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One year with local councillors: An audit

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It is 5pm at Mzimba Boma. Councillor Caphas Chisi is disturbed – perhaps confused and desperate.

She has been attending a local governance debate which has ended later than she envisaged. There is no vehicle around to take her to her base in Manyamula Ward in Mzimba Solora Constituency. All the ‘matola’ trucks that ply the Mzimba-Edingeni road which passes through her village are gone.

And it is getting dark.

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Hara has only one option – to spend a night at the boma and start off the following morning. However, she has no enough money to pay for her accommodation.

And that takes into pondering on the government’s earlier promise that she and her fellows would be given motorcycles for easy mobility. At least this transport heck could not have been an issue.

Such has been the life for most of the local government representatives in the past 12 months in office in all the 35 councils across the country.

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Commentators say this situation threatens local democratic governance in the country.

The country’s local government had been an incomplete equation from 2005 to May 2014 owing to the lack of councillors as demanded by the 1998 Local Government Act which was then amended in 2010.

The May 20 Tripartite Elections provided an opportunity to reverse the anomaly such that now the second tier government is a complete house with councillors in place.

However, the past 12 months have shown that the councillors face a myriad of challenges that threaten the operations of their office and local governance in general.

As overseers in councils, councillors are required to ensure that councils are doing the right things in all aspects of council work by among other things monitoring and evaluating policies, programmes and services; ensuring that public resources are being spent according to agreed plans and within the law and ensuring that policies continue to serve the community interests.

Their roles also include facilitating development work within wards and making council bylaws.

Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) Mzuzu diocesan secretary Arnold Msimuko says councillors need to be provided with an environment that will enable them to do their work without problems.

He says in the 12 months since were elected, the local representatives have already shown potential that they can change things in communities.

“Councillors have shown potential to do their work. But the questions we should be asking are: have they been welcomed in councils? Have they been given tools to work? No. There is resistance by councils to accept councillors. There is need to change systems to create space for councillors to be doing their work without problems.

In Mzuzu, for instance, he notes, all roads in the locations have been graded.

“This has never happened before. This shows our councillors can perform but they need to be supported. They have to be given tools for their work,” says Msimuko in his contribution to a local government debate organised by the National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE) Trust in Mzimba.

Project manager for local governance at Church of Society of the Livingstonia Synod Dr Bonaventure Mkandawire says councillors cannot work properly because they do not have transport to move around within their wards or to attend important gatherings outside their wards.

“Most councillors do not attend meetings where they are invited just because they do not have transport. Government has to blame for this,” says Mkandawire.

He says even the decentralisation policy was poorly crafted saying it is more of a source of conflicts between councillors and Members of Parliament (MPs) than being a guiding tool for local democratic governance.

“There is no clear division of labour between MPs and councillors. Furthermore, there has been little civic education for councillors. What we have seen in some cases is that councillors are being used as chola boys [personal assistants] for MPs. That way, they cannot ably scrutinise the actions of councils, MPs chiefs and government,” says Mkandawire.

He adds:

“If we give tools to an MP, we should do the same to a councillor. Government is serious business.”

MPs, who enjoy a hefty salary and other benefits, have already been given loans in millions of kwachas for vehicles. In contrast, councillors who only get a monthly honorarium with fewer other benefits as compared to the legislators, have yet to receive their motorcycle loans – over a year since they assumed office.

Apart from transport woes, there have also been reports about conflicts between three key council actors – MPs, councillors and the council secretariat staff.

Some MPs also fail to recognise the complementary role of councillors in their constituencies by looking at them as threats to their positions. This sour relationship is exacerbated by the dislike amongst councillors that MPs should be voting in councils.

However, government says the conflicts that have come due to the presence of councillors are not strange “because they were inevitable”.

“We should understand that when the country had no councillors, their roles were taken up by District Commissioners, MPs and chiefs. Now that they are back in the system, it is normal to have elements of resistance. This is a temporary situation that will die naturally,” says Douglas Mkweta, deputy director of local government services in the Ministry of Local Government.

He says government is doing a tremendous job to promote local governance.

“As a ministry we are doing a tremendous job in promoting good local governance. The local government system is engaging with the people in communities because of the presence of councillors who are engaging with the people. People’s views have been deliberated in councils and decisions have been made by councils based on those views. That means things are working.

“We have also developed working tools for the councillors which they are using. In the current budget, government has allocated K6 billion for development activities in councils. On transport, yes it has delayed. But it should be noted that government is engaging the Malawi Local Government Association on the same,” he says.

On its part, civic and voter education institution the National

Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust, which has been pivotal in strengthening democratic processes and good governance in the country, says the performance of councillors in the past 12 months has been promising despite the challenges that have been there.

The institution’s regional civic education officer for the north Vincent Kalawa says communities have been able to engage their councillors accordingly as expected.

“Councillors represent the second-tier government which is closest to the people and is responsible for promoting local democracy and development at local level. Local government authorities are key institutions for deepening democracy and accelerating the delivery of public services at local level.

“And as expected, the communities have been able to engage with their councillors concerning development needs of their area. However, the problem is the environment or the systems that are in place do not give space to a councillor to work properly. For example, the 2010 Local Government Act, the laws governing the constituency development fund (CDF) tend to limit the space for councillors,” says Kalawa.

He said on its part, Nice has provided civic education to the communities so that they understand the roles of MPs and councillors.

As the country inches closer to the next tripartite elections, government needs to rethink how Councillor Chisi will work without frustration.

 

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