Wednesday, August 10, 2022

“Revamp Local government Act”

This paper discusses political parties’ influence in the councils they control, the extent, if any, to which they implement their policies and programs or make changes they deem necessary to discharge their mandate.

It is intended here to interrogate the existing Acts vis-à-vis the Local Government Bill in order to see how proposed changes will address the challenges faced by councils currently or what changes are necessary to assist councils to align their wishes to those of their electorates.
This paper adopts the simplistic view that voters elect representatives/parties based on their manifesto and that the party that commands majority at council represents the aspirations of the voters as to which party should lead the council.

The ongoing consultation by the Ministry of Local Government and the ensuing debate on the matter prompted this article which argues for greater devolution of powers and autonomy of the councils through appropriate legal instruments.

Central government takeover of clinics and insinuations from some sections of the public, recently at kgotla meeting addressed by Assistant Minister of Education in Lehututu, the chief proposed that in addition to Brigades takeover, the ministry should also take primary schools from councils. It is against this background that the proposed Bill should ignite serious debate with a view to having a robust policy and or Act.

Prior to promulgation of an Act, it is expected that a policy which will inform it be formulated, hence consultation should start at policy level. This policy is critical to the proposed Act and should equally be a subject of public discourse.

There seems to be very little done to involve the general populace in this otherwise important debate, for instance by way of inserts in the newspapers of the proposed law or even posting it in the internet for wider coverage, consultation on this Bill is limited to Councilors only.

The aim of this Bill is to consolidate the existing Local Government (District Council) Act, the Township Act and Town Council Regulations, to provide for the establishment of councils and to give legal effect to Botswana Association of Local Authorities.

The ministry has also said that government awaits decentralisation policy before devolving powers to local authorities and that the ministry is committed to strengthening local democracy.
At face value these sound noble ideals but the attitude of the ministry, its approach, and actions should reflect its intensions, which is unfortunately not the case as the Bill falls short of translating these commitments into the requisite law.

District councils in particular have historical connections to tribes, particularly the so called main tribes; their boarders are seen as defining the territories of these tribes. It is proving problematic to delineate these local administrative structures from tribes so that they are independent of tribal allegiance, the effect of which has been disproportionate and administratively cumbersome councils. Sub-districts concept has been introduced as a makeshift solution to the problems arising from this anomaly.

These issues have to be at the core of the reform. Policy should guide how these issues should be approached. Currently, tribal politics seems pivotal in the sub-district policy, which fails to address pertinent issues of delivery, legitimacy and autonomy.

The power to establish or abolish District Councils and Urban Councils, dismiss councillor(s), nullify standing orders rests with the president and the minister. Councils are for all intents and purposes an extension arm of central government; they depend on it for funding and staffing. The nation looks up to central government and since 1st April 2008 to the president for answers on a plethora of local issues.

This does not inspire confidence and trust in the local political leadership as blame is often shifted when problems crop up as was the case with Daisy Loo saga.

Ministers have overarching powers on the overall operations of councils and because central government is the primary source of councils finance, employs and deploys its staff, it has stranglehold on its delivery capacity and there is a possibility of sabotage.

Presidents and ministers, past and present have shown the propensity to abuse their powers, including that of special nominations to the detriment of the opposition and the public. Councils are therefore constrained to implement their policies and programs or even make changes that will enable them to pursue their political agenda.

Gladys Kokorwe served as City Clerk to Gaborone City Council at the time when Botswana National Front was in control and it suffered debilitating rifts after which she was promoted to parliament, through the special election.

After 2009 elections, a new township, Sowa was created where BDP abrogated to itself all the seven seats through special nomination, this disadvantages other parties when elections eventually come.
Nata West polling district (council ward) which Sowa falls within was won by BCP and its councillor goes to Central District Council instead. It is for these reasons that a new system devoid of direct political interference should be introduced.

District Commissioner who is central government representative at district level creates confusion and conflict with council secretaries as to who is the administrative head. Mayors and chairmen currently are a farce as they do not represent the electorates but their parties, there is that missing connection between electorates and mayors. Elected representatives enjoy legitimacy and voters take charge of their destiny, for the better or for the worse.

There has to be clear criteria for establishing councils, a commission which delimitates polling districts and constituencies should do the same with councils based on similar criteria.

Mayors and executive mayors (chairpersons should be abolished) should be directly elected. Political contest will give mayors an opportunity to say how they aim to raise funds through various taxes i.e. rates, toll gates, planning gain, parking etc rather than depend on the central government for funding.

District commissioners should be abolished and their functions, subsumed into councils under the stewardship of the council secretary.

Rating law is a separate regime; rates may be levied by central government as well e.g. uniform business rates in the United Kingdom. The bulk space occupied by rating law in the bill is in itself testimony of this, separating the two will allow growth of both unencumbered by the other, reference to the valuation officer and valuation courts (one national valuation officer and court suffices) only warrants inclusion in the act.

Councils should employ their own staff, particularly senior management including the chief executive officer and take full responsibility of service delivery within their jurisdiction, councils should have administrative and fiscal autonomy and voters should be the ones to hire and fire politicians, including the president.

Consolidating and harmonising the existing instruments by taking away the president powers and empowering councils to employ own staff is welcome, but giving those powers to the minister will make councils vulnerable to the whims of politicians, who have proven insatiable appetite for power and the propensity to abuse it, which will negate the second tier spirit that should underpin the relations between central and local governments. In the absence of law on flow crossing, this creates an avenue which may be exploited for parochial political ends.

The new act should not restrict councils to districts and towns only but should instead talk about councils in general to allow for flexibility, the possibility of fully fledged councils that are not necessarily districts.

The proposed changes are merely cosmetic and will only serve to perpetuate the ruling party hegemony and beside that it is intransigent and dishonest, this is otherwise an opportunity for dialogue and beneficial reforms, the bill with its inherent shortcomings provides a platform for meaningful engagement by various stakeholders. Shredding this bill as comrade Dithapelo Keorapetse (Gazette) suggests would be throwing away dirty water with the baby.

Panel beating, if for a moment the government can take constructive advice will prove vital.
The minister should give new drafting instructions and be willing to transfer powers this Bill seeks to bestow on him to the apolitical structure for the greater good of the nation.

*Moncho Moncho was BCP parliamentary candidate for Mahalapye West in 2009 General Elections


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