Decentralization of the Security Sector Management in the Mano River Union

Decentralization of the Security Sector Management in the Mano River Union

Partners for Democratic Change/ Partners Senegal

Rokhaya Ndoye Mbaye

1.    Introduction

After decades of armed conflict and oppression, Mano River Union countries today are faced with the urgent task of reforming their security sectors. The objective is to prevent a return to conflict that has characterized much of these countries’ existence since independence and to build the institutional architecture that will pave the road towards stability, and sustainable peace and development. The top-down nature of security sector reform initiatives has raised questions and criticisms regarding their exclusion of civilians and long-term sustainability. This critique can be dealt with in two broad ways. First, greater civilian engagement in the reform process, as well as in the new security structure, must be applied more concretely in practice. Second, security sector reform must reach beyond the capital and major cities, in order that the different regions distinct security challenges are equally met. The concept of decentralization is at the core of this second objective. This paper will define and explore the decentralization concept, and evaluate to what extent and how decentralization can be a guiding principle for security sector reform in the Mano River Union sub-region.

2.    Defining decentralization

Decentralization has become a buzzword in policy, although its actual meaning and implications remain largely undefined.[1] Dubois & Fattore state that “while frequently left undefined, decentralization has also been assigned many different meanings varying across countries, languages, general contexts, fields of research, and specific scholars and studies.” [2]

An understanding of centralization provides a good starting point for defining decentralization. Centralization refers to a political system where authority over planning and decision-making is concentrated in a central body. Within the context of a country, this center is located in the capital, which serves as the headquarters of the national government. In a centralized governance scheme, decision-making occurs at the top of the centralized political hierarchy and minimal or no decision-making authority is given to lower levels of government. Decentralization refers to a set of policies and political system where decision-making authority is delegated to different levels of government in different areas of the country (provincial, regional, community-level).

There are several dimensions to decision-making authority that are considered in terms of devolution of power. These are the political, administrative, economic, fiscal, and environmental dimensions of decentralization[3]. The political dimension consists of two main ideas: 1) that is the sub-national entity will be elected, rather than chosen by the central government[4], and 2) higher-level decision making authority should undergo a legal and formal transfer of power to autonomous sub-regional bodies.[5] The administrative dimension is closely related to and often equivocated with political decentralization. Generally, it refers to the redistribution of authority, responsibility and financial resources in the context of public services delivery. Economic decentralization relates to local economic decisions like effective management of natural resources, delivery of adaptable and efficient services, engagement in new economic opportunities, and in resolving local conflicting commercial interests. Fiscal decentralization relates to locally controlled management of revenues and expenditures. For instance, localities will collect taxes in order to pay for local schools and health clinics, rather than relying on central government funds. Thus, fiscal decentralization also has a political dimension as it also entails assigning responsibilities, giving citizens or their elected representatives more decision-making authority, establishing sub-national political entities capable to hold decision-making responsibilities, strengthening parliaments, and encouraging effective public interest groups and pluralistic political parties. [6]

3.    Decentralization in West Africa

In a case of a reform process in the region, we generally observe three main forms of decentralization: deconcentration, delegation and devolution.[7]

  • Deconcentration is the most moderate of decentralization. It concerns the redistribution of some decision-making power and responsibility to lower levels within a government agency or ministry.
  • Delegation is the shift of decision-making and public policy management responsibility from the central government body to semi-autonomous organs.
  • Devolution or administrative decentralization is a quasi-complete transfer of responsibilities to local governments. Responsibilities include the capacity and autonomy to elect local government, establish decision-making boards, collect revenue through taxation, and decide how to expend resources.

With regard to security sector reform, it is important to distinguish decentralization in the process with decentralization in long-term security decision-making. The common understanding of decentralization in SSR refers to the devolution of control over the reform process to include representative bodies from outside the capital in the process. While complete decentralization may be limited by the nature of the security hierarchy and a widespread lack of human and financial resources, it is imperative that decision-making bodies include and consult with local entities that do not have the capacity to plan their own security. The extent to which communities will get involved in security decision-making processes largely depends on their capacity to do so.

