When Harare Governor and Resident Minister Witness Mangwende accompanied Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo to Bulawayo last month, he had one aim: to learn the best practices in management that have been synonymous with Bulawayo.
It appears he was at cross-purposes with his boss. Chombo had a different mission. He wanted show who was the boss. Nothing and no one would stand in his way even if that meant destroying the very fabric that had made Bulawayo what it was- one of the best run local authorities in the country.
However, Chombo is not just gunning after Bulawayo, but all local authorities, prompting accusations that he is trying to cripple their operations because most are now being run by opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) mayors. If he paralyses their operations, therefore, the MDC will be blamed, especially in view of the pending general elections.
The biggest blow to local authorities was the freeze on increases in rates which was due on July 1. There was no prior warning. He did not even bother to wait for the Urban Councils Association meeting that was a week away as this would have given him a unique opportunity to consult the local authorities.
The rates had only been gazetted two months earlier, after a five-month delay. Chombo’s abrupt decision has left observers wondering why the minister has decided to interfere with the operations of local authorities when most of them are barely above water.
“There is no rational at all for Chombo’s decision,” MDC shadow Minister for Local Government Gabriel Chaibva said. “This is just a political statement that is blatantly motivated by greed and the desire to cling to power at whatever cost.”
Chaibva said the move was aimed at appeasing the electorate ahead of the 2005 elections and nothing else. The other aim was to discredit the councils and their mayors because most of them were now MDC.
“Chombo is not doing it for the people at all,” Chaibva said. “He is doing it to throw confusion into the administration of the councils because this is a regime that thrives on chaos.”
He added: “Of course residents will welcome the freeze as they would welcome any reduction in prices, but at what cost? They will have to foot the bill later in one way or the other.
“But when they do, they will blame local authorities (the MDC) for inefficiency and maladministration yet the local authorities have not been given a chance to run efficiently. Councils have not been given a chance to implement their financial plans.”
Bulawayo business consultant Eric Bloch said Chombo was being “totally unrealistic” and was just trying to please voters ahead of the next elections.
“Local authorities are facing the same inflationary pressures that everyone else is facing such as escalating electricity, phone and stationery charges. They are also facing salary and wage demands, yet the government is now freezing their income flow,” Bloch said.
“Government is not paying attention to the consequences and repercussions of the freeze on rates increases. It is ignoring the need to maintain roads, sewerage and water supplies. After all the proposed increases are way below current inflation,” he said.
“This is a local government disaster and will only increase the discomfort of rate payers because the standards of service delivery will certainly decline.”
Chaibva brushed off reasons for the freeze given by Chombo that the economy was improving, inflation was declining and the local currency had firmed since the budgets were drafted.
“These are really flimsy reasons. Is the economy improving? Are people getting jobs or companies are closing down? Are more workers earning above the poverty datum line or things are getting worse?” he asked.
Chaibva said contrary to Chombo’s claim that he was rescuing residents, he was punishing them simply because they had voted MDC mayors into office. He cited the example of Gwanda where the government cut off water supplies to the town at the end of May because it had not paid its bill of $574 million to the Zimbabwe National Water Authority.
“This shows you how uncaring this government really is. How can a government allow water to be cut off to a town of over 30 000 just because a bill has not been paid?” he asked. “But the water was cut off because the people had elected an MDC mayor (Thandeko Mnkandhla), yet the bill was incurred when Rido Mpofu of ZANU-PF was mayor.”
“Right now Chitungwiza is in dire financial crisis, yet most of the debts were incurred when Joseph Macheka of ZANU-PF was mayor,” Chaibva said. Chitungwiza mayor Misheck Shoko admitted at the weekend that the council was in dire straits. “Chitungwiza is charging below market rates,” he was quoted as saying. “Rural district councils do not even charge such ridiculous rates for households. The amount is actually less than the price of three litres of diesel.”
A Bulawayo resident said duplication of jobs was now disrupting the smooth operations of the country’s two biggest towns, Harare and Bulawayo.
“The biggest mistake we have made is that we have allowed politics to creep into how local authorities are run. Why are we having a governor and a mayor for Harare and Bulawayo?
“The money that is being spent on the salaries of the governor and his supporting staff as well as their perks would have gone a long way in resuscitating the sewerage and water systems that are collapsing,” he said.
Chaibva said Chombo’s meddling in the affairs of local authorities would definitely cripple their operations. He said right now only one pump out of six was operating at the Morton Jaffray Water Works.
The city’s director of works Psychology Chiwanga was quoted by the daily press as saying only seven of the 16 water reservoirs in the city were above 50 percent full. Five were between 30 and 50 percent full while three were below 10 percent.
Chaibva, who said he met all the mayors, except one, at the weekend, said Harare was likely to have a deficit of $95 billion because of the freeze on increases in rates. Mutare would have a deficit of between $25 and $35 billion. Efforts to get the figure for Bulawayo were fruitless as the mayor and his executive staff were locked up in meetings to assess the impact of the freeze and map the way forward. City treasurer Middleton Nyoni has, however, said the council lost $3.6 billion in potential revenue in the first quarter of the year due to the delay by the government in approving the council’s budget.
“The irony about the whole issue is that the government is asking local authorities to put their books in order and has set aside $20 billion for them under the Public Sector Facility,” Chaibva said. “No council, including ZANU-PF run councils like Kadoma and Kwekwe, will qualify for this facility because they are not credit worthy. How do they get credit worthy when the minister is running the show?”
The central bank only charges interest of 50 percent on the public sector facility and has given local authorities until the end of this month to apply. But they must produce externally audited financial results for 2003.
Chaibva said he was trying to arrange a meeting with Chombo to iron out this problem but said this was an uphill task. “The minister is very arrogant and thick-headed. He will not listen to anyone but I will try to talk to him,” he said.
However, as one resident said, the people might rejoice now, but they will pay later, probably after the elections in nine months time.