Can Zimbabwe walk the talk of devolution?

The vertical organisation of the state remains a thorn in a flesh in post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa. Various forms of multilevel systems of government have been established throughout the continent, from federalism in Ethiopia (1996), Nigeria (1999) and South Sudan (2011); devolution in Kenya (2010) and South Africa (1996); to decentralised unitary systems in Uganda (1995) and Namibia (1990). These systems, which are often entrenched in the respective constitutions of these countries, have been adopted to advance the realisation of certain objectives linked to development, democracy and peace. National integration and the deepening of democracy in South Africa and many other countries is to a certain extent attributed to decentralised governance. However, some of these systems are not working well, especially on the development front, despite having been in place for some time. Others are yet to function effectively as they have not gained the much needed traction.

The unsatisfactory performance of some of the multilevel systems of government can also be attributed to design weaknesses affecting the ability of the system to respond adequately to the relevant local context. For instance, the sharing of resources between the different levels of government and among regions, states e.t.c, remains a contentious issue in Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia. The very existence of the middle level of government – provinces – remains an unfinished business in South Africa. The ethnic based federal system in Ethiopia is being tested on several fronts with some states or communities threatening to secede. The mixed performance record of these multi-level systems does not seem to have discouraged other countries on the continent, such as Zimbabwe (in 2013) and Zambia (in 2016), from adopting similar systems. The trend on the continent is more towards multi-level systems than centralised systems.

Zimbabwe joined the family of nations on the continent that have multi-level systems in 2013. Its 2013 Constitution provides for the organisation of government at the national, provincial and local levels, giving rise to a multilevel system of government. The provincial tier of government is supposed to be constituted by provincial and metropolitan councils while urban and rural local authorities (municipalities) make up the lowest tier of government. The Constitution requires this system to be primarily anchored on devolution without prohibiting the distribution of governmental power and authority through deconcentration and delegation, among other ways. The objectives of devolution outlined in the Constitution are development, democracy and national integration. Six years into the adoption of this Constitution, Zimbabwe is battling to implement this system. While the national and local governments are in existence the same cannot be said for provincial and metropolitan councils.

At the centre of problems confronting the effective full implementation of the multi-level system of government are both design and practical issues. Although the Constitution requires devolution, nowhere does it define the concept. Without a constitutional definition, the different interests that makeup the society are defining the concept only to the extent that it favours their interests. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that there is no consensus on the meaning of devolution given the different interests that are ordinarily prevalent in any society. It is possible that some of the definitional uncertainties can be attributed to lack of knowledge of such a technical concept. However, some of it is merely deliberate misinformation to advance certain agendas. The courts have not been very helpful in providing guidance on this matter and related issues. All this confusion and misinformation may result in the implementation of ‘Zimbabwean devolution’ that is far away from devolution as widely understood across literature. It should, however, be acknowledged that the ‘versions’ of devolution that countries adopt and implement are unlikely to be the same. For example, the United Kingdom devolution is not the same as the South African or Kenyan devolution. Nevertheless, there should be a minimum level of political, fiscal and administrative instruments that should be diffused for a system of government to be classified as devolved.

The role of the provincial tier of government in Zimbabwe is also contentious even though it is outlined in the Constitution, albeit, in an ambiguous manner. The Constitution allocates the function of socio-economic development to provincial and metropolitan councils. The parameters of this function remains the subject of debate. The composition of these councils is also another unresolved matter even though the Constitution requires them to be constituted by Members of Parliament (MPs) and mayors and chairpersons of local authorities. In metropolitan councils deputy mayors and chairpersons of local authorities also form part of the composition. Representatives of traditional leaders and ten directly officials are members of provincial councils. The role of MPs in provincial and metropolitan councils has raised many questions with some calling for constitutional amendment to do away with their role even before these councils are operationalised.

Like the South African Constitution of 1996, the 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe empowers local authorities (municipalities) with the right to govern on their own initiative the local affairs of their areas. This right is backed by ‘all’ the powers necessary for a local authority to govern. It is however yet to be realised in practice. Very few understand or care about what the right means. The ignorance is not only coming from national officials but also local officials who are the supposed beneficiary of this right. Legislation which clarify the parameters of this right is yet to be enacted. In the absence of the relevant law and a change of mindset among national and local officials, municipalities or councils are in practice operating more or less as appendages of the national government as was the case under the previous constitutional order. In this regard, the 2013 Constitution is yet to make a positive impact on the status and role of local authorities (councils).

The economic crisis being experienced in Zimbabwe is also standing in the way of effective implementation of the Constitution, particularly, the multi-level system of government. Revenue raised nationally is currently not sufficient to meet the needs of the national government let alone its development priorities. As a result, there may be little resources available to operationalise a fully-fledged multilevel system of government, which ordinarily demands significant resources. This should not be construed as condoning the failure to comply with the constitutional framework for revenue sharing among the different tiers of government.

The fear or argument that devolution could entrench ethnic division and undermine national integration is also weakening the momentum of devolution. It is also possible that these fears are overplayed for political reasons or gains. The deep polarisation characterising the Zimbabwean society means that almost everything is seen through political lenses. Devolution is a victim of this status quo as it is being seen as a zero-sum game where there are only winners and losers with no middle point, usually along political lines.

There is no doubt that devolution is the way to go for Zimbabwe and many other countries given the poor record of centralised systems of government on the continent. The challenging task remains that of adopting a devolution model that is best suited for Zimbabwe. Whether devolution should only take place to the local level rather than to the provincial level or to both levels is something that Zimbabweans will have to decide. However, it is clear that only real devolution is likely to offer better prospects for the improvement of the lives of ordinary citizens rather than cosmetic devolution. Zimbabwe can learn from the experiences of other countries, such as South Africa and Kenya, which have adopted and implemented multilevel systems of government before it. More effort is required to draw some useful experiences from these and other countries so that the full potential of a multilevel system of government can be harnessed or realised. With each year passing by since the adoption of the new Constitution in 2013, there is a risk that the momentum towards devolution could be lost. The commitment to devolve powers, responsibilities and resources may be neutralised by the establishment or consolidation of administrative and political mechanisms that maintain or promote centralised governance. Thus, there is a need to implement devolution or multilevel governance without further delay.


By Tinashe Carlton Chigwata

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