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Gains and losses in two years of local governance

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The May 2014 elections gave Malawians a chance to elect local government representatives to fill 457 wards spread across the country, after at least nine years of councils operating without councillors. Five more wards were filled through by-elections a few months after the historic tripartite polls.

From 2005 to May 2014, the country’s local government has been operating at ‘half-mast’ owing to the lack of councillors as required in a democratic dispensation.

With councillors back in councils, it meant a government coming closer to the people; a government that will be more responsive, accountable and transparent. Additionally, unlike centralised systems, decentralisation creates a huge number of political positions and enables many more elements of the communities to participate in civic life – thus integrating society and the state which in turn results in improvements in quantity, speed and quality of service delivery.

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Among other duties, councillors ensure that public resources are being spent according to agreed plans and within the law and ensure that policies continue to serve the community interests. Their roles also include facilitating development work within wards and making council by-laws.

This means councillors are very critical to local development in a democratic dispensation as they represent a voice of local people through their elected status. This is why, the National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust went helter-skelter providing civic education on the roles of councillors soon after the elections. The civic education campaigns are ongoing.

Two years down the line, players in the local democratic governance give mixed views on whether or not there have been meaningful gains regarding the entrenchment of local democratic governance in the country with the councillors’ presence in the communities.

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“So far, we cannot make any meaningful assessment on whether the councillors have delivered or not. Rather what has been clear is the competition for political space between them and the Members of Parliament (MPs). This, in my view, has greatly dragged the performance on the ground,” says Chrispin Mphande, a local governance analyst based at Mzuzu University’s History Department.

“Again, so far it is not clear if there has been any direct benefit for the local communities. However, their [councillors’] presence in community gatherings has been felt in some instances; their presence in local gatherings has made a difference. In Mzuzu, for example, during the floods in Masasa and some parts of the city, councillors worked hand in hand with city authorities to assist the victims. The only unfortunate part was that [relief exercise] was politicised.

“Not many gains have been noted. However, one of the challenges is their working conditions. Most of the promises have not been fulfilled. They were promised motorcycles to ease their mobility, two years down the line, it has not been implemented. Only councillors close to the boma attend council meetings,” Mphande says.

Mphande’s views differ with those of Traditional Authority (T/A) Kampingo Sibande of Mzimba who says the presence of councillors has greatly assisted in providing the link between the electorate and the political leadership.

“It cannot be disputed that councillors are easily accessible than MPs. At least the people have someone nearby to link them to the authorities regarding various community needs. The only challenge is that our councillors lack means of transport and the challenge comes in because the wards are very big. Mobility is a big challenge for most of them,” he says.

“There have been also remarkable improvements in terms of transparency and accountability of funds channelled through the councils. For example, there is more transparency in the usage of Constituency Development Fund (CDF) with councillors around. Through various committees that councillors belong to, we are able to get feedback on various issues that are being done at council level,” the T/A says.

Adding: “On whether councillors are performing or not, it depends on the levels of one’s understanding about the roles of councillors and MPs. For instance, when an MP comes to distribute iron sheets procured through CDF, one may not understand the role the councillor played in the whole process.

Those who understand things better appreciate that councillors are doing their best.”

He, however, points out that issues of qualifications of councillors should be looked into.

“There are instances where a councillor is not able to understand the issues being discussed in his/her committee let alone make any contribution owing to their education background. As we go on, such things should be looked into.”

According to the T/A, another success indicator is that this time members of the community find it very easy to summon MPs and councillors to interface meetings which he says was not common in the previous years.

“It may still be a problem in some constituencies or wards but here [Mzimba East] it is happening. That is an indication that people understand the roles of their political leaders and also their rights. We are making steady progress in as far as local governance is concerned,” he says.

“Previously, there used to be misunderstandings between MPs and councillors, especially on the management or handling of CDF. This time such things are not common meaning that there is an understanding of each other’s roles and responsibility. By and by we will get there. In wards where councillors are in good terms with their MP, things work and that should be the spirit everywhere.”

