Devolution Must Enhance Citizen Participation
2 October 2020

By Lloyd Mupfudze- The objective of devolution of power to local government and the constitutionalising of local governance is to establish a government that is close to the people. section 264 and sub-section (a) states:

“The objectives of the devolution of governmental powers and responsibilities to provincial and metropolitan councils and local authorities are to give powers of local governance to the people and enhance their participation in the exercise of the powers of the State and in making decisions affecting them”.

Sub-section (b) provides for the promotion of a democratic, effective, transparent, accountable and coherent Government in Zimbabwe.

The purpose of devolution is to promote citizen participation in order to improve transparency, accountability and inclusiveness in devolved governance, and that should be made possible by the engagement of citizens with local authorities.

The relationship between local authorities and their citizens is centred on service delivery. In some cases, citizens have endured poor service delivery by the duty bearers. This has necessitated the mobilisation of citizens to demand better services or to provide services themselves.

In the majority of our local authorities, service delivery has deteriorated significantly and that participation in local governance is directly related to service delivery levels.

 The current national economic crisis is the major reason for the decline in service delivery. Residents believe that, misuse or abuse of financial and material resources, corruption and lack of consultation and responsiveness on the part of local authorities are the main reasons why service delivery is declining.

Councils cite rising cost of services, non-payment of service charges by the citizens and aging infrastructure as the main reasons for not meeting service delivery expectations. Poor service delivery poses a serious challenge to the relationship between rights holders and duty bearers.

Citizens can participate through their elected councillors, and they are able to express their views, concerning the development and administration of their areas. The Local government laws require every councillor to consult or have meetings with citizens to provide feedback on decisions made at council meetings and to listen to their views on local needs for presentation to council.

The relationship between citizens and local authorities is affected by the politicisation of civic issues. Meetings called upon by councillors are organised along political party lines, which detracts those who are not inclined to the councillor’s political party. Political polarisation and partisanship are affecting

participation and service delivery. Councillors are political party activists and are subject to the whipping system in their political parties and hence often distance themselves from issues that affect local communities.

Councillors are supposed to be in control of council business and responsible for agenda setting. They are the decision-makers on major council policies, programmes and projects. However, relations between councillors and council officials are unbalanced and tend to favour officials.

In most cases, council officials are more educated, knowledgeable and experienced in local government matters than the councillors. Councillors are usually intimidated by and subordinate to council officials, especially during deliberation in meetings of council business.

Council meetings have become mere platforms for councillors to rubber stamp management decisions. Councillors also wait to be briefed on council business and procedures by council Officials.

In actual fact, officials are responsible for building the capacity of councillors in articulating issues of concern to residents. Council officials control council resources and, in most cases, councillors depend on those resources in the performance of the duties. Issues raised by citizens that are unfavourable to council officials end up fizzling out.

This is clearly a huge challenge in relation to citizen participation, accountability and good local governance and an issue that could be taken up and addressed by local civil society organisations (CSOs) especially residents’ associations.

Citizen participation is a key factor in determining the success of the devolution agenda. Local authorities should develop mechanisms and systems that ensure they are responsive and accountable to the needs of members of the public.

The devolved government structures should be clearly linked with the public to enhance Citizen participation in the governance processes. Successful implementation of devolution requires strengthening accountability of local governments towards citizens.