Citizens, local council members and candidates say:Previous local councils’ performance was unsatisfactory [Archives:2006/975/Reportage]

August 24 2006

By: Yemen Times Staff
Yemen waded into its first local council elections in Feb. 2001, aiming to fiscally decentralize the Yemeni government by increasing local budgetary autonomy. The Yemen Times investigated the opinions of citizens, local council candidates and local council members in Sana'a, Aden, Hodeidah and Hadramout about Yemen's first local council experiment.

“What local councils?!” exclaimed Marzouk Abdulnour of Hodeidah, who was surprised at the question about the local councils and their performance, explaining that he hasn't heard about such councils except on election days when street walls are filled with photos of candidates he's never known. He affirmed that such councils have failed to offer citizens anything.

Aden resident Saleh Abduh Ali of Aden expressed his opinion, saying, “Although it's been five years since the first local election in 2001, the local council experiment didn't yield anything because they weren't based on right standards.

“Many candidates were supported by their parties throughout the election campaign; however, they found themselves facing difficult experiences because they couldn't keep their promises they made in the election campaign,” he added, further describing some local council members as ignorant of local authority law.

While Abdulnour and Ali believe the reason for the local councils' failure is due to council members unable to keep their promises to voters, other citizens referred to powerful and influential figures, who directly affected the councils.

Hodeidah computer programmer Mohammed Al-Hamadi insisted, “Although they were provided financial capital, the councils didn't do anything mentionable.” He blamed “influential individuals on some local councils, who were the main reason for their failure,” without explaining further.

However, Al-Hamadi didn't deny that forming and establishing such councils is the right method for reformation, noting, “Some local councils in some regions were able to work because their members were honest and active.” But Al-Hamadi didn't hide his pessimistic feeling regarding the upcoming election: “I always read and watch the conflict that's going on among powerful men in the government, who run this election like it's a trade whereby they can gain more.”

Fellow Hodeidah resident Khalid Abdul Fatah Al-Qubati was more open, remarking, “We can't say the local councils achieved anything for democracy or development. In my point of view, such councils were established to practice 'legalized theft' – taking people, power and more taxes and seizing citizens' rights. Decentralization is absent in our country due to absence of law, order and discipline, as well as unbalanced power.

“Additionally, our rulers can't keep ruling the country by their ways, which aren't based on order or the law, but on personal relations and intelligence using the army to run their business, which is against most people's interests,” he added.

Al-Qubati pointed out that all authority is given either to the district director or governor, both of whom are appointed by republican resolution, “which reflects the fact that all authority and power is in the president's hand.”

Havedh Al-Buqari, also from Hodeidah, agrees with Al-Qubati, noting that the local councils faced many obstacles preventing them from achieving their goals. “For example, local council law didn't define the council's competence and authority. Additionally, the political system, which is based on military thought, didn't comprehend the local council experience, which aimed to support decentralization and society's participation in the development process,” he explained.

Unlike his fellow countrymen, Mohammed Khamis of Sawan in Hadramout believes Yemen's local authority experience “succeeded 50 percent and that's a good start.” However, he said voters themselves erred in the previous elections because “Many citizens voted for uneducated and unqualified candidates who neither knew nor comprehended local authority law. How do you ask someone to enforce a law that he himself doesn't understand?” he wondered.

“We can overcome such difficulties by setting voting conditions, including reading, writing and knowledge. The law mentions such conditions, but it never has been applied,” he added.

Mabarak Salem Baqader of Hadramout agrees that the local authority experiment is succeeds somewhat upon financially and administratively implementing the decentralization concept, particularly on councils whose members are recognized for their honesty, activity and competency and who were given authority to deal with local area issues such as projects.

Overlapping authority and decentralization

“Citizens aren't the only ones complaining about local councils' performance, as there are complaints from local council members and even from councils' leaders,” noted Adel Ali Al-Dhubhani, a local council member in Sana'a.

He explained that the councils' institutional system didn't complete the budgets, which were insufficient, to operate the councils. He also mentioned obvious inconsistency and contradiction between numerous legal articles and local authority law.

Al-Dhubhani added that many council members are unaware of Local Administration Law legislation and articles. Additionally, although they voted for them, many citizens still are unaware of such council members' roles.

A March 1999 national conference on decentralization helped provide the impetus for Yemen's Parliament adopting the Local Administration Law, which presents the present model for national decentralization.

The Local Administration Law seeks to fiscally decentralize Yemen's government by increasing local budgetary autonomy. Before 1999, central government tightly controlled fiscal allocations, thereby delaying local development projects. Most local revenues raised via taxes and fees were transferred to the capital, Sana'a, with virtually all local budgets coming from fund transfers from the national government.

The new law provided that local authorities will keep revenues collected at the local level, while portions of funds collected by the central government will be distributed to municipalities based on population density.

However, some groups like the National Democratic Institute (NDI) have criticized the Local Administration Law for not extending popular elections to include governor and director-general on the provincial level, as those positions, which are assigned by presidential resolution, are executive managers of the local council boards at the governorate and district level.

In this regard, local council candidate Saleh Abdullah in Hadramout governorate's Dawan district asserted, “I believe the decentralization concept hasn't been applied due to overlapping authority between the governor, the district director-general, the council's director and local council representatives, which leads to competition between the council and the district. Many times, this created difficulties preventing the Local Administration Law's enforcement and disfiguring the councils' performance. I believe the answer to this problem is raising awareness and defining each one's responsibility.”

Local council representative Nabeel Al-Sana in Aden governorate's Al-Tawahi district believes Yemen failed when it declared the local councils' establishment and turned from centralization to decentralization before formulating and enacting all laws and legislation. “The Local Administration Law hasn't been activated yet, so the local councils didn't conduct their duties properly,” he proposed.

Al-Sana alleged that the local councils couldn't perform their duties of supervising projects and controlling local personnel and financial sources independently due to conflicts between local council representatives and ministry office personnel.

“There are no prepared administrative departments; most local councils lack offices where their members can do their daily work. Moreover, such councils' budgets were too small to perform their tasks. Besides that, many yearly plans and investment budgets the districts raised never were approved,” he explained.

However, Al-Sana pointed to some successful local councils, which were able to “grab their authority and prove their existence in reality by directly supervising projects and helping citizens.”

Upcoming local election nominee Abduh Kutaif of Hodeidah agrees with Al-Sana, insisting that local council representatives must be given complete authority to perform and achieve their duties without stress.

Women and local elections

“Some councilwomen observe a major traditional constraint, that is, the inability to attend qat sessions. Hence, they can't learn more about discussions and talks occurring during councilmen's qat sessions, thus limiting their active role in deciding local council issues,” said engineer Fatima Huraibi, Secretary-General of Tahrir district's local council.

She confirmed that only 36 of 125 women candidates won local council elections in 2001, including two at the governorate level in Aden and Abyan. At the district level, three women won the post of secretary-general: in the Capital secretariat, Ibb and Lahj.

“The Local Administration Ministry and the Capital secretariat mayor assigned me the post of director-general of Tahrir district, which is the only Yemeni woman in such a post. The remaining 30 councilwomen are ordinary members of local district councils,” Huraibi explained.

“The presence of women as district director-generals, secretary-generals of local district councils and council committee heads allows them to participate in the decision making process and observe implementation of council resolutions. Additionally, women can deal with both men and women in society, thus enabling them to discover society's comprehensive needs and concerns from all walks of life,” she pointed out.

Huraibi insisted on donors' role in making local councilwomen more successful by supporting capacity-building programs, funding study tours to countries with similar experiences, like India and Tunisia, and providing financial aid to women's election campaigns.