Back in 2012, when Pan African Civic Educators Network (Pacent) launched a multi-council project that aims at empowering the citizenry; skeptics took it with a pinch of salt.
The major focus of the project, which receives technical and financial support from Tilitonse Fund, is to ensure that citizens, including vulnerable groups are able to demand development, better social services and hold duty-bearers and power holders to account for their actions.
But Alice Dickson, 28, of group village head (GVH) Chimbeta in T/A Khwethemule in Thyolo, confesses she never believed that this could be achieved.
Dickson says just like her fellow subjects, she grew up holding the notion that duty-bearers and public officers were immune from public scrutiny.
She says the culture of fear was so entrenched in them such that demanding one’s rights from duty-bearers and power-holders was unfeasible.
“Thus, we could neither demand transparency nor accountability in the formulation and implementation of development projects in our areas,” she explains.
GVH Chonde corroborates. She states that she equally thought time would come when citizens—through area development committees (ADCs), village development committees (VDCs), transparency and accountability clubs (TACs) and community-based organisations (CBOs) —could provide inputs towards formulation and implementation of development projects.
“I never believed things could change until I, together with my VDC, underwent an intensive training organised by Pacenet to sensitise community leaders to our roles and responsibilities in the formulation and implementation of development projects.
“We could not believe that they, even in our lay positions, held powers to curb the culture of impunity among duty-bearers and public officers. We used to believe that lay citizens cannot question development projects decided and implemented by contractors hired by authorities at the Capital Hill,” she narrates.
Pacenet executive director, Steven Duwa, observes that this notion gave duty-bearers and power-holders leeway to do whatever they pleased even if it meant at the expense of citizens’ freedoms and rights as enshrined in the Constitution.
But Duwa is quick to emphasise that lack of civic empowerment and education among both citizens and duty-bearers and power-holders was the major stumbling block to good governance at local level.
He says this was evidenced by the attitude some traditional leaders had towards the project.
Duwa indicates that some chiefs were not comfortable with the project goal as it demanded them – as power-holders – to be transparent and accountable to the people they serve.
“Apparently, the concerned chiefs felt creating a critical mass of empowered citizenry will also destabilise their grip on power. And this was evidenced by the conflicts between TAC members and some traditional leaders in Thyolo and Chiradzulu,” he explains.
He cites Sub T/A Nanseta who ordered the dismissal of all TAC and CBO leaders who received leadership training from Pacenet.
Of course, Nanseta’s decision was challenged and overturned by the district commissioner (DC).
Duwa emphasises the objective of the project was not to create tension between citizens and duty-bearers and power-holders, but to empower citizens with civic empowerment and education to enable them demand their rights using civil means and participatory approach.
He says his organisation has since built the capacity of 166 VDCs and 50 TACs and CBOs.
He further stresses that if citizens are to exercise their rights and discharge their responsibilities as members of self-governing communities, they not only need knowledge about what the Constitution preaches; they also need to acquire relevant intellectual and participatory skills.
“And civic education is very essential to sustain that constitutional democracy from the grassroots. And Pacent believes that democracy can only be sustained where citizens have the requisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions to enable them effectively contribute to development of their respective areas,” he states.
Village head (VH) John Lulanga of S/TA Onga in Chiradzulu says the Pacenet-Tilitonse project has raised the level of confidence among community members and leaders to drive developmental agenda with the council, demand accountability and responsiveness from duty-bearers.
The VH also discloses that the project has helped bring unity between rights holders and power holders because both parites are now able to draw a line on what constitutes rights and responsibilities.
Alice Dickson adds that through periodic accountability meetings Pacenet conducts with its stakeholders at district and community levels, citizens are now able to jointly plan, execute, track progress and results being achieved in the implementation of development projects.
“For instance, this area used to register many cases of theft of subsidised farm inputs by Admarc officials. But things have significantly improved because citizens are active and inquisitive at all times,” she muses.