We do not need councillors for the sake of filling a gap in the local governance system. We need councillors to be active players in bettering the lives of people. But did 2013 managed to clear a way for councillors to work better?
All is set, and any day after May 19 Tripartite Elections, Malawi will, again, have ward councillors in its local government system.
This should be a source of great news.
Dr Asiyatu Chiweza, local governance expert teaching at Chancellor College, says councillors are the ones whom the Constitution has vested the power to plan, implement, monitor and evaluate development initiatives at the district council level.
To mean, their absence in the past nine years has, directly or indirectly, affected delivery of development at the local level.
So is it time to celebrate?
A snapshot interview The Nation had with 35 aspiring councillors from Mzimba, Mangochi, Salima, Blantyre, Mulanje, Phalombe, Chikhwawa and Thyolo districts reveals quite a positive mood.
Most of them argue that development will return to the people after years of suspension.
Speaking at a function held by the Pan African Civic Education Network (Pacenet) at Migowi, Janet Ngulinga, an aspiring councillor for Migowi Ward in Phalombe, said if voted, she will not sleep until something developmental takes root in her village.
But the process of ‘bringing development’, aspiring councillors and every Malawians need to understand, is not a black and white job. They will work in an entrenched institution and encounter winding and complex rules, regulations and expectations.
To mean, for them to ‘bring development’, or to plan, implement, monitor and evaluate development initiatives, it will be dependent upon the environment in which they will work in.
Unfortunately, as it stands of today, the environment is stark. There is a lot on the ground that militates against councillors’ quest to fulfill their constitutional mandate.
‘Salaries for chiefs, not councillors’
Malawi entered 2013 optimistic that elected councillors will have a salary to live on. This is according to what government said in 2006. They said they had postponed local government polls due to the need to review their perks and laws as the reason.
Unfortunately, in April 2013, the nation was disturbed by revelations from government that councillors will have no salaries but monthly honoraria.
In the 2000-2005 tenure, councillors were receiving K1 000 sitting allowance per day during their meetings that usually lasted a day.
But there were serious problems that eventually led to most of them resigning, 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 allowance list, some DCs told The Nation last year.
The Malawi Electoral Support Network (Mesn) argued last year that if councillors work as volunteers, they will be less zeal from them.
“The job of a councillor demands a lot from them; a lot of travelling and meetings, a lot of scrutinising allocations and a lot of awareness. It is involving and crucial. Without salaries—they is little we should expect from them,” he said.
He added that: “We need to review this and put them on salary. After all, we have already reduced their number. If we can put unelected chiefs on salaries, why not councillors who are duly elected by the people?” he said.
Those that served as councillors between 2000 and 2005 argue that one of the challenges they face was to do with conflict among stakeholders at the district council. According to Chiweza, the conflict revolves in a number of areas.
“They include: one, who is the legitimate authority to represent the grass-roots; two, the apparent lack of clarity of the functions and responsibilities of these key actors in local governance processes; and again political interests of MPs and local councillors,” she says.
Malawi entered 2013 disturbed with the news that, in a bid to exert their influence at district council, MPs in 2010 amended the Local Government Act and, among others, gave themselves voting powers—meaning they became full members of the council, unlike in the past when they were considered ex-officials.
This, according to Robert Silungwe, national coordinator for Mesn, undermines the working conditions between MPs and councillors.
“The challenge is that with MPs and councillors having powers to vote at district council, local government will also end up being another avenue of power politics than development,” he said, adding that this needs to be reviewed.
Heading 10 of the 12 committees at district councils, councillors, said Chiweza, are truly main development players of local governance.
This work, she adds, places higher demand on them because they have to do several activities including monitoring council activities and playing an oversight role over the use of resources.
However, despite this demand from them, the Local Government Act just specifies that to be a councillor you should be able to read and write English.
So is this provision enough to produce a councillor who can meet the demand of the job at hand?
“What we need to underline is that for one to be able to hold accountable well-educated public officers at district council, one needs to have the understanding of what happens in committees of health, education and finances, among others. If they do not, won’t they be misled or manipulated deliberately?” she said.
She added that it would help if Malawians, as short term remedy to the situation, opt for retired people from education, health, and people retired in finances and many others because they are the ones who can ably speak the same language with technocrats at district councils.
But still, she added, Malawi needs to review its laws to include specific academic qualifications as requirement one should meet when becoming a councillor.
Job for 2014
Unarguably, councillors, once elected, will find it tough to sail through, owing to the raised concerns. With few months to elections, will Malawi heed to Mesn’s call for Parliament to revisit the environment in which councillors will work in?
This is a question for 2014 to answer.