Perhaps one of the main talking points about the new Constitution, which Zimbabwe looks like will be finally be getting after about four years of illusion, has been the issue of devolution. And on the eve of the agreement by parties on all the "sticky issues" was it not the same issue that we were told had solely stalled the process? Devolution has meant different things to different people.
The greatest proponent of devolution has been MDC "Green" leader Professor Welshman Ncube who at one rally this writer attended in Mutoko stated that the concept was about bringing development to communities, so that not "everything happens in Harare". He was so forceful about this revulsion of Harare as the centre of everything and where money is spent and development enjoyed as to ramp up emotions of the villagers who in this case were convinced that all their God-given black granite had fed Harare and Harare only to their detriment. Yet opponents of Prof Ncube have accused him of hoping to use the devolution issue so he will be secure in Matabeleland where he draws much of his support. (He rejects this idea, of course.)
So, into the fray have come other words and concepts such as decentralisation, divisionism and secession. It is understood that the principals, in settling the contentious issue of devolution, finally agreed that it would be stated clearly that devolution would not be about divisionism or secession but the administrative structures in which provincial governors, as currently obtaining, would be replaced by provincial chairpersons. The provincial chairs would come from the parties carrying the majority seats and elected through provincial councils.
The question about devolution or decetralisation has not only been a political subject, much academic work has been dedicated to the subject. The World Bank, in a paper, describes "administrative decentralisation" as seeking to redistribute authority, responsibility and financial resources for providing public services among different levels of government.
It explains that there are three major forms of administrative decentralisation, namely, deconcentration, delegation, and devolution, each with different characteristics. It says deconcentration "can merely shift responsibilities from central government officials in the capital city to those working in regions, provinces or districts, or it can create strong field administration or local administrative capacity under the supervision of central government ministries."
On the other hand delegation "is a more extensive form of decentralisation as central governments transfer responsibility for decision-making and administration of public functions to semi-autonomous organisations not wholly controlled by the central government, but ultimately accountable to it.
"When governments devolve functions," says WB, "they transfer authority for decision-making, finance, and management to quasi-autonomous units of local government with corporate status." It says devolution usually transfers responsibilities for services to municipalities that elect their own mayors and councils, raise their own revenues, and have independent authority to make investment decisions.
Political aspirants, aka academics such as Prof John Makumbe have noted the confusion surrounding devolution and decentralisation. He contends that devolution is only a component of the four aspects that make up decentralisation; among deconcentration, delegated power and privatisation. In a lecture last year he said a deconcentrated economy lacks autonomy from central government as is the case with the District Administrator's Offices countrywide which takes directives from the head office in Harare.
He explained that parastatals like TelOne, Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority and National Railways of Zimbabwe exercise delegated power as government is sole shareholder.
Under privatisation, the public is allowed to own shares in the entities that have been privatised. He defined devolution as "A transfer of powers from a central government to local units," giving examples of devolved such as France Peru, Papua New Guinea, Spain which has 17 States, the United Kingdom with three and Kenya which has got 47 Counties.
"Decentralisation, deconcentration and devolution: What do they mean?" is a 2004 paper by Elizabeth Linda Yuliani who cites diferent scholars variably defining decentralisation as "transfer of powers from central government to lower levels in a political-administrative and territorial hierarchy" (Crook and Manor 1998, Agrawal and Ribot 1999); transfers of the "locus of decision making" from central governments to regional, municipal or local governments" (Sayer et al); "transforming the local institutional infrastructure for natural resource management on which local forest management is based" (Ribot) and "the means to allow for the participation of people and local governments" (Morell), among other definitions. She says deconcentration refers to "the process by which the agents of central government control are relocated and geographically dispersed".
Retired Lt Col Anil Amarasekera, writing for the Asian Tribune last year, noted that decentralisation amounts to the transfer of power from the central government to a local authority be it a region, a province or a district while devolution is on the other hand the removal of central government power and handing that power over to a region, a province or a district.
He says decentralised power if misused by a region, a province or a district could be recalled by the central government while devolved power can not.
It remains to be seen what model Zimbabwe will use in this saga, and the costs that will attend to such a dispensation economiically, politically and socially.