Constitution Watch Content Series 2-2010



[19th August 2010]

Devolution Part I


Devolution of power to the provinces [provincialisation] has been debated at some length in the press recently, and the constitutional outreach programme has revealed how strongly people feel about the issue.  In Matabeleland, for example, there will probably be little support for a new constitution, whatever its merits, if it does not confer a considerable measure of autonomy upon the western provinces.  And this feeling is not confined to Matabeleland:  the further one gets from Harare, it seems, the stronger is the desire for autonomy.

The desire is easy to understand in the light of the country’s history.  Zimbabwe has always been a centralised state and its governments, both before and after Independence, have tended to be authoritarian.  The present Constitution gives barely a nod to the provinces:  section 111A allows governors to be appointed for “any areas” [though only provincial governors have been appointed] but these governors are appointees of the central government and their main function is to enforce the ruling party’s control over the provinces.  Local authorities are mentioned hardly at all in the Constitution.

The demand for devolution is probably a reaction to the over-centralisation of the past and the excesses resulting from it.  The new constitution must go some way towards meeting this demand if it is to be acceptable to the majority of Zimbabweans.  But how far should it go?  What are the advantages and drawbacks of devolution and, particularly, of provincialisation?  What are the problems that are likely to be encountered if power is devolved to the provinces?

Before trying to answer these questions, let us see how provincialisation has been tackled in two draft constitutions that have been put forward in recent years.

Devolution in current constitutional proposals

The Kariba Draft

Under clause 245 of the so-called “Kariba draft” constitution each of the country’s 10 provinces would have a provincial council, but the council would not be an elective body.  It would be chaired by the provincial governor who would be a presidential appointee and an ex officio senator, and its members would include the members of Parliament whose constituencies fall within the province, as well as councillors for local authorities in the province and “other persons” specified in an Act of Parliament.  The functions of provincial councils would be limited to planning and co-ordinating governmental activities in the province.

In clause 248 Local authorities would be established by an Act of Parliament and their functions — administrative, legislative and fiscal — would also be conferred on them by Act of Parliament.  They would, however, be elective bodies.

The “Kariba Draft”, therefore, does not go far along the road to devolution of power:  provincial councils would be dominated by members of the central legislature and their powers would be minimal;  local authorities would be created by the central government and their powers would also be controlled from the centre.  On the other hand, the draft constitution does state in clause 242:

“Provincial councils and local authorities must be given as much autonomy as is compatible with good governance;

“decentralisation must be a principle applying to all levels of local government so that there is participation by the people and democratic control in decision-making.”

The Kariba Draft also specifies that the state must provide adequate finance to enable provincial and local authorities to carry out their functions.

The NCA Draft

The draft constitution produced by the National Constitutional Assembly would go much further towards provincialisation.  Each of five provinces would have a provincial assembly consisting of members elected on a system of proportional representation;  these assemblies would have power to legislate on matters of provincial concern such as planning, tourism, transport, education and health.  They would also have taxing powers.  Provincial governments would be run by provincial governors elected by the assemblies, assisted by executive councils consisting of members of the assemblies.  The central Parliament would have power to nullify provincial legislation, though it would need a two-thirds majority of both Houses to do so.

Under the NCA draft there would be local authorities for urban and rural areas, with powers conferred by an Act of Parliament.  The draft states that:

“Local government institutions must be given as much autonomy as is conducive for the attainment of the objects of local governance.”

And these objects are:

“to provide democratic and accountable government for local communities;

“to promote social and economic development;

“to provide participation by the people in decision-making.”

The NCA draft also specifies that an Act of Parliament must make provision for an equitable distribution of finance between central and provincial governments.

The NCA draft would go further than the Kariba draft in setting up provincial governments with real autonomy.  In regard to local authorities, the provisions of both drafts are substantially the same. 

Neither draft, it may be noted, gives provincial governments power to supervise or control local authorities.  Their supervision would apparently be vested in the central government.

Advantages of Devolution or Provincialisation

The advantages of devolving power may be summarised as follows:

  1. Strong local governments should lead to improved governance and economic development, at least in theory.  This is because:
    1. Local politicians are closer to the people they serve, and are likely to be more responsive to their wishes.
    2. This greater responsiveness gives people a greater say in the aspects of government that closely affect them, such as the provision of water, electricity, education and health care.
    3. Improved delivery of essential services leads to greater productivity.
  2. Devolution should lead to a more equitable distribution of national resources between the provinces.
  3. The decentralisation of power creates separate power-bases within the State and dilutes the control that can be exercised from the centre.  Paradoxically, this may make the State more resilient and reduce the likelihood of coups d'état, because seizing power from the central government does not necessarily bring control over the provinces.  In the last days of the USSR, for example, a coup failed when the coup plotters, having gained control of the central government, found they could not control the semi-autonomous republics that made up the State.  On the other hand, it must be remembered that Nigeria, which is a federal State, has had more than its fair share of coups.
  4. More definitely decentralisation of power makes it less likely that an single political party can take control of all the power centres of the state and substitute itself for legitimate government.
  5. Provincial and local governments are training-grounds for politicians, giving them valuable managerial skills which can be employed at national level for the benefit of the country as a whole.

Too much should not be made of these advantages.  Devolution does not necessarily lead to good governance, for example.  Experience in this country has shown that local politicians and officials can be just as corrupt and incompetent as national ones, and just as difficult to get rid of.  In order to improve the quality of government, therefore, devolution must be accompanied by measures to increase transparency and accountability — to strengthen democracy, in fact.

Disadvantages of Devolution

Provincialisation has its drawbacks:

  1. For a country with a relatively small population and a small tax base having an additional tier of government could be unsustainable.
  2. It could create a another cadre of office bearers getting hefty salaries and perks without giving value for money.
  3. It can encourage regionalism or tribalism.  Advancing one’s own province or even tribe may be acceptable in a provincial politician, but it is a very serious defect at the national level.
  4. It may slow down the processes of government if provincial authorities have to be consulted before decisions are taken at the centre.
  5. Similarly, decisions of the central government may be rendered ineffective if their implementation is left to provincial authorities.
  6. If too much power is devolved to the regions or provinces, the central government may not be left with enough power to hold the country together.


One final point needs to be emphasised:  If there is to be any devolution of power to provinces and local authorities, it must be genuine and effective.  Real powers should be devolved, and the provincial and local governments must be capable of exercising them.  There is no point in giving a provincial government responsibility for water, for example, if the water supplies are controlled by a national parastatal body; no point in giving it power to draw up plans if it cannot implement them.  Devolution cannot be achieved simply by mentioning provincial and local authorities in the Constitution and passing the necessary legislation.  There must be a proper transfer of financial and managerial resources from the central government to the provincial and local authorities to enable them to exercise their devolved functions and to continue exercising them.


Veritas makes every effort to ensure reliable information, but cannot take legal responsibility for information supplied.


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