During the May 20 2014 Tripartite Elections, Malawians also elected ward councillors. The wards had been vacant since the dissolution of the local councils in 2005.
For nine years, civil society organisations (CSOs) and other stakeholders campaigned strongly for the return of mayors and councillors, arguing that the lack of development projects in cities were due to the absence of local councils in a country that adopted a decentralised system of governance.
During his first State of the Nation Address (Sona) in Parliament in June 2014, President Peter Mutharika also acknowledged the gap that existed in the absence of local councils.
He said: “From this year, the politics of development has changed. With the arrival of local councils, government has come to your door step.”
Two years after they have been in office, and as their first tenure winds up, have the city fathers lived up to their billing?
Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Kondwani Nankhumwa says with regards to the absence of the posts for nine years, they deserve an impressive rate.
“We have seen mayors taking charge in providing oversight in council business and performance of city secretariat. As such service delivery in the cities has substantially improved. Furthermore, mayors have facilitated improvement of the revenue base of the cities.
“Even in the councils where people think mayors are not doing a good job, systems in such cities were completely dilapidated like Lilongwe City Council. My ministry notes that things are now taking shape,” says Nankhumwa.
Mzuzu mayor William Mkandawire believes the journey has been good, but not easy.
“I would say it has been a nice experience. There is a lot of work and it is not easy to implement a project. I am happy with what I have done so far,” says Mkandawire.
The feeling is the same across all mayoral offices. However, looking at the situation on the ground, each city has its own story to tell.
Notably, as argued by some local environmentalists, the mayor’s tenure has turned Blantyre City into a role model. Unlike other cities, Blantyre brags of two gigantic initiatives by the mayoral office-Keep Blantyre City Clean and Green campaign-which despite struggling have improved the city’s outlook, perhaps making a statement on the relevance of mayors.
Not only that, the office initiated the Adopt a Roundabout Initiative, which has seen companies decorating streets and roundabouts.
In Mzuzu, the mayoral tenure made history by reviving the Mayors Trophy, among others. While there is a lot to be mentioned as products of the mayors’ tenure, commentators rate the term a mixed bag.
Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) executive director Timothy Mtambo describes the tenure a mixed bag in which he sees some mayors performing better than others.
“It is commendable that the mayors have been entrenching a culture of decentralisation in their respective cities through leading local decision-making process. Regrettably, there is little that other mayors have achieved, other than appearing in the media for bad reasons. So, generally speaking, it has been a quiet tenure for the mayors,” analyses Mtambo.
He describes Blantyre mayoral office as exemplary as it is the only one that adopted relevant ideas for transformation and development.
Says Mtambo: “We have seen the Blantyre City Mayor taking commendable initiatives. On the other hand, we would be tempted to believe that the other mayors, notably in Zomba, Lilongwe and Mzuzu have been learning on their jobs, with no noticeable achievement registered so far. In some cases, we have seen some mayors getting implicated in resource abuse, which does not paint a promising image of the city councils.”
Lewis Dzimbiri, professor of public administration at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, says there is need for a proper analysis to rate the mayors’ performance. However, he says common sense reveals that it would not be easy to start operations of the office having had no mayors for a long time.
“The first one and a half years has been spent on settling down, trying to understand their terms of reference, their role in relation to that of councillors and members of Parliament (MP).
“In some areas, tensions have ensued and the process of understanding each other’s role has been protracted, thereby leaving little time to focusing on productive issues,” explains Dzimbiri.
However, both Mtambo and Dzimbiri say the mayors can be excused because of the length of their tenure which, they say, is too short to make notable impact.
Mtambo advocates for a review of the period arguing that the two years are just enough for settling down and getting started.
“I would propose a five-year tenure, to be tied together with that of a President and parliamentarians,” he says.
Dzimbiri agrees that two years is too short considering the period required to initiate a programme and see it through to implementation and evaluation.
“It is at the grass roots where meaningful development is to be undertaken and if local government is to become more relevant to the needs of society, then these political bosses need meaningful tenure than just two years. That is why MPs, and presidential terms are more than two years. It is not clear why at the grass roots level, the tenure should be short.”
The professor argues that it is also possible to implement projects within the same period, but only if there are orientation programmes for both mayors and MPs, periodic workshops, seminars and team building programmes.
In his paper ‘What role for mayors in good city governance?’ governance expert David Satterthwaite argues that proper utilisation of mayoral offices for development supported by stable funding and coordinated working relationship has potential to turn the story of any city. n