Dar es Salaam — Among the issues that Mr Benjamin Mkapa felt strongly about when he took the reins as President of Tanzania was to reform the local government.
Why? The answer can be obtained in his recently published memoir in which he writes: "The district administration level is really where you can get things moving, especially in the fight against poverty."
Mr Mkapa is disillusioned, however, with what he thinks is the now-growing disregard of meritocracy in the appointment of people expected to steer these authorities into the sought prosperity such as district commissioners (DCs) and district executive directors (DEDs), a practice he says became especially rampant during his successor's term, Mr Jakaya Kikwete.
"In the old days there was a district system of progression, building up from the lowest grade district officer, studying and sitting exams as you moved up, even studying law because sometimes you were a third-class magistrate," writes Mr Mkapa regrettably in his 320-page memoirs 'My Life, My Purpose'.' "This long preparation meant that when you become a district commissioner you knew a lot about how a district is properly managed and governed."
Appointing people as DCs or DEDs from all spheres - "from newspapermen to foreign service officers" - hampers local development efforts, writes the former Head of State whose Mkapa Foundation works to address the shortage of skilled health professionals in rural underserved settings. He insists on the need to rethink the qualifications of the people filling these positions which, he thinks, are "so important to the communities" where "much interaction with the citizenry" occurs.
Everything is politicised
Will Museveni finally 'walk' corruption out of Uganda?
Ups, downs of a highly educated stay-at-home mother
Victor Wanyama wanted by former club
Plane crash kills nine, injures three in South Dakota
Mr Mkapa's take on the administration of local government authorities reverberated across the country's community development circles where discussions on the need to build capacity to local authorities' leadership as well as to increase the autonomy of these authorities have been ongoing for quite sometimes now.
It is not surprising then to see Mr Mkapa's remarks received with appreciation by the experts in the area, with some of them saying that eighty-year-old statesman hit the nail directly on the head.
This, the experts point out, is because there was no way one can expect local government authorities to deliver if people occupying the leadership positions are completely inept of any public administration principles.
The 1999-introduced policy of decentralisation by devolution which led to the introduction of local government authorities, says Mr Hebron Mwakagenda of Tanzania Constitution Forum (TCF), will fail to meet its goals of improving the living standards of the people by providing basic social services if there will not be an emphasis on professionalism as well as autonomy in the running of the authorities.
"You cannot expect local government authorities to deliver when, for example, a total of 84 [district executive] directors across the country are former ruling [Chama cha Mapinduzi] CCM political candidates with neither expertise nor experience whatsoever in public administration," says Mr Mwakagenda, who is the TCF's chairperson. "Everything in this country is being politicised; everything even things that need to be kept out of politics."
Nowhere are the implications of this disregard of professionalism in the running of local governments is more vivid than in the audit reports released by the office of the Controller and Auditor General (CAG) annually.
So superfluous are the CAG's findings and recommendations because of being repeatedly given that former CAG Prof Mussa Assad felt the need to apologise to repeat them in his latest 2017/2018 audit report. Prof Assad said that given their repetition, one would rationally be expected to interrogate the role of his office in improving financial performance and accountability of the local government authorities.
"It is worth noting that my office advocates a culture of accountability but does not have the legal mandate to hold auditees accountable for their actions," noted Prof Assad in a defence to the government expenditures oversight body. Constitutionally, such powers are vested in the executive and legislature branches of the government, he continued.
The identical findings and recommendations that the CAG has been pointing out in his consecutive audit reports include the non-utilisation of the funds allocated for projects implementation; delay in implementation and completion of the projects; and diversion of funds from development projects to finance unintended activities by local government authorities.
Another pertinent issue is the incompletion of projects due to late or none-release of fund, inadequate community participation in development activities or inadequate project management as well as the abandonment of the projects for a long time which contributes to their incompletion.
Inefficient oversight mechanisms
The CAG's call has unanimously been the need for the government to strengthen "the institutional structures of local government authorities," hoping that this "will increase efficiency and accountability of resources in the LGAs and develop systems and strategies that will support the implementation and finalization of long outstanding audit recommendations and prevent their recurrence," as Prof Assad points out in the latest audit report.
Mr Godfrey Boniventura is the head of programmes at HakiElimu, a non-government organisation working with local communities to transform the country's education. He thinks that a major problem with the local government authorities is the lack of what he calls a "strong and efficient oversight bodies" that would serve as a watchdog of the authorities' financial as well as other important dealings.
"The need for effectiveness and efficiency in the financial management calls for a strong system in such areas as planning, execution, overseeing and the likes. Now, this is currently amiss in the local authorities where Full Councils face a myriad of challenges in implementing their oversight mandates," says Mr Boniventura, naming the lack of capacity and a lack of ownership of local projects among the members of the Full Councils. Full Councils are formed by councillors where various issues are submitted for scrutiny.
Although the central government authorities seem to appreciate this fact - as evidenced in its recent circular on the status of revenue collections by local authorities - nothing which indicates its commitment to working to right these wrongs seem to be on the horizon. Experts tell The Citizen that any efforts to deal with local government maladies that do not involve the prioritisation of professionalism on those tasked to run the local authorities are prone to fail.
In the January 2019 circular, the government boasts the increase of revenues collected by local government authorities in the period of five years, from Sh323 billion in the 2013/2014 financial year to Sh553 in 2017/2018, an increase of Sh53.5 billion annually.
While some local government authorities performed well throughout the five-year period, others were not able to reach even the 50 per cent target.
According to the government own analysis, proper use of the electronic revenue collection system; vigilance in both supervision and follow-up of revenue collection; as well as preventing and combating tax evasion determined in one way or the other which local government authorities did better in meeting the set revenue collection target and which did worse.
Imposition of priorities
Levolosi Ward councillor in Arusha City Ephata Nanyaro (Chadema) is of the views that any efforts to improve the efficiency of the local government authorities must be accompanied by efforts to increase their autonomy. Mr Nanyaro, who has been the councillor since 2010, says that you cannot expect local governments to deliver in a culture where policies and priorities are dictated top-down with little or no inputs from the local authorities.
"There are impositions of priorities by central government into local authorities and that explains a lot why a lot of projects fail because people feel no ownership towards them at all. Local governments are not autonomous enough to devise strategies to deal with the challenges of their people. Whereas there is no autonomy, there is no innovation and that leads to failure," says Mr Nanyaro. He gave as an example of the recent ban by President John Magufuli on local authorities to borrow, saying the government should choose to embrace autonomous local government authorities or no local government systems at all. Mr Magufuli prohibited local authorities to stop seeking loans from financial institutions for construction of bus stands and markets.
Michaela Collord, a junior research fellow in politics at New College, University of Oxford, calls this "limited fiscal autonomy" one of the factors hampering efforts towards community wealth building in the country where "austerity politics means that many areas with the limited inward investment are seeing even fewer money enters and circulates through the local economy."
Ms Collord was writing in The Next System Project on how Kigoma municipality can follow the model of Preston local authority in Lancashire, in the United Kingdoms in ensuring inclusive development and curb income inequality.
Mr Mkapa writes in his memoirs that he "vowed" to reinforce a system of progression and the need for professionally trained and experienced district commissioners. He says: "I much regret that I failed to achieve all my desired reforms in this area." He claims that this failure would have not been possible if the country was still under a one-party system, putting the blame on the multi-party system.
Given the fact that the political pluralism has flourished in the country almost twenty years since his stepping-down as president it begs the question of whether the Magufuli administration will be able to surmount the 'hindrance' and push the desired reforms in local government authorities forward.