Key role of municipalities in times of crisis

Research is an integral part of the operation of ICLD. In a couple of interviews, we would like to feature some of our Advisory Group members who are researchers in the fields of local democracy and decentralisation.

Sten Hagberg, who is our guest today, is a Professor of Cultural Anthropology and the Director of Forum for Africa Studies at Uppsala University. Sten has been doing anthropological fieldwork in Burkina Faso for more than 30 years. Since 2008, he has also done research on the neighboring country Mali.

Where does your interest in local politics come from?

– I have always been interested in local political processes. When the so-called “Third Wave of Democratisation” took place in late 1980s and early 1990s, concretely expressed by the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was in Burkina Faso witnessing the first steps towards a democratic society.

What was your reaction to those first steps towards democracy?

– Initially, when decentralisation policies were introduced in many countries as a part of democratisation in the 1990s, I was quite skeptical. I thought: “This is just a way to make the cake bigger in order to share it with more people, a classical clientelist system.” But when decentralisation took new forms in the early 2000s, I really saw that this was not just a new way of imposing power. It was something else. Now people got a chance to elect their own leaders, their mayors, their municipal councilors. Burkina Faso, where I lived at that time, could be characterized as a highly authoritarian system, a military rule until democratisation process was initiated in 1991. This decentralisation process opened up for all kinds of things. For instance, many of my key informants in local arenas became politicians, that is, people, who have been working in civil society organizations, local associations, home area associations, were suddenly campaigning for democratic elections, when that became possible.

That is also why I became more and more interested in Mali. At that time, Mali was considered to be an example of successful democratic transition. People talked about Mali as a fantastic case of a country going from dictatorship to democracy just in a few years. There were also scientific publications coming out of Mali, indicating that this was something new. Malian authorities pushed for decentralisation and they adopted a participatory approach, asking the population in villages and towns: “As decentralisation means that ‘power returns home’, what would be the community when you will be in charge of your own affairs? What would be your municipality like, and who will belong to it? To whom do you want to belong? Which villages should be together?” I found it extremely interesting just a few years after the fall of the dictatorship.

Did Mali continue to move in that democratic direction?

– Unfortunately, soon after I started to do research in Mali the political climate started to shift into reverse direction. The fall and subsequent killing of Kaddafi in Libya in 2011 sparked a series of processes in the region with important repercussions on Mali. Most importantly, Tuareg mercenaries of Malian origin who had worked in Kaddafi’s military and/or security apparatus returned home and launched a rebellion in Northern Mali to obtain independence. On 17 January 2012, Tuareg rebels attacked the poorly equipped Malian garrison in a Northern town, and killed more than 100 Malian soldiers. This attack led to general uprising in the country as the president was soon accused of not having equipped the army. Protesters, including widows of the soldiers, held that the president had sacrificed the soldiers as cannon fodder and part of the Malian territory to the rebels. The political and security situation quickly deteriorated, and in March 2012, a group of lower rank officers from the garrison of Kati took power in a coup d’état. This was another starting point for the political turmoil in which the country finds itself. The coup d’état took place just a few weeks before the presidential elections. Hence, in a few months, Mali, which, internationally, at the time was seen as a successful democracy, was brought into political turmoil. Yet, in spite of the fact that it was a coup d’état and the government was dissolved, the national assembly was dissolved, the municipalities remained untouched and could continue to operate, or at least make do.

For me as a researcher, the municipality becomes a fruitful way to approach all kinds of issues. It is an important entry-point to understand society and culture, to understand citizens’ perspectives and not the least to understand what is going on in the country. One would of course prefer to see municipalities that function well, that make a difference, but that is another story. I would say that Malian municipalities make do. But for me as a researcher, it is like taking the temperature on politics.

Researchers Sidi Barry and Sten Hagberg in the gold mining village of Essakane in Northern Burkina Faso. Photo: Marcel Ouédraogo.

Based on your research, what are the main challenges of local democracy?

– The question of authority or the extent to which power is transferred to the municipality is one issue. I remember a mayor that I interviewed in Mali back in 2003 saying: “We cannot wait for the people in Bamako (the Malian capital) to give us the power, we have to grab it.” I find this kind of proactive thinking that you have to take a stance quite interesting.

The second issue is related to resources and funding. Municipalities are to a large extent dependent on the right to collect taxes, but one of the key issues is that the mayor who would like to increase those local taxes is not likely to be re-elected.

Another challenge relates to dealing with traditional structures and elite captures. In our research, we could see that when the first municipal elections took place in Burkina Faso and in Mali, the people running for the position of mayor were the local elites, traditional chiefs or their close relatives. However, in the second and in the third municipal elections, other people were trying to make their voices heard. For each election, voters tend to prefer those who are “dynamic” and able “to do the job” rather than any appointed member of the local aristocracy. Hence, with these emerging politicians there are signs of reduced impact of traditional political structures.

A fourth challenge is almost conceptual: How to make decentralisation something more than just a “traveling model”? How can this model that has been implemented across the world be appropriated and made it into something that has relevance for citizens in the local arena?

Do you think local governments can protect democracy?

– Local governments are undoubtedly important players for the democratic state. It might sound like a banal remark, but one of the problems with any kind of democratic system is the fact that it is in-between the elections that interesting things happen. And for me, that is also why we see the importance of the municipalities, as they intervene in ordinary people’s life.

If there is something good coming out of this terrible corona-pandemic that we traverse at this very moment of history, that would be the clear statement that we need a strong and capable state. And in that need for a state taking responsibility for a certain issue, it naturally means that we also need the municipalities and the regions – we need a local government.

Finally, let us not forget that we have an authoritarian backlash in the world. In that sense, it is important for local democracy and local governments to be strong. And I think we see it in the U.S., we see it in Sweden, we see it in Burkina Faso, we see it in Mali – we see it everywhere. In this kind of crisis, the municipalities have a key role to play. We may complain about the municipalities, we may say it is not functioning, but still it is extremely important that we have democratic local government.

Read more about our Advisory Group here

ICLD Advisory Group 2019
Back from the left: Tomila Lankina – Professor of International Relations, at London School of Economics, UK Anders Lidström – Professor, Department of Political Science, Umeå University Sten Hagberg – Professor of Cultural Anthropology and director of the Forum for African Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden Jesse C. Ribot – Professor, School of International Service at American University, Washington, DC, USA Front from the left: Quinton Mayne – Associate Professor, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, USA. Valeria Guarneros-Meza, Reader in Public Policy and Politics, at De Montfort University, UK Andreas Ladner – Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Public Administration at University of Lausanne, Switzerland Amalinda Savirani – Professor of Political Science at Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia. Annika Björkdahl – Professor, Department of Political Science, Lund University Pamela Mbabazi, PhD – Chairperson, National Planning Authority, Uganda
Advisory Group, Almedalen, Almedalen 2020, ICLD i Almedalen2020,