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National institutions: To strengthen or re-orient?

THE following is an edited version of Zapu leader Dumiso Dabengwa’s presentation on strengthening national institutions at the International Conference on Zimbabwe last week which was organised by the Sapes Trust and National Endowment for Democracy.

Dumiso Dabengwa

I find it interesting that we are interrogating “strengthening” rather than “re-orienting” national institutions. The assumption is that one of the major problems in Zimbabwe today is weakness of institutions rather than a sense of direction in these institutions. However, it is worth considering that:

Strength is not synonymous with clarity of purpose and commitment to a democratic agenda.

Some of the most repressive regimes have or had very strong institutions committed to the status quo. The Nazis and the apartheid state in South Africa survived and thrived on efficient organs of oppression.

While strong institutions are important, what are even more important are the values that they seek to protect and promote.

It is not explicitly stated that democratisation will lead to re-engagement and how, but it would be interesting to explore if there is any automatic link between the two processes.

This year when we think about strengthening national institutions, many people in the country will quickly focus on parastatal institutions and the so-called Salarygate scandal. This is because the rot that reminds us of our politically-charged Willowgate scandal soon after Independence.

In the Salarygate scandal, huge salaries were paid to executives while workers were receiving little or no pay. The salaries paid to the heads of these public institutions were in many instances above those of in the private sector.

Furthermore, the services provided by most of the affected institutions has declined tremendously to the detriment of the general public.

The new constitution of Zimbabwe that came into force last year has addressed the range of public institutions essential for good governance.

These include themes such as administration of justice, public administration, free and fair elections, human rights, corruption prevention, gender equity and equality, freedom and access to information, conflict resolution through peace and reconciliation, and development processes including productive use and control of natural resources such as land and minerals.

In other words, there is ample scope already for professional management and public participation in the running of key areas of national life. Furthermore, the constitution also spells out in Chapter 9 the principles of public administration and leadership, but even the practice that prevailed before is in line with these principles.

So what needs to be done, why and how, to strengthen national institutions?

The manifestation of institutional decay in Zimbabwe this year through Salarygate revelations saw the public voice concerns about the need to rein in the exorbitant salaries, if not to recover what was viewed as stolen money.

While there was general appreciation for the exposure by the press, there is public cynicism on how much corrective punishment would be administered.

The underlying reason why the scandalous salaries were awarded in the first place is the erosion of political oversight from the ministries to cabinet that should have scrutinised the award of salaries and benefits to respective boards.

In this case therefore, the “strengthening” of the affected institutions is simply the restoration of political oversight and accountability. Parliamentary and executive censure should have been the minimum, followed by the drastic rolling of heads responsible at all levels if any contracts were not properly scrutinised.

Now that the dust is settling following the 2013 general elections, there is need for a co-ordinated internal review of the workings of government institutions. This is because four years of the three-legged Government of National Unity of Zanu PF and the two MDC formations worsened problems of weak accountability.

A startling example is that Treasury was broke when the country was producing and selling diamonds in a shady and opaque manner. That points to unproductive competition between and among political parties that prevailed in the management of portfolios and politicised government operations.

Pressure must be put on elected representatives to take their roles seriously. There are signs that some MPs across the spectrum are prepared to take on the executive arm of government on matters of public interest.

This should be encouraged; members of the public must engage their legislators to take up issues for action and redress.

What is needed is for legislators to go beyond raising issues to pass the necessary motions.

Opposition and independent MPs have to play their role of suggesting alternative policies, not just to score points, but to indicate directions that contribute to national progress and a better future.

Civil society, non-parliamentary parties, the media and faith communities all have a part to play in promoting a people-centred approach among legislators, and the implementing organs of government.

That does not have to wait for the 2018 elections and four years of rhetoric and defence of failing policies. Now that the ruling party has a commanding majority in parliament and full control of the executive, there are fewer scapegoats for poor governance and for discord between ministerial portfolios.

Recruitment is underway for the independent commissions set up under the new constitution. Nominations of suitable candidates must be encouraged from the public. These commissions must also be well-resourced for their functions. In the case of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the 2013 chaos that marred the compiling and management of the voters’ roll by the Registrar-General’s Office, which opposition parties say affected the election results, should not be repeated.

In the long-term, there is unfinished business in the implementation of the letter and spirit of constitutional provisions such as the devolution of power to the provinces. The bar was set very low (“not less than 5% of national revenue” for the allocation of funds for all operations of provincial and local government in Chapter 17 of the constitution).

Far from the cautionary preamble of Chapter 14 that starts with “prevention of all forms of disunity and secessionism”, such a centrist allocation of resources is a recipe for division and discontent because of regional imbalance, history of marginalisation and underdevelopment of some areas.

The essence of a recipe is that a small variation in ingredients can make a big difference, but an unchanged recipe is almost certain to produce the same product (in this case a time bomb of inequality that breeds migration of unemployed young men and women to neighbouring countries or hanging around without prospects for productive employment as firms close shop).

We have made strides in constitutional reform. In Zapu’s view, the country needs to address the issue of “winner-takes-all” in elections.

The seats allocated to women on the basis of votes cast for parties and also the senatorial seats on the same basis constitute important advances. However, this needs to be followed by a system of proportional representation in parliament so that significant opinion does not disappear from decision-making because of the “minority” status.

A tyranny of “majority” protectionism is what leads parts of countries to agitate for a situation where their interests and needs are not managed remotely.

Zimbabwe needs to anticipate and avoid such a fate through some form of proportional representation and dilution of a monolithic centre.

But what should be the outcome of strengthening institutions?

Strengthening of institutions should start from restoration of the values they are meant to protect and promote. In answering the question “what should Zimbabwe look like after institutions have been strengthened?”, I would say:

The general public must regain respect for cleaned institutions because they would be able to operate in the public interest without depending on political patronage.

There must be predictability or consistency in decision-making. All clients or beneficiaries of public institutions must expect and receive the same treatment and services they are entitled to, regardless of ethnic, racial or other distinction.

Enforcement of legal obligations and codes of professional conduct must become routine. Zimbabwe must be a reliable partner for those it seeks to do business with. In this respect, both local and foreign potential investors must be assured of a level playing field where there is no “greasing” of gate-keepers in awarding of contracts.

Decision-makers must have sound professional and technical advice given by individuals and units chosen on merit and criteria and due process.

Zimbabwe has an incredible range of resources, qualified people and a good work ethic. The key for commensurate success is political commitment and restoration of the values of the liberation struggle, namely the supremacy of our people’s collective interests over political formations and individual interests.

Dabengwa is leader of Zapu and former Zanu PF politburo member and cabinet minister.

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