-revenue generation by the local councils, with capacity between 25-30% of their expenditure coming from own revenues. Identified as a stable long-term revenue stream, property taxes have failed to live up to the expectation as a source of income for local governments, especially urban councils. For instance, in 2007 three urban councils, Bo, Kenema and Makeni were still collecting less than half of their targeted revenues, relying heavily on market dues and other easily collectable taxes and fees, while neglecting property taxes. Even with a relatively straight-forward tax collection framework set in place by a partnership of donor organizations, collecting and enforcing compliance has proved incredibly difficult. Large property owners have frustrated the efforts. This is in part because “…strong ties between large landowners and political elites have been widely cited as the primary explanation for weak property tax collection”. (Jibao and Prichard, 2013)

Gender Inclusion

Women and ethnic minorities have benefited immensely from the expanded political participation. Between 2004 and 2008, share of council seats occupied by women increased 5% from 13 to 18%, three times the share occupied by women at the national Parliament. (IRCBP 2010) In the 2012 local elections women accounted for 19.1% of elected councillors and 11.8% of nominated chief councillors, and 10.5% of mayors. (CLGF, 2014) Further, representatives from ethnic minority groups such as Kono, Loko and Sherbro were elected to the councils. However, a lot still remains to be done. The government has still not passed a gender quota law that would ensure a 30% minimum representation at the local and national level. (Abdullah, 2010) During the electioneering period, women councillors also faced threats of violence, intimidation by male opponents, and lack of financial resources. In their jobs as councillors, they faced barriers to push the gender issues with their committees starved of necessary resources to work.

Public Participation and Accountability

The LGA requires local communities to be consulted before the elected council approves development plans. Further, it establishes the ward committee as a platform for residents to discuss their issues, which are forwarded to the local councils. Councils are required to publish budget documents and accounts, development plans etc. in an easily accessible manner, and open their meetings to the public. Some councils have taken the initiative to rotate their monthly meetings to different wards to reach wider constituents. Various initiatives have also been undertaken by the government to strengthen the capacity of civil society groups to monitor and keep local governments accountable. In 2010, community monitors were trained to facilitate the development of social accountability systems, disseminate council’s activities to ward levels and monitoring service delivery. (CLGF, 2014) All these have seen a rise in civic activism and participation in local elections has remained moderately high. (Srivastava and Larizza, 2011)

Lessons & Recommendations

West African countries that are experimenting with decentralization have had varied experiences. First, entrenching decentralization in a new or amended constitutional dispensation gives the process the legitimacy to overcome any tendencies to regress towards a more centralized system. Secondly, political will is very important in the implementation of the requirements of the constitution and new legislations. For instance, women participation in governance and development still remains largely tokenistic due to the patriarchy that controls the political space. Thirdly, as described above, most central governments championing decentralization have focused attention on transfer of funding to the subnational governments, with little done to improve the capacity of local governments to raise their own funds and become truly fiscally independent. Those local governments that have tried to collect own revenues have relied mostly on easily collectable taxes and dues such as market dues, while avoiding the more politically unpopular property taxes. Finally, many implementations of public participation in the decentralization process has left most of the citizens as mere observers in the development planning and execution process. Apart from voting in their local government officials, little has been done by the central and local authorities to ensure better quality citizen engagement.

In order to build local government structures that truly reflect the development needs of the local constituents, stakeholders need to make concerted efforts to strengthen fiscal autonomy at these subnational governments. This will reduce the reliance on central government funding, and ensure that the spending is aligned with priorities. Further, when citizens fund local government expenditure to a significant level, they are likely to demand greater accountability for their taxes, which in turn improves service delivery. (Jibao and Prichard, 2013) To achieve this, greater investment in local capacity and systems needs to happen. Before handing over major responsibility to local governments, stakeholders should agree on which functions will be funded by own revenues, targets for revenue mobilization set, and administrators of this process trained. Other models could include sending central government tax administrators to the local levels who then perform handholding to the officers at the subnational governments to pass on the necessary skills to deliver the new fiscal functions. Political will is also key in ensuring the enactment and implementation of unpopular local government taxes such as property taxes. Without political willingness to enforce unpopular legislation, fiscal autonomy is likely to remain a mirage for many local governments.

Without investing in the empowerment of women, decentralization will still fail to reach and impact a majority of the population. This is especially evident in West Africa where traditions and culture still dictate the place of women in society and leadership. However, such progress can only be made with great political will by leaders at both the national and local governments. For instance, in Senegal, the passing of the gender parity law is credited to former President Abdoulaye Wade who championed it and helped bring it into the Constitution. Consequently Senegal has witnessed significant progress in women’s representation at local authorities and national leadership. However, since the elections of 2014, the marabouts, a network of Muslim brotherhoods in Senegal have resisted the increased presence of female leadership, and moved to neutralize this influence, albeit unsuccessfully. Since the requirements are contained in the constitution, however, and there still exists great political will to enact the Constitution fully, attacks on female leadership has failed. (Tøraasen, 2017)

Civil society needs to take up the challenge of building the capacity of the citizenry to engage their local governments to meet their local needs. In Ghana for instance, Plan Ghana trained youth in budget advocacy, giving exposure and the experience which has increased the confidence level of the youth to engage their district assemblies during the development planning process. These youths have also become trainers for other regions, beyond Awutu-Senya District, building youth budget network to advocate for youth and children issues both locally and nationally. (Bani-Afudego et al., 2014) This and other similar projects need to be undertaken in order to build lasting and meaningful community participation in governance and development.


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