ZAMBIA: Let Local Councils Decide

  • by Lewis Mwanangombe (lusaka)
  • Thursday, January 28, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Choolwe lives in Mankandya village in the Monze district of southern Zambia, a district without a strong river.

Her village does not have a borehole and, despite having a local council, they have to wait for approval from national government before they can get one.

Until then Choolwe and other women of this dry district have to remain careful when approaching this waterhole, as it is not only a lifeline for people and the cattle of surrounding villages, but also for thirsty wild animals such as hyenas, lions and the more deadly leopard.

In Kandiana village in western Zambia, Bernadette Mulima is troubled by the unprotected, shallow well under a mango tree on the edge of the Barotse Flood Plain. It is constantly overflowing onto the little embankment she and others in the village built to keep out dogs, frogs, millipedes and cats.

Due to climate change the Barotse Flood Plain is now waterlogged for nearly eight months of the year, instead of the five previously, and the abundance of water has resulted in the well being used by domestic animals such as dogs and cats as well as people. This village is also in need of a borehole and, just like the people of Mankandya, they have to wait for national government to approve one.

Without knowing it the two women are faced with the same problem: they are both victims of climate change.

But most importantly they are also victims of the over-concentration of administrative power and resources in Lusaka, where the national budget is formulated, adopted as a national instrument, and shared to the detriment of the majority who live in rural areas, and whose problems are far removed from the bureaucrats in Lusaka.

For more than 45 years successive Zambian governments have declared their preparedness to cede administrative power to rural people under decentralisation policies. But neither Kenneth Kaunda, the first president, nor those that followed him have been able to give real power to the people.

'If only the government can give us a borehole, then we would be relieved of this agony of sharing water with dangerous wild animals,' Choolwe observes.

Mulima of Mongu is not so charitable. She points an accusing finger at her councillor. 'There are so many surprising things in our lifetime. But we know that our troubles would be cut in half if only this man they call councillor was hard working.' She spits to the side with disgust. In her opinion the councillor is a let-down.

She does not see that the councillor is merely a figurehead and a shadow of a leader, as his power has been taken away by Lusaka, where newly graduated technocrats hold powerful government office. They decide the fate of rural councils, and it is they who decide where a borehole should be sunk or a community market built, and by whom.

Even the national budget is a product of technocrats, and the Zambian Parliament, despite the pomp and splendour of official opening ceremonies, is nothing more than a rubber stamp whose well-meaning proclamations and heated debates have no bearing on how the money is spent.

It is for this reason that the cries of rural folk like Choolwe and Mulima have struck a chord with the nations giving development money to poor countries like Zambia, as well as with civil society organisations.

Wateraid, a civil society organisation, is helping some dry areas of Southern Province get boreholes fitted with handpumps. Germany too, through its development arm the German Technical Cooperation bureau or GTZ, is helping rural areas acquire boreholes with handpumps.

'Our challenge is to have people participate in the development process. If people can directly participate in matters that affect them at local level, then development will be meaningful to all of us,' observes Eddie Mumba, council secretary of Chongwe Council on the outskirts of Lusaka.

Mumba sees decentralisation, or devolution of power from Lusaka to the periphery, as the key by which Zambia can unlock the conundrum of development, and begin to tackle poverty and meet development targets.

He argues that when Zambia is fully decentralised, with more powers given to local councils, people at local level will then say what they want and what is relevant to them. This would promote good governance.

Elof Hangoma, administrative secretary at Mazabuka District Council in southern Zambia, agrees and points out that people know their own priorities best. If they are allowed by the central government to decide on projects they will own them, and give them more enduring characteristics.

'Decentralisation, when it comes, will allow them to plan effectively,' Hangoma said.

Sanana Mbikusita-Lewanika, of the civil society organisation Caritas,in Mongu, is impatient for decentralisation. 'Our people are crying for development. For us in rural areas the process of local government has not served the people well, because for every little decision they have to travel long distances to Lusaka,' she said.

Even within districts themselves, she added, people’s representatives, the councillors, had to travel long distances to the council chamber. Ordinary people wishing to undertake small projects like opening a village butchery had to walk to this far-off council chamber to fill in complicated government forms.

'Even for a very basic request our people will always be required to walk long distances to the boma (administrative centre) to sort out the problem,' she declared.

Former Local Government and Housing minister Sylvia Masebo, who is also member of parliament for the semi-rural constituency of Chongwe, observes that the government of Rupiah Banda, that succeeded that of late President Levy Mwanawasa under whom she served, should work out a ‘clear roadmap’ on decentralisation, because even though Banda has in his time promised to implement it nothing has so far been seen.

Masebo, a lone voice for greater devolution of power, notes that originally the plan for decentralisation was to have been approved this year, and then given to foreign governments to study and approve, since they too would provide money for the scheme. The impatience of Masebo is the agony of Choolwe and Mulima. It costs about 4,000 dollars to sink a borehole and fit it with a handpump. But because both the budget and its implementation are decided in Lusaka, there are no funds for these projects. Yet money for foreign travel by officials, and for by-elections that consolidate the gains of the ruling party, is always available, says Masebo.

The result is that where funds for water and sanitation are provided, or for a rural road, the project money will be given to individuals who know powerful technocrats in Lusaka, and the money will disappear into thin air.

In its work plan for 2002-2010, Wateraid observes that Zambia is already off-track in its ambitious plans of fulfilling the United Nations-declared millennium development goals (MDG) by 2015.

Wateraid estimates that only about 35 million dollars has so far been spent on water and sanitation, which is 19 million dollars short of the U.N.’s MDG target.

As Mulima and Choolwe painfully know, not only water and sanitation are giving them sleepless nights. Other headaches are the chronic lack of school places, severe shortage of medicine in rural clinics, and feeder roads which hardly exist, hindering progress from reaching their villages.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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