All indicators are that government—particularly the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development (ML&RD)—is ill-prepared for the return of ward councillors after the first-ever tripartite elections on May 20 2014.
Three months before the unknown local representatives take up their new jobs in councils, we still don’t know how much money the councillors—who the ministry says “will have no salaries but monthly honoraria”—will get as compensation.
Mind you, the reason the Bingu wa Mutharika administration postponed local government polls in 2006 was that government needed to review their perks and laws. Well, despite the ministry promising last year to come up with a revised package of all councillors’ incentives based on the rates that were applicable during the first group of councillors between 2000 and 2004; and despite pledging to disseminate the package immediately after approval by government, nothing of the sort has happened, at least not to my knowledge anyway.
In the 2000-2005 tenure, councillors were receiving K1 000 sitting allowance per day during their meetings that usually lasted a day—a joke really even then.
And as we reported last year, such miserable compensation brought serious problems that eventually led to resignations of the representatives, leaving councils disabled. Some of those that remained squeezed themselves into council operational activities just to earn allowances and derailed activities if excluded from the per diem list, according to district commissions (DCs) and local governance observers.
Given these risks, when does government expect to resolve the question of honoraria for councillors?
On the question of reviewing legislation, Parliament did, of course, amend the Local Government Act.
One of the changes was to reduce the number of wards to two per constituency, a move local authorities say will increase the councillors’ responsibilities; hence, the need for clear remuneration to avoid bringing financial pressures in councils.
For example, won’t these people need mobility to monitor development in their areas? Most DCs seem to think so. That entails either a motorcycle or vehicle with the attendant fuel. Will that be provided? No one knows, not even the ministry, apparently.
But there was one amendment that Parliament made—probably for selfish reasons on the part of sitting members of Parliament (MPs)—that could bring a flood of problems and affect development outputs and outcomes.
The amendment in question gives MPs voting rights at council level, a development that most experienced DCs believe will bring confusion, explaining that National Assembly members’ financial and political muscle to sway votes and skew decisions, especially in terms of resource allocation, could affect implementation of councils’ Annual Investment Plans (AIPs), which are typically derived from the longer term District Development Plans and Urban Structure Plans in the case of towns and cities.
As one commentator said the other day, “it would be better to have MPs vote at Parliament and remain non-voting members at council level because this will bring a lot of confusion in councils.”
I have seen this at play, albeit during the period the country had no councillors. But all the same, MPs, especially those that also happen to be Cabinet ministers, have dominated what are called Consultative Forums, which have been acting as local assemblies in the absence of ward councillors.
School blocks, teachers’ houses and boreholes would, for example, be snatched from communities that need them most to those that have more of these services as per council planning simply because the lucky constituency’s legislator is in Cabinet or has a position in the ruling party that is powerful enough to cause a DC, director of public works or director of planning and development at the council, to be unceremoniously transferred or indeed demoted to some dull job at Capital Hill.
The Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development says it has scheduled a number of orientation sessions for the representatives to avoid clashes between councillors and other local structures such as MPs as experienced during the 2000 to 2005 council tenures.
But if anyone believes that will make a difference then they are deluding themselves. MPs have historically been wary of ambitious councillors eyeing their parliamentary seats.
They would not want the councillor to be a shining star who delivers community projects—as it should be. The only way is to amend the law again and strip national lawmakers of the power to vote in a house where they have no business throwing their weights around.
Otherwise, with more billions of kwacha heading to councils at a time more sectors are devolving fiscal authority, especially with momentum now pushing for the decentralisation of the capital budget as well, the stakes are so high that clashes in the earlier council tenures will resemble friendly pats compared to the all out boxing arena council assemblies could turn into.
We must avoid such a scenario for the sake of improved service delivery at local council and community levels.