Thursday, January 28, 2021

Moupo’s motion on decentralization was stillborn

‘The people have spoken’.
This has become the post-general election catchphrase which infers that the results reflect popular choice. So let us respect the people’s choice whether it is rational or irrational. Focus now has to shift from cheap politicking to vital issues of bread and butter, such as service delivery. It is commonly accepted that many of the existing national policies and government programs are well intended but that implementation is failing them.

In particular, Structures for facilitating implementation of development projects at the local level are in place and are recognized and accepted by the people but nevertheless, they have become increasingly frivolous and pathetic over the years due to over-reliance on the central government for their operations and sustenance.

Decentralization in Botswana continues to be used to spearhead development planning and implementation at the local level. The democratization process, in particular, emphasis on people’s participation in government and development activities has given added impetus to a decentralized system of government.

Consequently, local government has been given the pivotal role in development at the district level on the belief that development processes are better and effectively run at local spheres of the government. In other words, local authorities were created to bring government to the people, yet local authorities have limited operational autonomy since they are almost virtually dependent on the central government. Perhaps this apparent weakness of local authorities which is a result of their virtual dependence on the central government is what informed the president of the opposition Botswana National Front (BNF) to table a motion in the final session of the ninth Parliament calling on the government to decentralize power to local authorities to enable them to deliver efficient services to the people.

Unfortunately, the motion was rejected without subjecting it to deeper intellectual scrutiny. Specifically the motion was rejected on the argument that the government is already doing what the motion calls for and rightfully so, even though it is a case of giving very little by the left and taking much more by the right hand. In my view, in its format, the motion was stillborn and deserved an insensitive and dismissive retort. This is in no way intended to down play the merits of decentralization, but rather that Moupo should have done thorough research and presented a balanced and polished motion. Parliamentarians have a tendency to present fairly open-ended, muddled and confused motions that often taste sweet but whose implementation often turns out to be more complex and intricate.

If Moupo’s motion was adopted, the mode of operationalizing its implementation was going to be worked out by the bureaucrats who could as well initiate cosmetic measures to decentralize power to local authorities without necessarily effecting changes in the structure of the local government. I know a lot of people sympathized with Moupo and the private media also took the opportunity to take aim at the BDP Parliamentarians for the hypocrisy.

However, half-cooked motions deserve to be dismissed with contempt. Opposition MPs should always do detailed and systematic research more especially that they know full well that theirs shall always be subjected to humiliating examination by the ruling party zoo keepers. It will be immature and self-defeating for opposition MPs to table poorly researched and incoherent motions and expect the public to lend them sympathetic support. Moupo’s motion was sterile and played into the hands of the BDP MPs who are known for their spectacular display of arrogance.

While its values were meritable, its presentation was disjointed and gave a bad name to an already stigmatized and despondent opposition. What is necessary first and foremost is to take a closer look into the legislative framework for local authorities. For example, unlike in South Africa, local authorities in Botswana have not been established by the national constitution. They therefore derive their power to function from statutes or administrative directives. Since they lack constitutional legitimacy, they can be abolished anytime at the discretion of the political leadership.

For instance, the institution of District Administration was created by a Presidential Directive which means that the Office of the President may decide to call back the directive and render District Administration expired and finished without the intervention of the local communities it best serves. The central government is not legally required to support and enhance the operational capacity of local authorities. In most cases, interventions intended to improve the capacity of local authorities are merely motivated by goodwill. In contrast, Section 152 of the Constitution of the Republic of South African commits the central and provincial governments to an open and democratic form of governance and sets out the rights of South Africans to elect their representatives and grants them the right to exercise an influence over all decisions made by the government.

Additionally, The Municipal Systems Act gives legal power to municipalities to deliver services to communities. The Act legally ensures the financial and economic viability of the municipalities as well as the support and cooperation that municipalities will get from the provincial and central governments. In Botswana, the various Acts establishing the respective local government institutions merely enumerate their statutory responsibilities without necessarily spelling out the mandate of the central government in empowering local government institutions. Thus, meaningful decentralization should go beyond the narrow confines of mere service delivery and place emphasis on effective and efficient local institutions. It should also be noted that Botswana does not have a national policy for decentralization. Thus, central government ministries approach decentralization in a haphazard and uncoordinated fashion.

Decentralization is therefore dependent on the benevolence of senior employees of the central government. For instance, the current Permanent Secretary to the President Mr. Eric Molale is enthusiastic on greater decentralization yet his successor could, depending on his taste and personal experiences and preferences, reverse the initiatives already in place. It has been shown that local authorities in Botswana have been reduced to mere implementing agents of the central government. Initiatives for sustaining them come in piece-meal fashion and originate from the top because the central government is not legally mandated to support them. Since they do not enjoy constitutional legitimacy, it is always difficult to convince the central government to make them autonomous.

They continue to operate in so far as they are still being tolerated by the central government and they cannot make legitimate noise about their limited authority for fear of offending their guardians and risk extermination. This is the biggest challenge that confronts our local authorities and propositions for their empowerment should reflect this unmistaken obstacle to their growth and operational efficiency.
Local authorities need constitutional recognition first and foremost and other things will fall into place instinctively.

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