Devolution is the transfer or delegation of power to a lower level, especially by central government to local or regional administration. It is a form of administrative decentralization. Devolved territories have the power to make legislation relevant to the area and thus granting them a higher level of autonomy.
In a unitary state like Zimbabwe, devolution or decentralisation of power engenders the improvement of effectiveness and efficiency in governance as well as in the delivery of public services. Decentralisation entails the reduction of bureaucracy and the broadening of democratic space. It entails empowering stakeholders and communities to actively and effectively participate in decision-making on issues that affect them. As such it is widely courted as a means of enhancing good governance, which also fosters economic development general improvement in the living conditions and standards of communities’.
Lamentably, in spite of the constitutionalisation of devolution, it is yet to be implemented, more than five years after the establishment of the constitution, owing mainly to lack of political will, political conflict and weaknesses in the constitutional provisions themselves.
Devolution is about how parliaments and governments make decisions. In Zimbabwe, the debate on devolution has been intense and contentious, spanning the country’s nearly four decades of independence from British colonial rule. The current Zimbabwean constitution, which came into being 2013 provides for devolution of powers of government from central government to provincial, metropolitan and local authorities. Prior to this constitution, devolution was just a creature of statutes and power was predominantly centralised. In the UK it means that there are separate legislatures and executives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They have many powers to make laws and deliver public services. These are often called devolved powers. There is also the UK Parliament and UK Government. They retain some powers across the whole of the UK. These are often called reserved powers.
Why do we have it?
Devolution means that decision making moves closer to the citizen and is more democratic. Devolution is not new. There have been different forms of devolution in the UK for decades and it is common in other parts of the world.
The current form of devolution in the UK goes back to the late 1990s. In 1997 voters chose to create a Scottish Parliament and a National Assembly for Wales. In Northern Ireland devolution was a key element of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and was supported in a referendum in 1998. The UK Government has also developed decentralisation in England. This is through the transfer of powers, budgets and responsibilities to mayors and through city deals.
Its background in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe’s devolution programme is largely founded on the principle of empowering provincial government councils to spearhead economic and social development projects in their areas by leveraging on local resources. The emphasis is on economic development and not political power, which remains in the hands of central government, under the country’s unitary state structure.
Devolution was adopted as a key component of the new Constitution of Zimbabwe of 2013 and is recognized as one of the Founding Values and Principles to the Constitution. Chapter 14 of the 2013 Constitution provides for provincial and local governments. It is the only Chapter of the Constitution that has a preamble of its own. The preamble reads:
Whereas it is desirable to ensure: (a) the preservation of national unity in Zimbabwe and the prevention of all forms of disunity and secessionism; (b) the democratic participation in government by all citizens and communities of Zimbabwe; and (c) the equitable allocation of national resources and the participation of local communities in the determination of development priorities within their areas; there must be devolution of power and responsibilities to lower tiers of government in Zimbabwe.
Devolution was seen as a necessary vehicle for doing away with the over-centralized system of government, for deepening democracy, promoting locally driven development, improving the delivery of public services, and promoting national integration and peace while recognizing diversity.
However, apparently there has been dithering and hesitation by the government in implementing these provisions of the Constitution. It has come to be seen that the dynamics on the ground have tended to negate the intention set out in section 264 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, while not looking at how devolution can enhance good governance, if properly and wholeheartedly implemented by the government.
Why devolution has not been implemented in Zimbabwe
The 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe grants local government constitutional status. It, thus, provides for the sector not to operate in a delegated capacity that is largely dependent on central government as was the case under previous institutional arrangements, where the local government mandate, though enshrined in law, was vulnerable to variation and continued threat of re-assignment by central government.
Section 264 broadly provides for good governance characterised by participation of the citizenry in decision-making, devolution of power and responsibility from central government to local levels, democracy, transparency, accountability, peace and unity, promotion of rights of communities, and development of communities, anchored on equitable sharing of national and local resources. The provisions in this section, thus provide an important bedrock for good governance premised on democracy, popular participation, economic empowerment and equitable distribution of resources. It also provides for effective coordination of activities at both the national and local level.
Notwithstanding the virtues of the provisions of this section, it is weak in its articulation of the obligation of the state to ensure that devolution is implemented, as it does not prescribe a timeframe within which the state should implement devolution. In addition, the fact that this section of the constitution compels the state to devolve power to provincial and local levels whenever appropriate dilutes the power of the constitution to ensure that the state indeed executes the obligation. The term appropriate is vague in this context as what is deemed appropriate can be subjective or controversial and can, therefore, be contestable.
