Malawi’s return to democracy in 1993 gave rise to calls for decentralisation. Many Malawians prefer calling it “power to the people”.
Angella Mawaya, who voted for democracy in the historic referendum, says: “We wanted change from one-party rule, but democracy is nothing if people wait for decisions of few at Capital Hill.”
Mawaya reckons that Malawians are not reaping full dividends of the power shift from the central government to local councils required by the Decentralisation Act of 1998. She reckons Malawians deserve better while some councillors, legislators and council staff steal public funds.
“This is shocking because most local councils that still wait for funds from Capital Hill are struggling to provide water, sanitation and business facilities in markets where they collect daily fees. If all funds were put to good use, service delivery would improve,” she says.
‘Use your power’
Charles Kalemba, Principal Secretary for the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, urges Malawians to vigilantly provide checks and balances to councils.
“We have lived up to the promise to give power to the people, but the people must take up the challenge. If you are given power, you have to use it to your advantage,” he says.
Kalemba likens the 75 percent devolution of government functions, funds, staff and assets to local governments to writing a will.
“If you are an inheritor of your parents’ estate, you have to use the inheritance to improve your chances in life,” he states. “People at the local level must use their power to get maximum benefits from decentralised systems by demanding quality services and holding duty-bearers to account. Power is never given on a silver platter. Demand the best from councils.”
Kalemba asks citizens to demand an end to corruption in councils which slows community development.
“When a thief breaks into your home, do you wait for the police without doing anything?” he asks.
His ministry works with National Audit Office, Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), Financial Intelligence Authority and civil society to ensure no one steals public funds.
Presently, ACB is probing three councillors in Karonga for a suspicious land sale worth K2.4 million, reported by Kalemba.
He warns against public indifference to fraud by duty-bearers.
Kalemba states: “No one should wait for the government to take fraudsters to task because laws and systems are there at local level.
“Even councillors committees are supposed to provide checks and balances. Councillors in Nthalire or Chididi are best-placed to detect substandard school projects in their area faster than someone at Capital Hill,” he argues.
However, National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust executive director Ollen Mwalubunju says most councillors lack requisite education and competences to keep corrupt practices in check.
He explains: “Councillorship attracts illiterate and low-calibre personnel who do not add value to the local governance.
“Most of them cannot hold the council secretariat accountable; hence, their role of providing checks and balances is compromised.”
Mwalubunju bemaoans that “some councillors have joined the bandwagon” benefitting from fraud with council secretariats.
Transparency and accountability campaigners urge President Lazarus Chakwera to swiftly activate the Access to Information Act and shatter official secrecy over corruption.
“The law, passed by Parliament in 2016, will be key in the fight against corruption because it gives citizens, journalists and the civil society access to information treated as a preserve for government officials to conceal clandestine dealings in local government business,” says Youth and Society executive director Charles Kajoloweka.
He states that despite calls for public vigilance, the central government is crucial in tackling fraud by naughty council officials it hires but seldom sacks.
Licence to loot
Kajoloweka states: “Most audits that reveal fraud in councils were supposed to be acted upon by central government through Secretary to Treasury, but there has been laxity to hold controlling officers to account.
“Despite massive abuse of public resources, failure to discipline them has become a licence for more looting which must be dealt with.”
Paul Mvula, project officer at the CCAP Livingstonia Synod’s Church and Society Programme, which works with people in all five districts in the North to track council spending, says the law gathering dust will help Malawians take to task corrupt council officials.
He explains: “In Malawi, we have decentralisation in theory because prominent council officials—district commissioners, chief executive officers and directors of finance—cannot be held account by communities since they are appointed by the central government.
“Some controlling officers even withhold information from councillors, so can ordinary citizens demand credible information in the absence of access to information laws?”
On Monday, Malawi commemorated the African Day of Decentralisation, which promotes principles of good governance. The theme—Fighting Corruption at Local Level, A Austainable Path for Improved Service Delivery—highlights benefits of prudent local government spending.
Kalemba’s ministry is working with Local Government Accountability and Performance Project (Lgap) to plug leakage of limited resources, improve revenue collection and entrench efficiency in all 28 district councils.
Kalemba says the initiative funded by DfID and USAid has strengthened systems for improved delivery of public services in line with the public sector reforms.
He says: “Lgap is a huge catalyst in terms of council governance. It has helped us strengthen the legal, policy and regulatory framework.
“The future looks promising. With the change of government, there is impetus to transform the systems and the people. This will make a difference.”