The centralised government model has failed to develop all areas equitably, leading to uneven development which is evident as one travels in any direction from the capital city.
Uneven development has largely affected areas in the west of the country, especially the Matabeleland provinces, and this has prompted political parties, civil society and pressure groups from that area to advocate devolution in the new constitution.
They argue that political power and resource allocation decisions are controlled in the capital and there was very little that trickled down to the areas further away from Harare, especially in their direction.
Matabeleland has been sidelined from development and certain projects which could have eased specific problems have either been ignored or stalled. An example is the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project, which was expected to ease water problems and boost agriculture in the otherwise dry area, but has been stalled for decades.
Matabeleland-based political parties, civic organisations and pressure groups argue that with devolution, authorities at a lower level would be granted statutory powers.
These authorities at a lower level would have powers to draw up budgets and allocate resources based on the need of each area. Zimbabwe’s experiment with decentralisation as a development model can be traced back to the establishment of the Provincial Governors and Administration Act.
Not much was achieved and 11 years later the then Local Government minister, John Nkomo, came up with the 16 principles on decentralisation as a way of dealing with regional development within the decentralised framework, which, like most of the country’s policies and policy statements, gathered dust in the corridors of power.
Analysts said calls for devolution were a clear sign that there has been uneven development in the country and some areas were now frustrated hence they would want to seize the constitutional moment to seek redress.
John Makumbe, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, said devolution in the country could face problems because of the size of the country (measuring 380 590 square kilometres) but it was worth a try.
“The real reason why there is a call for devolution is that the experience of governance has seen the development of other provinces and the neglect of others,” said Makumbe. “This is a result of the bitter history of marginalisation of provinces. You can see that companies are relocating from Bulawayo to Harare and if you look at the capital city, you see very tall buildings but in other cities buildings have only one floor.”
Another analyst, Ibbo Mandaza, an academic and former top civil servant, concurred, saying calls for devolution had to do with “the nasty period in post-independent Zimbabwe, including Gukurahundi”.
During Gukurahundi an army brigade was deployed to the western parts of the country to contain dissidents but ended up killing civilians between 1982 and 1987.
“It also has something to do with the unresolved national question in Zimbabwe and it has to be addressed,” said Mandaza. “Today it is Matabeleland saying this and tomorrow it will be Masvingo or Manicaland. It is sad that the leadership has shown that it has failed to address the issue.”
Devolution, analysts added, could be a very strong instrument for enhancing and achieving sustainable development in all provinces unlike now when only the Mashonaland provinces appear to have benefited since Independence.
Morgan Jeranyama, programme manager at the Non State Actors Forum, said devolution would allow for empowered regional development if all the requisite factors, including human, material and financial resources, become available in the regions.
“We must stop just thinking of the benefits with respect to budgetary or financial resources only,” said Jeranyama. “The material, natural, financial and technological resources may be abundant but when the right human resource is not present, the expected benefits will not be realised.”
Jeranyama added that while it was true that a lot of development programmes failed to take effect because the regional plans have not received sufficient budgetary support from the centre, the whole issue required extreme caution as devolution in the absence of adequate resources would not change situations.
“Yes, devolution can be a strong instrument for enhancing and achieving sustainable development,” Jeranyama said. “I must warn though that if not properly managed, the model can result in greater regional imbalances and glaring inequalities. The results would therefore be quite opposite to what is intended.”
Mandaza echoed the same sentiments, saying if not handled carefully, devolution could “exacerbate the problem and lead to secessionism,” that is when regions break away from central government and establish autonomous states.
“But if it was going to be done along the lines of devolution in the United States then there would be no problem,” Mandaza said. “The real fear is the fragility of the state. African states are in the making and there is no nation state. This means that though the states may have authority, there is no consensus.”
State fragility emanates from the failure by many leaders in post-colonial Africa to build nations based on consensus as evidenced by uneven development and rule by coercion which prompts secessionist tendencies, as has been seen in Sudan where the southern parts want to disengage from the north.
Jeranyama added that there are regions that are richly endowed with natural resources and have the capacity to generate a lot of revenue which they can plough back and in the process achieve faster development and growth.
“The argument here is that these regions view collection of the revenue by the centralised system and the subsequent redistribution to other regions as an impediment to their own fast growth,” said Jeranyama. “They consider the centralised system as a short-changing one. These regions see great benefit from being allowed to raise and use those revenues without the central government interfering.”
While central government has a distributive function, the history of uneven development in Zimbabwe has seen regions richly endowed with resources underwriting the development of other areas.
Areas with mineral resources, for example Manicaland, have functioned as a source, with the processing and marketing of the minerals concentrated in the capital which then would create employment opportunities in the surrounding areas.