THE decision by former minister and member of the National Assembly for Lobengula in Bulawayo, Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, to take Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo, Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa and government to the Constitutional Court (ConCourt) for breaching the country’s constitution by failing to implement devolution, has reignited debate on a subject that was intensely discussed during the constitution-making exercise as well as in the run-up to the 2013 elections.
Although devolution was initially resisted by then tripartite unity government partner Zanu PF, which argued the notion was being pushed by those bent on promoting regionalism, federalism or secessionism, and that the country was too small for the system to work well, the constitutional outreach programme, which involved more than three million people, proved Zimbabweans were keen on decentralisation.
“We don’t want to divide the country into small pieces because it will cause disunity among our people,” President Robert Mugabe said. “Those things are done in big countries, not to a small country like ours.”
Eventually, and following protracted negotiations and horse-trading, Zanu PF grudgingly accepted devolution after ensuring it was significantly watered down.
Devolution proved popular, especially in areas such as Matabeleland, Manicaland and Masvingo where people felt their provinces were lagging behind in development, or they were not benefiting much from natural resources in their areas.
In Manicaland, for example, most people supported devolution arguing they had nothing to show for the diamonds being mined in the province.
The Welshman Ncube-led MDC was particularly vocal about devolution and made it part of its campaign strategy in last year’s national polls. Ncube, who was industry minister in the unity government, argued devolution would unlock economic opportunities by decentralising economic activity and decision-making thus allowing for better distribution of buying power and resources across the country to support industry.
But seven months after cabinet was sworn in following Zanu PF’s controversy-tainted triumph at last year’s July 31 general elections, government is still to implement devolution by ensuring metropolitan and provincial councils are formed in line with Chapter 14 of the constitution which deals with local governance.
The metropolitan and provincial councils, to consist of provincial governors, members of both houses of parliament, mayors and chairpersons of all urban and rural local authorities in the province, are meant to ensure devolution is implemented in earnest.
The councils have, however, not been established leaving the country running in largely the same way it did prior to the ringing referendum endorsement and adoption of the new constitution last year.
Objectives of devolution include giving powers of local governance to the people and enhancing their participation in the exercise of the powers of the state and in making decisions affecting them, as well as promoting democratic, effective, transparent, accountable and coherent government as a whole.
It also aims to recognise the right of communities to manage their own affairs and to further their development, ensuring the equitable sharing of local and national resources as well as transferring responsibilities and resources from the national government in order to establish a sound financial base for each provincial and metropolitan council and local authority.
The objectives would therefore give locals power to decide developmental priorities in their regions as well as control the use of resources through councils. This would ensure perennial cries of marginalisation from some regions are minimised as local communities will be empowered to set the development agenda in their areas.
The councils, according to the constitution, are supposed to be responsible for the social and economic development of each province as well as planning and implementing social and economic development activities, preparing annual development plans for provinces and metropolitan councils, while also co-ordinating and implementing governmental programmes.
They are also mandated with co-ordinating the conservation, improvement and management of natural resources, monitoring and evaluating the use of resources in the province and reviewing and evaluating their implementation of development plans and policies.
But while many people are becoming impatient with the government’s delay in implementing devolution given its popularity during the constitution-making exercise and that it is provided for in the constitution, questions have also arisen as to whether the cash-strapped government can afford to implement the popular policy.
Government is already struggling to pay civil servants and was this month forced to move the pay date for the rest of the civil service from March 25 to 27.
It is also yet to implement a modest pay increment awarded to civil servants last November.
Since dollarisation, Zimbabwe has been struggling to sustain its public sector wage bill, which accounts for about 70% of total revenue collections, leaving little for capital expenditure and social projects. For what many believe to be political motives, government is reluctant to meet debt-reduction plans agreed with the International Monetary Fund in January aimed at helping it to clear a US$10 billion external debt — by among other things rationalising the civil service — so that it becomes eligible for critical loans and lines of credit.
Many companies in the country have closed shop owing to the hostile operating environment, while many continue to downsize in order to remain afloat, thus depriving government of much-needed revenue in corporate and income taxes.
In January, government missed its revenue target of US$278 million by US$12 million.
Other than the huge wage bill, Zimbabwe’s government, comprising of 26 cabinet ministers, 24 deputies, three ministers of state, 10 provincial ministers of state, 275 legislators and 80 senators, is already severely burdening Treasury and the inclusion of decentralised structures such as provincial councils will add to ballooning costs.
The Zanu PF government has splurged millions on the upkeep of ministers, senior government officials and security sector bosses in gratitude for ensuring Zanu PF returns to power, at a time the country is gripped by a severe liquidity crunch.
Political analyst Dr Ibbo Mandaza said although finances may be a factor, Zanu PF may also be reluctant to ensure there is devolution.
He said the two MDC parties, which pushed for devolution during the constitution-making exercise, had not done enough to push for implementation other than Nkomo’s court application, hence the lack of action on the part of government.
“The old habits of Zanu PF may be at play. They are comfortable with the provincial governorship type of government. There has also been an oversight deficit on the part of the MDC formations. They should be fighting for it very hard in parliament, but we have not seen anything of that sort, other than the court action,” Mandaza said.
Bulawayo-based political analyst Dumisani Nkomo said the major reason why devolution has not been realised was because of a “lack of political will” on the part of Zanu PF. He concurred with Mandaza that the parties which advocated devolution need to push more for its implementation in parliament, and also in public to ensure devolution sees the light of day.
“Zanu PF has been uncomfortable with devolution from the beginning. They think they would be ceding power because they would not control all the local authorities and provincial councils especially in Bulawayo and Harare,” he said.
“This is despite that it is proven best practice in public administration and economic development. At best, Zanu PF will ensure there is a diluted form of devolution, so the Provincial Councils Act is likely to be very mild to ensure they remain in control of all the provinces.”
Given the strong resistance by Zanu PF to devolution during the constitution-making process, analysts say it would be unrealistic to expect Zanu PF to implement the provision without a robust and sustained push; and the lack of resources could be the convenient excuse for government to drag its feet on the matter.