The scope of the work is tremendous, and lack of capacity often limits reformers’ ambitions and objectives. There are also concerns regarding how donors operate. Their agendas focus on achieving results for their programs, rather than the broad-based promotion of local norms, values, and historical experiences that would have a broader impact on civilian inclusion and decentralization processes. (Sherman, CIC, 2009)[9].

4.    Case study: Decentralization in Sierra Leone’s security sector[10]

Brief description of Sierra Leone’s security context

National threats: Despite the decade that has past since the end of the armed conflict, safety remains a paramount concern in Sierra Leone. Corruption is rampant. State reconstruction and the consolidation of political power are fragile processes that can easily spiral into violence. Widespread poverty, pour transportation infrastructure, poor health, extremely high unemployment rates (sometimes nearly 70%), psychosocial impacts of the war, drug and alcohol abuses among young adults (20-40), organized crime groups, and crowd violence ( e.g.“hooligan” sportive movements or political demonstrations often met with overblown police reactions sometimes resulting in deaths) create an enabling environment for the occurrence of crime and other human security threats. Finally, the rise of narcotics trafficking that implicates international groups and government officials is another important security concern.

Security threats in the capital: Freetown is a ramshackle city with an extreme deficit in many forms of infrastructure. Night burglary, assaults, drug trafficking, street crimes, and homicides are commonplace. Heavy floods during the rainy season are also a security threat due to the absence of the necessary infrastructure to contain storm water overflow.

Security threats in the rest of the country: Roads outside of Freetown are extremely dangerous, due to their poor construction and maintenance, irresponsible driving, excessive traffic, and overcrowded public transportation.

State security capacity: The UN Integrated Peace Building Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL) supports the Sierra Leonean Police (SLP) (approximately 9000 personnel members) with preparedness and crime prevention strategies. Despite many successful initiatives, the SLP is known for its lack of capabilities, capacities, responsiveness, and professionalism. In the capital, the SLP methods to contain security threats are midnight curfews on motorcycle transport. Outside of Freetown, the SLP increased the frequency of emergency response patrols and set night checkpoints to watch for neighborhoods crimes.


In Sierra Leone, the security sector is centralized in Freetown, and excludes de-facto the majority of the population living outside the capital. This lack of control over local security threats was a driving force in the escalation of the civil war. After the peace settlement in 2002, the government was pressured internally and externally to reform the security sector so that it is more responsive to security challenges in the rural areas.[11]


5.    Challenges to Decentralization

Scholars disagree on the extent to which decentralization is necessary for development. It is regarded as a means to ensure that planning and decision-making are executed according to local needs and preferences. However, there are serious conceptual, strategic, financial, and administrative limits to its implementation. Notably, there is a disproportionate amount of attention and energy put into national-level-decentralization policies compared to the difficult implementation strategies of these. There is a minimal understanding of the preferable level and form of local autonomy, how to increase accountability to up to national government and down to citizens, and the sequencing of decentralization initiatives to ensure successful implementation.

Decentralization in the security sector is even more challenging given the highly centralized and hierarchical structure of security institutions. Armed forces are traditionally built on the idea of uniform protocols. There is a fear that decentralization of the security sector could lead to the emergence of mutinous military factions.

Financial viability of the process is also a primary concern. Efficiency through decentralization could be undermined in developing countries because poverty can reduce preference differentiation and that it add some expenses to already heavy public costs (Prud’homme). Decentralization may translate into better off communities having better security; but it can also lead to inefficiencies with duplication of services, and higher costs for localities retrieving important information from the national government. Moreover, some scholars argue that decentralization could lead to more opportunities for corruption. [12]

Furthermore, there are issues of political will. The individuals for designing decentralization policies have an interest in maintaining a centralized system. This leads to inaction or nominal decentralization policies. Finally, the novelty of decentralization and uncertainty towards its effectiveness is the source of great reluctance amongst policy makers to apply it to the security sector.

