Devolution of power: To be or not to be devolved!

Devolution of power: To be or not to be devolved!
Published: 25 March 2012 (14124 Views)
PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe recently stirred the hornet's nest when he indicated that he was opposed to devolution of power in the new constitution. He has not been alone in his crusade as Local Government Minister, Ignatius Chombo, penned a scholarly piece on the demerits of devolution of power. I will attempt to provide an objective analysis of the concept of devolution of power and its perceived demerits and merits.

I will start off with a common understanding and definition of what devolution of power is and how it differs from federalism, secession and decentralisation. Usually, these terms are confused and confusing with some people using them interchangeably.

Just as Chombo stated and as defined in Wikipedia: Devolution of power is the "statutory granting of power to government at a sub national, regional or local level". The nature, scope and magnitude of such power is then defined by the Constitutional and legislative framework of that particular governance model because although devolution maybe have a common legal prototype in terms of principle, it differs in style, architecture and design from country to country.

A devolved system of governance can exist in a unitary or federal state. Examples of countries with devolved system of governance within a unitary state include France which has 27 regions; Italy which has 15; Papua New Guinea, 18 provinces; Peru 25 regions; Spain, 18 communities; and Kenya which has 47 county governments.

A federal system of governance on the other hand is defined as "a system of government where power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units" (Wikipedia).

In some cases individual states may have their own constitutions depending on the design and architecture of the particular federal governance model. Examples of countries with a federal system of governance include Mexico, India, Australia, Canada, the United States and Switzerland, which has an elaborate system of a confederation of 26 cantons.

In his comments, President Mugabe seemed to equate devolution with secession, but for the purpose of this debate it is then necessary to define what secession is and then compare and contrast this with the definitions of devolution and federalism given above.

Simply put, secession is "the act of withdrawing from a union, a political or geographical entity". It is thus obvious from this definition that devolution is not secession and neither is federalism secession. Solid examples of instances where secession has taken place include South Sudan, Croatia and Slovenia, which seceded from Yugoslavia.

Abortive attempts at a secession have taken place in Biafra (Nigeria) and Katanga (DRCongo). It is thus obvious that the issue of secession does not suffice in the context of the current constitution-making process and any attempt to equate devolution with secession is therefore misplaced and ill-informed.

Decentralisation, which is the preferred ZANU-PF position, is defined as "distributing the administrative functions or powers of a central authority among several local authorities. There is therefore quite clearly a fundamental difference between the "statutory granting of powers from a central authority", which is devolution to merely distributing of administrative power.

First of all, the granting of power under devolution is statutory and, secondly, it is more profound in scope transcending beyond administrative power to legislative, executive and in some cases judicial power.

It is, therefore, abundantly clear that decentralisation in the context of the current national discourse of equitable distribution of national resources, increased decision-making at provincial and local government level is inadequate and irrelevant.

Deficits of devolution
Chombo and his acolytes argue and not without merit that devolution may result in "devolution of corruption and inefficiency". He argues that devolution would be catastrophic as evidenced by overwhelming corruption taking place currently in local authorities. He also argues that devolution will remove the oversight role of central government and may not contribute to national cohesion.

Other critics of devolution also argue that Zimbabwe is too small to have such a system of governance. They claim that devolution will accentuate ethnic differences and divide the country on tribal lines. It has also been argued that poorer regions with few resources will suffer as a result of devolution.

Argument for devolution
These arguments as I have said, are not without merit, but again, they assume that devolution of power is a one-size-fits-all model of governance, which it is not. Devolution of power can differ from country to country depending on the peculiar socio-economic and political experiences of each country.

Corruption and inefficiency can be curtailed through inbuilt mechanisms to ensure transparency and good governance. Basic standards can be set at a national level while region-specific instruments can be put in place to address issues peculiar to geographic and ethnic communities.

Centralised governance has resulted in centralised corruption, but devolution of power to provincial and local government authorities will significantly increase public scrutiny thus ensuring sound stewardship of resources. The oversight role of central government can still remain in place without disturbing the operations of provincial and local government operations.

An ideal devolved state has clear-cut roles for central government, provincial government and local government. It does not wish away central government necessarily, but then neither does it curtail the powers of provincial and local governments. The key here is a well-defined governance architecture with elected governors who have budgets and operate with an executive and provincial authority or government. The governor may be elected directly by the people or by a provincial assembly or legislature, which would make laws at provincial level.

Perhaps, it would be prudent to learn from the Kenyan model, which devolved power to 47 counties in a system, which made provisions for equitable resource allocation and distribution through inbuilt public finance mechanisms which addressed issues of "transfer equalisation, grants from national government and resources derived from local economic activity". The Kenyan system also envisaged a devolved public service using national standards.

Devolution will lead to equitable distribution of resources throughout different regions and disadvantaged regions will benefit from equalisation mechanisms through central government fiscal instruments. National cohesion will actually be enhanced because Zimbabwe's various ethnic groups including the Kalanga, Ndau, Suthu, Tswana, Xhosa, Tonga, Nambya, Shona, San, Venda, Shona and Ndebele will be promoted through the efforts of accessible and empowered regional and local governments, which are able to craft policies which are relevant to local conditions and experiences.

Citizens will be able to influence and participate in decision-making thus building strong local democracies, which is the basis of a healthy national participatory democracy. Devolution is not a problem; it is a part of the solution.

Obviously, it will not solve all the country's problems, but it will address most of them. This has to be done in tandem with a good, democratic constitution, strong institutions, a culture of democracy and harmonised subsidiary laws, which facilitate devolution of power.

A lot will depend on the design, implementation and execution of the model of devolution that Zimbabwe adopts.

- Dumisani Nkomo is a political analyst and CEO of Habakkuk Trust and he writes here in his personal capacity. He can be contacted on dumisani.nkomo@

- FinGaz

Tags: Devolution,

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