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Nothing sinister in calling for devolution


The Random House College Dictionary (Revised Edition) defines devolution as the “transfer of power or authority from central government to local government”. Wikipedia offers a better explanation as it describes the term as “the statutory granting of powers from the central government of a sovereign state to government at sub-national level, such as a region, local, or state level”.
In all honesty, devolution is a simple word that has gained so much power that now the mere mention of it can send quite a number of powerful politicians sweating and choking with anger and uncertainty. It is a word that has slowly crept into our politics, and into one or two political parties’ manifestos. Come election time it will be a slogan.
A couple of civic organisations in Matabeleland have gone to the extent of wielding the word like a weapon. I first came into serious contact with this word during the 1999 constitutional review process that resulted in the draft constitution which was later rejected by a referendum. Yes, the same draft constitution that many analysts have said we should have scrutinised a little further before rejecting it. If we had, the analysts argue, we wouldn’t be going through the same process as we are doing now.
Anyway during the 1999 review the cries for devolution were coming mainly from Matabeleland and the Midlands Provinces. Now, almost a decade later, we are going through another review and as expected the word crops up again. The only difference is that this time the calls for devolution are louder and more persistent. It is also interesting to note that the calls are coming from the same places and probably from the same people as before. Zenzele Ndebele, an activist based in Bulawayo, believes the calls are coming from the same place and from the same people because according to him the people who were marginalised in 1999 are still the same.
“They are the people talking about devolution. Let us not forget that the issue of devolution always comes up whenever the issue of sharing national resources surfaces. There are some regions or provinces that believe they are not having their fair share of the national cake,” he said. The belief is that devolution will give them their own knife to cut the national cake.
It must be crystal clear that devolution is not about Harare and Bulawayo and that it is neither about tribalism. “When we talk about this, people must not think that we are talking about tribalism,” Deputy Prime Minister Thokozani Khupe was once quoted saying in the UK. The debate about devolution of power should be seen in its proper context. It should be seen as an argument about governance and a plea for some form of decentralisation that will allow local communities, in our case regions and local governments, to take charge of development of their areas.
In simple terms it is about empowerment and popular participation. If we understand it from that angle then perhaps the tension, mistrust and uncertainty that jump onto the surface whenever this discussion crops up will evaporate.
It is also important at this stage to point out that some people are calling for devolution purely out of frustration, others because they want to see an improvement in service delivery, and the rest because they genuinely believe it is a better form of democracy – a democracy that allows people at grassroots level to be involved in decision- making and governance issues. People must also be aware that devolution is not the same as federation or cessation and should not be confused for the two. A lot of misunderstanding about the word needs to be cleared before the whole nation can actively participate in this discussion.
As it stands most people think devolution is retrograde, backwards, and anti development. They see it as potentially divisive and destructive to the nation state. Methuseli Moyo, the Zapu spokesperson, in one of his writings tries to clear some of the misconceptions. “Under devolution of power we are not calling for the breaking of the country. We will still have one president, one national flag, one currency and even one national team for sporting events,” he writes. Devolution of power should also be seen as nothing but a vote of no confidence in the current system where everything is centralised in Harare. It is a vote of no confidence for central government, especially the way it has been doing things and responding to issues coming from the provinces and regions outside the capital city.
It is a public secret that the allocation of public resources to the different regions has not been equitable at all. Those advocating for devolution are hoping that local governments, once given the powers to run their own business and use their own resources as they see fit, will then be in a better position to shape their own destiny, especially as resources raised within the provinces or regions will be ploughed back to develop local infrastructure and thus improve the lives of local people. Devolution will also mean easy access to basic services that were only available in the capital.
It unfortunate that whenever the discussion on devolution pops up those advocating for it have been perceived as mischievous elements bent on dividing the nation of Zimbabwe. At worst these have been labeled tribalists whose real agenda is the destabilisation of a unitary state and the resurrection of small states and kingdoms. This accusation is not far from the truth for a few individuals. It is not a secret that there are those with vivid and recurring dreams of the return of the Ndebele Kingdom.
But can we really blame them when for decades they have been calling on central government to be a little more sensitive to their issues – issues of cultural identity, political influence, and the development of the region, and getting nothing but cold shoulders? Those worried about the disintegration of the state can rest assured that with devolution Zimbabwe can still remain de jure. However, our worry as a nation when we debate the issue of devolution should be on:
lHow prepared is the central
government to devolve?
lHow prepared are the provinces
and regions to receive power and
work as institutions?
lWhat are the best methods of de
lIf and when we devolve what pow
ers and responsibilities shall remain
in the hands of central government?
lWhat resources are in the provinces and regions and are these sustainable?
lWhat are the pros and cons of devolving?
These are the issues that should take centre stage during discussions on devolutions.
Raisedon Baya is a Playwright, Cultural Activist, and a recipient of the NOVIB/PEN International Freedom of Speech Award. He is based in Bulawayo
Feedback and contributions email: vincent@newsday.co.zw or bmangwende@newsday.co.zw

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