Kephass Chisi is a ward councillor for Manyamula Ward in Mzimba Solola Constituency. According to her, the electorate recognises the roles of councillors in that they are able to summon them to interface gatherings and development committee meetings.

She says councillors are critical in providing guidance in area development meetings on the protocols of councils regarding disbursement or allocation of funds and projects.

“In some wards, the bone of contention between councillors and MPs is the management of CDF funds. But I have realised that where there is a good rapport between the MP and the councillor, you work together. Like in my ward, we are able to work together with the MP. There is no need for competition. Even the people understand as to who does what. It works,” she says.

She observes that misunderstandings between councillors and MPs were still there because of the former’s role of providing checks and balances.

“When we query some issues, we are regarded as trouble-makers. That is not the case. The nine-year break without councillors in councils is still haunting us as a nation. Some MPs still look down on councillors and think we have no business to questioning how some transactions and decisions are made.”

She, however, laments on government’s delays to give out loans for motorcycles, saying the transport woes were frustrating.

“To be honest with you, I struggle; real struggle. My ward has 38 polling centres, meaning it is very big. How do I operate without transport? The issue of transport is clearly indicated in our conditions of service. Sometimes we wonder if government is ready to work with councillors. There is more talk but very little is implemented.

“The people understand the roles of councillors and MPs very well. That is why they are able to summon us to attend interface meeting. We also discuss issues with them in VDCs and ADCs. However, Nice should not just provide civic education to the communities; it should also help to talk to government on the things that are affecting us to do our duties as required,” Chisi says.

Deputy Mayor for Mzuzu City Council, Fraser Chunga, describes the past 24 months to have been good and eventful.

“We worked very hard. Challenges are there. We have very limited resources. The money we generate at council level and that which we get from the government is not enough. On our own we try to write proposals to NGOs (non-governmental organisations) to work in our wards but they have not been forthcoming. However, the people in the wards very much recognise our presence and we work with them accordingly,” he says.

Chunga also adds his frustrations on lack of transport for the local representatives 24 months after they were ushered into office while their counterparts in Parliament are enjoying hefty benefits and loans.

“Here in town we are lucky because there are bicycles. We just jump on them. Transport is very important. Our colleagues whose wards are in the outskirts face a lot of problems.”

Commenting on the ubiquitous conflicts between MPs and councillors in councils, Chunga says he enjoys a good working relationship with the MP.

“The problem with our council is that we have only one MP and there are 15 councillors. Everyone wants the CDF funds to benefit his ward and the money may not be enough. Going forward, I would like to request MPs through Parliament to consider allocating some funds directly to a ward, say ward development fund. It will make a big difference.

“Let me take this opportunity to thank the government and the President for the money that was allocated to upgrade roads. As you can see, the roads are being upgraded to tarmac with the K1.4 billion that we were given. If this can continue, our towns will be heavily transformed,” Chunga says.

In its assessment, Nice says there has been steady progress in local democratic governance.

Regional Civic Education Officer for the North, Vincent Kalawa, says Nice has tremendously helped in the processes of ensuring that the power should be with the people as required in a democracy.

“Let us be honest, for the first time, the communities are able to summon their elected leadership to question them on the promises made during campaigns. Not only is that, duty bearers are also summoned to interface meetings where communities demand services and accountability as rights holders.

“In the past, leaders like MPs were very far from the people. Now things have changed. Both MPs and councillors are very close to the people. That is what Nice has facilitated. We have taught people the roles of councillors, MPs and chiefs so that they should not demand things that are outside the leaders’ responsibilities. We have made the communities understand that an MP is not a social worker.

“It is unfair to the MPs or councillors asking them to buy coffins for example. We have heard stories of MPs failing to go and interact with their people. They may not be the problem. The problem may be with the communities because they chase the MPs away by demanding things that are not their responsibility. As Nice, we have immensely helped to change that mindset,” he says.

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