– by Holger Thomsen, Heike Meuser
© Ariadne Van Zandbergen/picture-alliance/dpa
A rural road in Inhambane Province.
Mozambique is in the midst of economic transition. Substantial natural gas reserves and coal deposits have been found in the country’s northern provinces, and international commodity companies have begun to apply for exploration and business licences.
There are already signs of the expected economic upturn, particularly in Maputo, the capital. For a long time, Maputo was regarded as a city which had missed out on Africa’s boom. Today, however, residential buildings and embassies are rising up fast, and so are hotels for tourists and business people from all over the world. Ever more cars are on the roads, and rents are rising to levels previously unheard of.
The majority of the people, however, live in the country’s 10 provinces and 43 municipalities. The municipalities are local bodies with revenues and budgetary powers of their own. The provinces, in contrast, depend on the national government politically and financially. Each province is subdivided into districts.
Maputo used to be “the” power centre of Mozambique during both the colonial period and the subsequent civil war. The country was under Portuguese rule until 1975. The colonial power never got far beyond the major coastal towns which continue to dominate the country’s economy and politics. The Portuguese hastily withdrew after the declaration of independence. Even today, there are only few well-run schools or public authorities outside the capital city. This has repercussions for the development of state structures, particularly in rural areas. Those who cannot read and write have little bearing on politics even at the local level.
The development of the postcolonial state initially followed the socialist model of a centralised state, controlled by the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO), the dominant party. State and party were only separated formally by the constitution of 1990. The civil war ended in 1992, and powers have gradually been devolved from the capital to provincial and district authorities and to the municipalities. When “decentralisation” is discussed in Mozambique, the term refers to two separate ideas: the strengthening of government institutions at the subnational levels on the one hand, and more democratic self-administration at the municipal, though not the provincial level, on the other hand.
Cândida Moiane is the national director at Mozambique’s Ministry of State Administration. She is familiar with the challenges her country faces. “The goal of decentralisation is to involve the local people in problem solving, to encourage local development and to improve public services.” She points out, however, that funds are limited and that there is a lack of competent administrative staff. The pace of decentralisation, according to her, is dictated by the circumstances.
The districts have been required for a number of years to account for their expenditure and to organise transparent tenders for all major investments. The problem is that many officials who are supposed to handle these new tasks at the district level are not up to the job yet and need to be trained. This is an issue where development-cooperation agencies can make a difference (see box below). Devolution, after all, is not just about transferring responsibilities, but about developing capacities too.
Inhambane is an example of what decentralisation can look like in practice. This town of 72,000 inhabitants enjoys the status of a municipality. It has an elected city council with extensive powers. Every four years, the citizens elect their mayor directly. The local authority functions with some success and has contributed to reducing the poverty rate.
There is still a great number of challenges however. Like many other cities in Mozambique, Inhambane must cope with a steady increase in population. “The biggest challenge we face is to revise the urban development plan”, says council member Massingarela. “There are many informal settlements on the outskirts of the city. We want to demarcate specific areas for the expansion of the city and avoid unregulated construction.” The enforcement of urban planning, however, is prone to conflict. As is true of many developing countries, urban growth did not follow any formal rules in Mozambique in the past. That many people have no alternative to their improvised slum settlements compounds the problems.
Last year Inhambane prepared its first ever participatory budget, with an impact on this year’s municipal expenditures. “In regard to the money available for each neighbourhood, priorities were defined in cooperation with the representatives of the local people”, says Massingarela. To be enforced, these decisions need council approval.
Unlike the municipalities, the provinces do not have any true political autonomy. Inhambane is subdivided into 12 districts. There are no mayors, and the people are only represented by “conselhos consultivos”. By law, these “consultative” bodies give advice to the district administrations, which are appointed by the national and provincial leadership. In practice, the conselhos try to get a say in all important issues at the level of their districts. Eleven of the 12 districts have drafted strategic development plans. These plans tackle issues such as economic and social development, disaster prevention, gender equality and combating HIV/AIDS. However, it remains uncertain what measures will be implemented. Funds are limited, and so are the provinces’ decision-making powers.
Quiteria Luciano is a member of the conselho consultivo for the district of Morrumbene. She says that the consultative councils have made a difference in spite of their limited political power: “The way in which planning is carried out at the local level has changed considerably.” The local people are involved and able to make proposals, some of which later materialise. “It didn’t use to be like this before the conselhos consultivos were introduced”, says Luciano.
A recently introduced, innovative internal system for financial auditing, in which local people are involved, has also proved effective in Inhambane Province. Citizens are invited to turn to the „Inspecção Administrativa Provincial“ which is under obligation to check all submissions. The new approach has led to the exposure of several corruption cases and even resulted in successful court action against a high-ranking official. In March 2012, the Mozambique Audit Court opened a branch office in the Province. It serves as external independent supervisory authority.
In December 2012, Mozambique’s decentralisation strategy was ratified by the parliament. It is the result of a lengthy political debate. More towns are to become municipalities with elected mayors like Inhambane. In May one new municipality was established in every province. Bernhard Weimer is an expert in decentralisation and editor of the essay collection “Moçambique: Descentralizar o Centralismo”. He doubts that the policy can be equated with democratisation and whether the strengthening of subnational institutions automatically results in increased participation by the local population. In his opinion, the strategy will lead to a situation where municipalities and districts compete for funds, legitimacy and qualified staff. He advocates giving provinces and districts more financial resources of their own, granting them greater decision-making autonomy and making them subject to effective control by the Ministry of Finance and the Court of Audit.
It is obvious that decentralisation is gradually bearing fruit in Mozambique. It is equally obvious, however, that the reform programme still has quite a way to go and that all involved will keep learning from experience.