Maputo — The Mozambican parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, on Wednesday unanimously passed the first reading of a set of constitutional amendments on decentralisation, which will allow the indirect election of mayors, provincial governors and district administrators.
The amendments are the result of lengthy negotiations between the government and the rebel movement Renamo, with the direct involvement of President Filipe Nyusi and the late Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama.
Dhlakama died on 3 May - before one final disagreement had been ironed out. This was over how district administrators should be appointed prior to the first election of district assemblies in 2024.
Since the matter had not even been mentioned in the consensual document agreed between Nyusi and Dhlakama in early February, the parliamentary group of the ruling Frelimo party argued that the current system, whereby the Minister of State Administration appoints district administrators, should remain in force until 2024.
But Renamo insisted that the provincial governors who will be elected next year should have the power to appoint the administrators.
This impasse seemed likely to derail the constitutional amendments altogether. Any amendment to the constitution requires a two thirds majority in the Assembly - which is 167 votes out of the 250 deputies. The parliamentary arithmetic determines that a two thirds majority can only be achieved if the Frelimo and Renamo groups vote the same way.
Until Tuesday that seemed impossible - indeed, on Tuesday morning an Assembly official told AIM there was no way the constitutional amendments could be debated before the close of this parliamentary sitting on Friday.
But suddenly the impasse disappeared, following a phone call which Nyusi, currently on a working visit to the central province of Sofala, made to the Frelimo parliamentary group.
The compromise solution reached, which allowed all deputies to vote for the amendments, was that, up until 2024, the district administrators will be appointed by the Minister of State Administration, but after "consultations" with the provincial governor.
At a subsequent press conference, when asked about the nature of such "consultations", the head of the Renamo group, Ivone Soares, said this would be defined outside of the constitution, in a set of regulations to be debated in an extraordinary sitting of the Assembly, and her Frelimo counterpart, Margarida Talapa, agreed.
The initial constitutional proposals from Nyusi and Dhlakama envisaged mayors, provincial governors and district administrators being appointed by whichever political party won a majority in the municipal, provincial or district assembly. This caused outrage in civil society since it transferred political power from the voters to the parties.
A respected jurist, and former judge on the Constitutional Council, Teodato Hunguana, wrote influential articles arguing that the Nyusi/Dhlakama proposal violated the constitutional provisions on universal suffrage. But this could be corrected by a simple change - whoever headed the winning list for the municipal, provincial or district assembly would automatically become the mayor, the provincial governor or the district administrator.
Thus, although there would only be one ballot paper, the voters would, in effect, be voting for the assembly and for the mayor (or governor, or administrator) at the same time. They would know in advance who the candidates for the top job were, and the political parties would not be able to impose anybody else.
Frelimo, Renamo and the second opposition force, the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM) all accepted this, and it is this formulation that is in the rewritten constitutional amendments approved ion Wednesday.
Most of the other matters covered in the amendments are much the same as in the Nyusi/Dhlakama consensus of February.
Thus the decentralised municipal, provincial and district bodies will enjoy administrative and financial autonomy, but they must respect "the unitary state, national unity, the sovereignty and indivisibility of the state, and be guided by the principles of the prevalence of the national interest, subsidiarity and gradualism".
The central state will retain full authority in matters of defence and security, public order, foreign policy, the issuing of currency, and creating and altering taxes. The state will also have exclusive responsibility over energy, minerals and other natural resources.
To exercise these functions the central state will have its representatives in the provinces, districts and municipalities.
Only the provincial and district assemblies may sack a governor or administrator (for violation of the constitution, for "actions against national unity", for repeated violation of budgetary and financial rules, and in the event that a court sentences the governor or administrator to a prison term).
The government may dissolve any of the assemblies, but the reasons for doing so will be established in a future law.
At the subsequent press conference, both Talapa and Soares said it remained crucial to conclude the second item that had been under negotiation between Nyusi and Dhlakama - the demilitarisation of Renamo.
Talapa urged the new Renamo leadership "to accept the undertaking given by Dhlakama to dismantle the residual forces of Renamo". Soares, however, stressed the need for incorporating members of the Renamo militia into the defence and security forces.
Since there are now less than five months before the municipal elections scheduled for 10 October, it is a matter of considerable urgency to change the electoral law to incorporate the changes dictated by the constitutional amendments.
An extraordinary sitting of the Assembly will be held to deal with this and all the other new regulations flowing from the constitutional amendments. The date for this sitting will be announced by the Assembly chairperson, Veronica Macamo.