Recently, there have been widespread deliberations on the implications, impact and ramifications of the proposed new bill on some aspects of local governments in our country.
A fortnight ago, I wrote a piece in this newspaper on some issues relating to this very bill. I have since heard the Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Local Government clarifying on what the bill seeks to achieve and, more importantly, what it does not intend to do.
I have also read in one of the local newspapers a piece from an official from the same ministry, also seeking to clarify the intentions of the bill and what it does not cover.
I wish to reflect on three aspects of this bill and the implications of same on our democratic decentralization processes.
I do so coming from a perspective that has tremendous hope on current trends in seeking to empower local governments and give more autonomy to these institutions so that they can promote better and more efficient ways of providing services to the citizens and more crucially ensuring that they become cornerstones of a more public oriented and vibrant democratic dispensation.
Firstly, I want to briefly talk of the proposed bill’s articulation of the four year term of office for Mayors/Council chairpersons.
As I stated in my earlier piece, I don’t have much of a problem with this change since it addresses aspects of aligning the tenure of political office bearers with the general trend of strategic plans, national development plans and district development plans.
To that end this is a welcome move for purposes of ensuring synergy and complimentarity of all these initiatives.
It is noted that concerns of local government leaders becoming a burden or not productive as and when they cease to be paragons of wisdom are well understood but I want to believe that the positives seem to outweigh the negatives here.
Secondly, there is the issue of the minister having the powers to declare a council seat vacant on account of an elected councilor becoming “non functional” for a variety of reasons. It is here that I understood the clarifications to suggest that the bill is simply ensuring that there is clarity on who should take this action.
It is argued that in the old provision this was left hanging and that is indeed true, but my take on this is that we should have taken advantage of this opportunity to change the local government acts and propose changes that will move local governments away from the control and authority of the executive arm of government. Current trends, the world over, are towards local governments been instruments or creations of constitutional provisions, which is even more than what we have in place now in this country.
In our situations local governments are currently creations of statutory parliamentary acts. If what pertains now is viewed as inadequate, then surely a mere clarity of the minister’s role in the proposed bill can only be a step backwards.
An elected official must account to the public and be recalled by the electorates and if anything we should be looking at our electoral laws governing the processes of recall and, reform them accordingly.
To say that it is the minister who issues a writ for local government elections and therefore he/she must be the one responsible for declaring their seats vacant (under any circumstances) is to be oblivious of the demands and expectations on our democratic processes.
We can surely find ways of empowering local government leaders and putting accountability mechanisms in place so that what the new bill is seeking to address can be achieved without further entrenching the executive control over local governments.
If we move for the constitutional provisions for local governments’ existence, we will and can also create an environment where they can, themselves, put in place appropriate measures of how they ought to account to both the central government and the citizens.
I am convinced that given the caliber of both local government political leaders and the administrative cadre serving this units, local governments in Botswana can be in a position to firmly regulate themselves and ensure that what the bill seeks to “correct” is actually effectively dealt with by the local governments themselves.
Central government cannot and should not be seen as the one that can best deal with most of the challenges facing local governments in our country.
Thirdly, I want to look at the issue of reconciling the local government act and the district/town act as intended by the proposed new bill. One of the basic fundamentals of democratic decentralization processes is recognition of the diversity of local government areas in a variety of ways.
It’s common knowledge that some of those differences include environmental, cultural, political and economic factors and these together with the associated structural variations across these factors makes it imperative that standardization of policies and functional responsibilities are kept to the bare minimum.
Under constitutional provisions as currently proposed, local governments will be autonomous entities that are capable to exploit their comparative advantage in any possible avenue available to them, in a manner that is only specific to their specific needs of any kind.
This is where we should be heading to, not further entrenching the treatment of local governments as though they are all the same in most aspects, as clear assessment of this country’s terrain will point to quite a number of distinguishable differences between and among our local governments.
This calls for specific changes to create an environment within which they can individually define their role and avenues of pursuing their developmental routes with fewer restrictions from the centre.
The argument of creating further opportunities for local governments to charge levies on land and property cannot only be addressed through the current changes envisaged by the bill.
Providing more autonomy and empowering local governments can easily be a better route towards creating such an opportunity.
We need more empowered and autonomous local governments, with very minimal central government controls in this country.
The caliber of political leaders and administrative personnel in our local governments has the capacity to handle current challenges facing local governments, they just need to be empowered.