6.    Possible applications in SSR in West Africa

The considerable limitations explored above should not be exaggerated, and decentralization should not be discarded entirely. Many challenges like local financing are not inherent to the process, but result from governance issues. There are clear benefits to both ends of the centralized-decentralized governance spectrum. The decision is not of one over the other, but of how to integrate the two as a means of improving governance broadly. The complementary roles of national and sub national actors are determined by analyzing the most effective ways and means of achieving a desired objective. (Sharma, 2008). Security decision-making should be devolved to local communities gradually and prudently, in order to limit the central’s total control of security while promoting efficient and locally adapted standards.

Policies need to go beyond the realm of theory, and become more focused on practical implementation looking at, in a first instance, the existing mechanisms and how they can be improved, and secondly, where there are opportunities to build decentralized structures. There are several valuable guiding principles to do so that emerges from the literature.

  • A broad vision of decentralization is favorable and recognizes the different communities will have different expectations and uses for it.
  • Vision needs to be met with implementation strategies. [13]
  • Decentralization should be sequenced and implemented gradually to best integrate diverse key dimensions.
  • Building local capacity in local governments is needed to reinforce decision-making, representation, delegation performances, and its legitimacy vis-à-vis citizens.
  • Define the institutional (procedures and terms) and communication systems within and between the local and national levels.
  • Create mechanisms for coordinating activities between the multiple actors involved in decentralization. In certain countries, a plethora of institutions with different and some time competing visions are responsible for the main devolution activities (Ouedraogo).
  • Instill a sense of responsibility and accountability at all levels.
  • Prioritize gender and youth empowerment in local decision making
  • Focus reforms on the simplest areas that will require the least amount of financial and technical resources, and that will experience the least resistance from the central government (Ribot).
  • Select local partners based on capacity and performance, rather than size and position (Ribot)

7.    Conclusion

There is no easily defined and realizable approach to decentralization, and its challenges should not be overstated. Reform strategies should seek an appropriate combination between centralized and decentralized systems. Focus on sequenced and gradual implementation strategies that are conscious of local context and capacities can produce meaningful results. International donors’ significant involvement in decentralization agendas has placed a disproportionate focus on theory rather than practical realities affecting implementation. Finally, decentralization is a useful concept for the promotion of citizen engagement in security sector reform from regions outside of states’ capitals, and the elaboration of more effective and localized security solutions.

[1] Such as Politt, Reichard & Borgonovi, Steffensen & Trollegaard, Ouedraogo, Conyers,

[2] Dubois, H.F.W. & Fattore, G. (2009), ‘Definitions and typologies in public administration research: the case of decentralization’, International Journal of Public Administration

[3] Dubois, Hans F. W.; Fattore, Giovanni (2009). International Journal of Public Administration. 32. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

[4] Cohen and Peterson (1999), Falletti (2005), and Pollitt (2005)

[5] Benz (2002), Porter and Olson (1976), and Jun and Wright (1996)

[6] Prud’homme R. 1995; the dangers of decentralization. World Bank Research Observer

[7] Dubois, Hans F. W.; Fattore, Giovanni (2009). International Journal of Public Administration. 32. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

[8] Boex Jamie, Democratization in Egypt: The Potential Role of Decentralization; The policy Brief, February 2011

[9] Strengthening Security Sector Governance in West Africa, Jake Sherman CENTER, Center on International Cooperation, march 2009

[10] Fanthorpe, Richard. 2005. ―On the Limits of the Liberal Peace: Chiefs and Democratic Decentralization in Post-War Sierra Leone. African Affairs 105

[11] Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2004; Hanlon 2005; Kieh 2005.

[12] Everyday corruption and the state : citizens and public officials in Africa; Giorgio Blundo; Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan; 2006

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