Devolution Essay, case study of Zimbabwe



Devolution is the statutory granting of powers from the government of a sovereign state to government to government at a sub national level (Muchadenyika, 2015). Therefore they enjoy autonomy from the centre. This means that any one level of government is not under any obligation to refer to or seek authority from the centre in order to make or implement decisions that fall within their exclusive jurisdiction. However they must recognize that they are part of the larger state. The ultimate objective of devolving powers is to develop a democratic system of governance and an adequate provision of basic services (Cannon and Ali, 2018).


Devolution in Zimbabwe and Africa

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have adopted constitutions which legislate different forms of decentralisation for their governance structures and systems. This currency and desirability for decentralisation is built on a consensus of African governments, international development agencies and civil society organisations that see it as a democratic system of government which advances citizen participation in human development (Muchadenyika and Williams, 2016). This consensus further sees decentralisation as a key for local democratisation in Africa since it brings a locally responsive government closer to the people and makes government more accountable to local people. Although there are four main forms of decentralisation, namely, administrative, political, fiscal and market, many African governments have chosen to implement political decentralisation (devolution) and administrative decentralisation (deconcentration) with those running devolved systems of government being seen and acclaimed as more democratic (Kanyinga, 2016).

Devolution of power is enshrined in Zimbabwe’s new 2013 Constitution as one of the country’s founding values and principles. Zimbabwe’s statutory objectives for the devolution of governmental powers and responsibilities include (Muchadenyika, 2015):

(a) to give powers of local governance to the people and enhance their participation in the exercise of the powers of the State and in making decisions affecting them (b) to promote democratic, effective, transparent, accountable and coherent government of Zimbabwe as a whole (c) to preserve and foster the peace, national unity and indivisibility of Zimbabwe (d) to recognise the right of communities to manage their own affairs and to further their development (e) to ensure the equitable sharing of local and national resources (f) to transfer responsibilities and resources from the national government in order to establish a sound financial base for each provincial and metropolitan council and local authority.

Devolution of power is a concept of ensuring that legislative and executive power is shared and distributed to different levels or tiers of government. In South Africa power is devolved at provincial and municipal level to nine provinces and 278 municipalities. The rationale of devolving power to multiple levels of government is to primarily ensure that (Cannon and Ali, 2018):

  • Citizens participate in decision-making through level governance structures
  • Service delivery is accessible
  • Government is closer to the people
  • Greater accountability and transparency in resource and public finance management.


These are the democratic credentials usually showered on Kenya and Uganda which run devolved governments, as well as South Africa which uses a unique decentralisation model based on a three tier co-operative government structure. Of late, Zimbabwe has joined this group of African countries with constitutions that legislate a devolved governance system. Zimbabwe’s new Constitution adopted in May 2013 states that governmental powers and responsibilities must be devolved between the national government, provincial and metropolitan councils and local authorities which are expected to ensure good governance by being effective, transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs of local people. This introduction of devolution of power as a new governance model in Zimbabwe replaces deconcentration on the premise that devolution is a more democratic, citizen centred, participatory, more transparent, accountable and locally relevant development focussed governance system (Muchadenyika and Williams, 2016).

Decentralisation is a broad and contested concept. One of the main (and early) proponents of this concept, Dennis A Rondinelli, defines it as the transfer of responsibility for planning, management and resource raising and allocation from the central government and its agencies to: (a) field units of central government ministries or agencies, (b) subordinate units or levels of government, (c) semi-autonomous public authorities or corporations, (d) area-wide, regional or functional authorities, or (e) nongovernmental private or voluntary organizations.5 At the heart of decentralisation is the transfer of authority and responsibility for public functions from the central government to provincial units of the same department or other local government units linked to the central office.

The evident complexity and multifaceted nature of decentralisation has compelled a number of scholars and institutions to attempt to unpack the concept. Writing in 1981, Dennis A. Rondinelli argued that different types of decentralisation can be distinguished based on the degree of responsibility for and discretion in decision making that is transferred by the central government to provincial and local government units (Nyathi and Ncube, 2016). This is made possible by the mere fact that degrees of decentralised responsibility can vary, from simply adjusting workloads within central government organizations to the divesting of all government responsibilities for performing a set of what were previously considered to be central government public sector functions. Using this analytical framework, Rondinelli distinguished four major types of decentralisation, namely, deconcentration, delegation, devolution, and privatisation.

