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Battle over assets

Hadrod Mkandawire

They call themselves landlords. That is what the law provides. The assets are in their jurisdictions.

But local councils have no power over those assets. Capitol Hill has the ownership papers and it is the one in control of the assets.

This is a case study of a dragged decentralisation process.

Nearly 25 years after Parliament passed the Local Government Act which enshrined the decentralisation policy, Capitol Hill is yet to relinquish its powers on over 200 infrastructure assets which, by law, belong to the councils.

Over the past 10 years, the local councils have been pressing the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development to transfer the ownership of these assets to the district councils, municipalities and city councils. There has been no progress.

Some of the structures whose title deeds the ministry still keeps include hospitals, council offices, town halls, council houses and Teacher Development Centres.

Now, some District Commissioners who The Sunday Times has spoken with think that their mother ministry is clinging to the properties because officials there do not want to lose control of the resources used in rehabilitation of the assets.

One of the District Commissioners from the North gave an example of a health facilities’ rehabilitation project which has for a number of years been allocated funds through the National Local Government Finance Committee (NLGFC).

But the project has never been implemented, a development which the source said creates room for suspicion of fraud.

This year the project is pegged at K4 billion budget and it is being implemented through the NLGFC. Beneficiary councils were asked to partly shoulder administrative costs but they protested.

“We are in possession of these assets. We are the landlords. But that carries no weight because all the documentation lies in Lilongwe,” a DC said.

Executive Director for the Malawi Local Government Association (Malga) Hadrod Mkandawire said each year, councils get audit queries on matters related to ownership of the properties. But because they do not have papers to prove ownership, they do not get unqualified audit reports which leaves them with a bad name.

He urged the government to come up with a timeframe as to when the process of handing over ownership of the assets will be completed so that councils can fully utilise the authority they are provided with by law.

“We cannot continue waiting forever and I don’t understand why we are not having a definite time frame for the exercise; it’s a straightforward process,” Mkandawire said.

Principal Secretary for the Ministry of Local Government James Chiusiwa said the ministry is still developing guidelines for the assets’ devolution.

He said there is need for discussions with the Ministry of Finance on the matter before they handover the title deeds to the local governments.

And there is no timeframe for the process, he added— meaning the councils can expect to wait eternally.

“Once we finalize, councils will be in control of these assets, which means that even their maintenance which is currently done at central level will be their responsibility,” Chiusiwa said.

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