Owing to the vagueness of the term, the government can avoid devolution to further its own political interests by simply arguing that devolution is not appropriate in a given situation. The government may find it expedient to avoid devolution in order to limit democratic space, thereby enhancing and perpetuating its political dominance. This is highly likely in a tightly contested and polarised political space like the one currently obtaining in Zimbabwe. In fact, during the constitution-making process, which was spearheaded by the two major political parties in government then, Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu PF) and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), ZANU PF made it clear that it was opposed to devolution ostensibly because it undermined its stranglehold on power.
The existing constitutional provisions makes it extremely difficult for citizens, civil society and political parties to hold the government to account in terms of implementing devolution, as they do not clearly oblige the government to do so. This could explain why there is a prolonged delay in implementing devolution in spite of its constitutionalisation.
Moreover, Section 264 states that governmental powers and responsibilities must be devolved to provincial and metropolitan councils and local authorities, which are competent to carry out those responsibilities efficiently and effectively. The decision to devolve power and responsibility to a local authority is conditioned on the relevant authority’s competence to carry out the responsibilities efficiently and effectively. Again, whether a local authority is competent or incompetent can also be subjective as the section does not stipulate any yardstick that can be used to determine competence or lack thereof. This clause can also be used by the government as a pretext for not implementing devolution in order to deny citizens and political parties democratic space. The section, thus, has fundamental loopholes as it does not sufficiently oblige the state to devolve power to local levels of government.
Legal challenges on delays in implementing devolution
Paul Siwela, a member of a Matabeleland based pseudo-political outfit known as Mthwakazi, lodged a Constitutional Court challenge in 2014, demanding the implementation of devolution, which attests to the fact that the government is appropriately perceived as being reluctant or unwilling to implement devolution. Some scholars contend that the slow pace at which the implementation of devolution has taken place is attributable to lack of political will to implement the constitutional provision on devolution, culminating in court challenges by people of the western region of Matabeleland.
Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, a fickle and capricious opposition politician who recently resigned from active politics, also challenged the government in the Constitutional Court in 2015, claiming that the implementation of the constitutional provision on devolution was overdue and should be activated forthwith. In his court papers, Sipepa Nkomo, lamented the delay and a lack of political will to implement the provisions of the constitution on devolution.
Presenting the 2018 national budget, Patrick Chinamasa, the then Finance Minister, urged parliament to scrap devolution, contending that it was a burden to the fiscus. He argued that the funding of provincial and metropolitan structures, as set out in Chapter 14 of the Constitution, was not sustainable and political parties represented in parliament should consider amending the Constitution to lessen the burden on the fiscus. This aptly dramatizes the government’s reluctance to implement devolution. It starkly demonstrates lack of political will and shows how the government has generally failed to comply with the dictates and provisions of Section 264.
With the coming of a new government, under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, which has ushered in what it claims to be a new dispensation, whose main thrust is ostensibly to open Zimbabwe to business and to strengthen democracy and good governance, hopes of seeing the implementation of devolution were rekindled. However, after several months of President Mnangagwa’s rule, very little has been done in terms of taking tangible steps towards implementation of devolution. On the 4th of August 2018 President Emmerson Mnangagwa appointed 10-member provincial councils in eight of the country’s provinces. However, his sincerity in implementing devolution is still to be seen. The appointments need to be followed by concrete steps to devolve power and responsibilities to the councils.
Government's Devolution Priorities and Budget
Government will in the next five years from 2020 focus on six deliverables to transform infrastructure development and service delivery as part of implementing the devolution programme, which is key to achieving Vision 2030. The key pillars — electricity, education, water and sanitation, transport, health and public amenities will be implemented by 92 councils using devolution funds from central Government.
Treasury allocated $2,9 billion in 2020 for devolution but some of the funds were yet to be disbursed and government said it was due to challenges related to the Coronavirus pandemic. Local Government and Public Works Minister July Moyo said Government will continue to increase funding for devolution to meet the six deliverables.
“From the amount that was allocated for devolution, only about 10 percent will go towards administration. The rest should go to construction and infrastructure projects that we have prioritised under these six sectors. When the budget increases next year, I can assure you that the local authorities will have up to $15 or $20 billion for devolution in the coming years.” In the 2021 budget the treasury allocated $19,5 billion.
Minister Moyo said he has directed all local authorities to put more money towards construction projects.
“It is now a requirement that when I approve budgets, a certain amount is reserved for construction. I have told every local authority that we cannot approve a budget for consumption. We cannot have an upper middle income country where people have dilapidated water and sewage systems. We have hired consultants to look at every local authority’s infrastructure systems.”
An update on devolution projects availed by the Ministry of Local Government, Public Works, and National Housing illustrated the progress of various developmental projects in all 10 provinces.