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When citizens get hold of their power

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By Wanangwa Tembo:

KALAWA — They become vigilant

It is a Wednesday and Edingeni is abuzz with market-day activities. Vendors from far and wide, some from neighbouring Zambia, have thronged Inkosi M’mbelwa’s headquarters in Mzimba South West to sell their merchandise.

Shoppers also make their way to the trading centre to complete the exchange equation.

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In some nearby schools, teachers have left pupils unattended to, rushing to the market as vendors and shoppers. It is a familiar act among public officers who abandon their ‘offices’ for the market.

Elsewhere at Mponje Primary School, imbibers are dancing to music as they gulp down their throats local brews a few metres from the school. The fun is disturbing the teaching and learning process.

That was the case a few weeks ago.

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“The chaos looked normal to many people around here until we established Edingeni Citizen Forum through which we have put an end to the conduct,” says the forum’s chairperson Bina Sakala.

Sakala was speaking during a media and community interface meeting which National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust organised to appreciate the community’s involvement and participation in activities in the post-election era.

“Actually, our forum was established in response to the many anti-social issues that were taking place here affecting,” Sakala says.

Established in 2013, Edingeni Citizen Forum is one of the many community accountability forums established and trained by Nice Trust to push duty-bearers so that they can provide answers to service delivery queries.

In that regard, members of the forums have been trained in issues of transparency, account ability, budget tracking, human rights, conflict management and sanitation, among others.

Among the many functions and responsibilities, citizen forums monitor community projects that are funded with public resources, checking on service delivery by duty-bearers in public institutions and largely leading the communities in demanding quality social services.

Before the establishment of the citizen forum, members of the community were grappling with issues of poor service delivery by public workers such as teachers and health personnel, Sakala reckons.

“Teachers could abandon classes during market days to sell their produce or buy merchandise. Our children were being denied their right to quality education,” he says.

He adds that the forum has managed to put to an end the habit of imbibers disturbing classes at Mponje Primary School.

According to Sakala, community members do not hesitate to bring to the forum any issue which bothers them.

“For example, it is common in the public service to transfer people that do not serve the community well. For us, we feel that is not a good approach. It is like transferring problems. So we make sure we summon such negligent officers and remind them about their duty,” he says.

Nice Civic Education Officer for the north Vincent Kalawa believes that investing more resources in training citizen forums can help change the face of communities in various dimensions.

“Citizen forums are generally community auditing mechanisms. They are community-based governance watchdogs that ensure that there is justice taking place in communities. They follow up on issues where they feel that the community will be denied justice.

“These structures are also forums where community members mobilise around specific issues of concern and engage with duty bearers. The forums have become centres of hope for deepening citizens’ voices,” Kalawa says.

He adds that the forums have given people access to government officials, often for the first time.

“Using well facilitated interface meetings and citizen forum initiatives, communities are becoming more vigilant to summon duty-bearers to give information on projects and issues affecting them,” he says.

In Edingeni, the forum has also helped in ensuring that there is transparency and accountability in the spending of public funds such as school improvement grants (SIGs).

However, economic decentralisation has also resulted in creating more windows for siphoning public resources such as SIG and constituency development fund, hence the need for a vigilant community that stands against such abuse.

Victor Chipeta, a paralegal attached to the Catholic Centre for Justice and Peace and a member of the citizen forum, says the community is now vigilant against elements of injustice and negligence by those entrusted to provide public services.

“If communities are empowered, they become vigilant against elements of injustices that encroach on their rights in all sectors of life. It is only when that happens that we can realise development in the country,” Kalawa says.

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