Devolution is the Panacea to the Failed Unitary System of Governance in Zimbabwe

The increasingly elusive panacea to Zimbabwe's governance crisis under the current unitary system of governance calls for revision. Growing evidence suggest that under the unitary system of governance, there has been massive centralization of power within bureaucrats particularly within the head offices which are mostly in Harare. However, the authorities in Harare have tended to perpetuate the myths that devolution is encouraging provincialism and further division of the country. This contribution seeks to debunk these myths and argue that devolution is the way to go based on various socio-economic and political advantages that it offers the nation.

Myths on devolution

The most common myth to deal with devolution in Zimbabwe is that devolution is provincialism or entrenchment of tribal politics. Most particularly will be to try and reduce devolution to a 'Ndebele cry' in Zimbabwe. Of which this is not the truth but that it finds currency with politicians in that (i) it feeds into the stereotypes of a separate Ndebele State, and this has been perpetuated by some mischievous political leaders creating 'fear of others'; (ii) devolution is an un-popular call within the 'Mashonaland Territory', and this has also found currency with some politicians seeking to cement their hegemonies as the authentic voice and champions of addressing the problems in Matabeleland.


Both these notions of devolution advanced within Zimbabwe's local governance reform has stymied debate and creating two polarized and misinformed positions. The only emerging reality of unitary governance has been the prioritization and development of Harare as the center of commerce and public activities. Thus, Harare has become the major beneficiary while other areas have lagged behind in terms of infrastructural development as well as other basic service provisions. This actually calls for the need to revisit the relevance of the unitary system of governance in particular given all this capital city sided biased development. This evidence actually rebuts that the above arguments that devolution is a Ndebele issue, and that devolution is not a Mashonaland issue.

A visit to Mutoko and Mudzi will show you agitated communities as black granite is mined leaving a degraded environment and nothing for the locals. Similarly a visit to Marange and Chimanimani will show you communities agitated by the exploitation of diamonds while there is no meaningful development for the locals.   A further visit to Chisumbanje will highlight villagers that have been dispossessed of their land and livelihood by the controversial ethanol project that has now been thrown in limbo due to government bickering and confusion. The same cries also echo from Lupane as timber is felled everyday and ferried away to make furniture in distant places while local schools do not have desks and benches. The examples are numerous but one clear emerging trend in this is marginalized communities that have been disempowered from making decisions that can cater for their interests. Therefore national interests become a terrain that is only defined and dominated by politicians in Harare. Thus one can argue that the history of local governance in Zimbabwe has been its Hararenisation (with apparent reference to all things being built around the Ministry of Local Government, Rural and Urban Development). The voices that are ultimately heard become those of the Minister of Local Government and his fellow Party elites.

The other most recent myth is that devolution is an attack of Zimbabwe's sovereignty and a negation of the Liberation struggles. Such irresponsible and clumsy assertions are not founded on any truth, but an attempt to muzzle democratic principles and ethos. Devolution seeks to protect Zimbabwe's sovereignty in that it confers power to the locals rather than to a handful politicians and bureaucrats in Harare, who think that Zimbabwe begins, and end where there shadows cast and do not cast. The recently exposed Anjin case in the mining of diamonds in Zimbabwe is a case in point where central government has mortgaged the country's resources in return for a paltry $10million from the Chinese to build a defence college, despite that the same company has milked more than an estimated $1billion. More so, the venture was always praised as a 50/50 venture yet, it was nothing anywhere near that but just masked mafia deal that sought to benefit a few clique of individuals. All this point to, is the undermining of Zimbabwe's sovereignty by the Chinese in collaboration with a few elites. In a devolved system of governance such deals would have been easier to challenge and would not have survived. Ironically Marange lies in one of the areas whose sons and daughters contributed largely to the liberation struggle. It would be amazing if the Marange villagers say they participated in the liberation struggle to allow the Chinese to come and plunder local resources and displace them whilst they are wallow in poverty. This calls for devolution of powers to communities to have a say about their resources.

Brief Lessons from South Africa.

Crossing over the Limpopo River there is a good template of what devolution of power may mean. Provinces and local municipalities are empowered to have own budgets, programmes and the power of taxation that helps them to generate income. Therefore municipalities do not only produce brilliant pieces of plans without any funds to finance them. This explains why municipalities like Durban have independently managed to attract major investments and events and the same time are able to create an economy that meets the entrepreneurial and job needs of its citizens. Even the philosophy of the central government is seen in that it even tries to spread its essential functions. For instance Parliament is found in Cape Town whilst the Central Government Offices are based in Pretoria. This spreading of functions has an agglomeration effect of service provisions within the cities that they are put. Zimbabwe may need to look at the same model in terms of reforming its governance system.

Devolution is the way to go

Devolution offers quite a number of advantages in that:

(i)                                   Entrenches democracy and accountability at a local level

(ii)                               Enables speedier decision making and reduces red tape

(iii)                             It means easy access of basic service to citizens

(iv)                           Promotes local economic development

(v)                               The agglomeration effect and encourages even development.

Where central government interference may be entertained may be only in circumstances where there are struggling provinces that may have a limited tax base upon which to fund its fiscus. However, a scan of Zimbabwe's provinces pontificate to that all provinces are endowed with natural activities that when fully exploited, there will be no struggling province resource wise. There is need to revisit the mentality around devolution in Zimbabwe and begin to realise that giving decision making power to the provinces and districts is the way to go. Ministerial interference in local governance need to be removed and this form government can not keep on being at the minister's mercy through a statute of parliament. We need to move towards contitutionalising local government and with clearly spell out powers, roles and responsibilities between central and local government.

There is serious need within the current constitutional dispensation to revisit the system of governance and consider the merits for the case of devolution as an alternative. The Unitary system of governance has failed almost all communities and provinces in Zimbabwe and thus the calls or devolution transcends the tribal innuendos that have been used to suppress debate on this issue. There is also need to steer away the debates from the narrow myths that have been peddled regarding devolution. Devolution is more about empowering communities to make decisions on socio-economic and political issues affecting them. It is also about fostering accountability and speeding decision making in terms of basic service provision, developing local economies and meeting the entrepreneurial and job needs of citizens. Given the litany of failure of the unitary system of governance, devolution is the way to go.

Tamuka Charles Chirimambowa

Political Economist

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