At 36, Chrissy Jana has the nerve to do what others can only dream of in their lifetime. As she leaves her Maluwa Village, in Traditional Authority (T/A) Kuntumanji in Zomba for a nearby communal meeting, Jana punches her fist in the air ostensibly celebrating at the opportunity to speak at the gathering.
With a baby strapped on her back, she enters the venue of the meeting and quickly takes up a seat in the middle of the crowd. Her hands folded across the chest as if waiting for the right time to strike.
“Our chiefs are only picking their preferred relatives and friends to participate in project works. Those of us without a name are left out,” laments Jana, drawing a loud applause from the crowd.
“There is a lot of discrimination, corruption and nepotism here. Most people know these things but nobody is saying or doing anything to stop it,” she adds, much to the deafening noise of the patrons.
“We are lagging behind in terms of development because of such behaviour by our leaders. Why is there such discrimination?” she asks, attracting more hand-clapping, ululation and whistling.
“Even when 10 people take part in development works, you will see that a long list of strange people including chiefs join to get cash they never worked for,” Jana says, as patrons cheered her on.
It is this unreported tendency by chiefs in the area to line up for cash when they have not taken part in project works that saddens her more.
In early February 2018, Jana was part of approximately 500 people that thronged Sakata Community Hall where officials and citizens met to dialogue on issues such as Constituency Development Fund (CDF), roles of councillors, legislators, councils and citizens in the democratic process.
Present at the meeting were district commissioner (DC), director of finance at the council, Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development representative, councillors, National Initiative for Civic Education (Public) Trust officials and community leaders. As she took to the floor, her voice ricocheted around the hall like thunder, prompting Charles Udzingo, 48, to join the chorus of condemning leaders who reap from where they did not sow.
“When leaders such as these are benefiting from things meant for poor people, they are not fit for office. This is common here and we condemn it,” Udzingo, from Njala Village in T/A Kuntumanji, says.
Zomba DC Emmanuel Bambe agrees there is a tendency by some chiefs who benefit from project works they did not even take part in.
“Most chiefs, even if we enlist them in development works, they don’t take part but only come to get the money. Please report such issues even anonymously and I will take action,” Bambe tells an impatient crowd.
He also gives an example of recalcitrant politicians who take project works to areas where most people voted them although government sees no political colours in resource allocations.
“Let us take part in issues that affect us all. The thing is, if you don’t report, you will just be complaining for the rest of your life,” Bambe advises.
Besides, citizens expressed concerns over CDF implementation, arguing most projects funded under this funding window are done without their involvement. They also mentioned proliferation of fake invoices for nonexistent or uncompleted project works.
In collaboration with the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, the Local Government Accountability and Performance (LGAP) project is supporting such interface meetings, also known as town hall meetings.
The idea of the town hall meeting is to deepen transparency and accountability while at the same time strengthening citizens’ participation in a democratic process by providing a platform for dialogue between citizens and duty bearers.
Similar town hall meetings are planned in other LGAP districts of Mzimba, Kasungu, Balaka, Machinga, Blantyre and Mulanje, with Lilongwe already conducting its meeting late last year.
With over $23 million funding from USAID and UKAID for a five-year period (2016-2021), LGAP is designed to support the Government of Malawi in the implementation of the National Decentralisation Policy and to strengthen demand for accountable and high-performing local governance.
Malawi adopted the National Decentralisation Policy in 1998, resulting in the promulgation of an enabling law –the Local Government Act, to shift power from central government to local councils for better coordination and provision of quality service to benefit local citizens.
While reasons for adopting decentralisation are many and varied, one of the popular justifications is that it empowers citizens to influence public decisions that affect their lives. However, the only blip on the decentralisation process is that most local governments are not in the practice of making relevant information available to the public in their areas of work. Thus, the local population is not necessarily aware of the actions or intentions of their local authority, resulting in suspicion and mistrust in many cases.
Effective citizen participation in service delivery and developmental initiatives opens up avenues for information flow between the local authorities and the citizens. However, the absence of empowered Village Development Committees and Areas Development Committees and other grassroots structures has exacerbated this situation over the years. As such, forums such as the Sakata town hall meeting stand a chance to fill up this glaring gap as a sure mechanism to enhance communication between citizens and local governments.
For Bambe, town hall meetings ably provide this platform for citizens to meet with their representatives and voice out any issues of concern to bring positive change.
“With meetings such as these, citizens can take to task duty bearers to explain what they are doing and ensure accountability and transparency,” he says, underscoring the need for better service delivery in the district.
True to that, for citizens such as Jana, the battle to hold leaders accountable is not over until they begin to be fair and accountable to the people they represent.
“We have learnt something from this town hall meeting. From now on, we will now begin to report people who think they are untouchable,” she says.