A number of sub-Saharan African countries (including Zimbabwe) have differently pursued the administrative type of decentralisation either by transferring selected public functions to sub-regional entities or field office units supervised by central government (deconcentration) or by transferring defined authority, responsibility and financial resources to semi-autonomous sub-regional entities that are ultimately accountable to the central office (delegation). For example, Ghana’s 1992 Constitution (article 35, 6d) stipulates that the State shall take appropriate measures to decentralise the administrative and financial machinery of government to the regions and districts (Muchadenyika and Williams, 2016). Malawi also has similar administrative decentralisation provisions in section 146 and chapter XIV of its 1994 Constitution as does Zambia under part VIII of its 1996 Constitution. A variety of domestic political concerns, democratisation ambitions, internal and external demands for good governance pushed by local civil society, active citizenry, international donor agencies and western governments have pressurised African governments to adopt varying administrative decentralisation governance structures and systems. For example, in Malawi administrative decentralisation was motivated by political concerns and democratisation ambitions as the country moved from the autocratic centralised governance system of Kamuzu Banda to the first democratically elected government of Bakili Muluzi operating under the aegis of a new democratic constitution. Bakili Muluzi’s administration was anchored in decentralisation which was a key component of Malawi’s political reform agenda, a good governance principle and a mechanism for cultivating and fostering a democratic political culture and democratic public institutions (Kanyinga, 2017).


Aims of Devolution

Political decentralisation (specifically, devolution of power) aims to statutorily transfer some political power, local policy making and administrative responsibilities and resources from central government to citizens and/or their democratically elected regional, provincial or local authorities. One of its main aims is to capacitate sub-national tiers of government to respond to problems of a purely local nature without waiting for policy instructions and directives from the central government (Nyathi and Ncube, 2016). In comparison to deconcentration discussed above, it is clear that power and space are at the heart of devolution since it is anchored in wide dispersal of authority to local authorities. It strives for democratic decentralisation through its reconstitution of centres of power within a particular State. “It provides a process at the local level through which diverse interests can be heard and negotiated and resource allocation decisions can be made based on public discussions” (Muchadenyika, 2015).

The presence of such a local process subscribes to the ideals of democratic local governance since it observes and respects pluralism in policy making, and policy choices, and emphasises greater active citizen participation in decision making which is a sign of respect for their political rights and civil liberties (Cannon and Ali, 2018). Furthermore, a devolved system “emphasizes the presence of mechanisms for fair local political competition, transparency, and accountability, government processes that are open to the public, responsible to the public, and governed by the rule of law”(Kanyinga, 2017). All these tenets demonstrate that devolution endeavours to cultivate a culture of good local political processes and good local governance both of which are central elements of democratisation.

What has motivated some sub-Saharan African countries, such as, Kenya and Zimbabwe, to pursue devolution of power? First, some of the reasons discussed above partly explain the legislation of devolution in Zimbabwe and Kenya. Secondly, the political upheavals that emanated from the contested legitimacy of governments that followed the violent 2007 Kenya elections and the equally violent 2008 elections in Zimbabwe provided the impetus for devolved systems of governance. Devolution of power was therefore legislated to address the democratic deficits related to the disputed elections, but also broadly to address issues of citizen participation in local development and local government accountability. For example, Kenya’s Constitution (chapter 2.6:2) emphasises that devolution of power provisions are an effort to encourage democratic control in local decision making, democratic local governance, popular participation in local development initiatives, financial sobriety and communitarianism. These principles of devolution contained in Kenya’s and Uganda’s constitutions are replicated in Zimbabwe’s new Constitution which states that while the country remains unitary, governmental power and functions are devolved through a three tier co-operative governance system that includes the national government, provincial and metropolitan councils as well as local authorities (Muchadenyika, 2015). The legal architecture and structure of this devolved three tier co-operative governance system are described below.


The downside of devolution

In spite  of  the many expected positive  impacts, devolution  may not  lead to improved economic performance and governance. There are fears that the devolution of power, resources and  function of  the local  government  will pass  down corruption  to  the county  governments (Muchadenyika and Williams, 2016).  Devolution  may  lead  to  increased corruption because the local government will share some functions with the central government. It  may  transfer  the  evils  committed  by  the  central  system  of  governance  to  the  county government (Kanyinga, 2017)). It may reduce the national  government’s  ability  to redistribute resources. Consequently, the central government may not have the capacity to help he underdeveloped regions of the country (Kanyinga, 2017).  Moreover, it “may lead  to  the  capture  of  local  governments  by  political  elites”  in  case  of improper rules and systems (Kanyinga, 2017). In this case, local political leaders may use their political power to take advantage of local resources. This may deprive the Zimbabwean citizen of these resources; hence, affect the economic performance at the county level.



In  the  Zimbabwean  context,  devolution  involves  handing  most  functions  of  the  central government to the local government. The Zimbabwean Constitution strongly supports this system of governance by outlining the key objectives of devolution. A devolved system presents economic, social, and political benefits to the county and its citizens.  It creates sub-national entities that enhance  accountability  by  reducing  the  concentration  of  power.  Consequently,  political  and public officials will act responsibly. Through devolution, every region of the country can address its  regional  sentiments  through  inclusion  and  participation.  In  order  to  ensure  an  equitable distribution of  the national  cake, citizens  must embrace  the new opportunity to deliberate  on issues affecting the county. Both local and external investors ought to take this opportunity to invest in counties because they are the new grounds for business. If this system of governance performs as expected, the  country will improve  its productivity in the  next five  years. Public services  and  resources  will  be  close  to  the  community  and  people  will  no  longer  cry  of unemployment or poverty.



Muchadenyika, D., 2015. The Inevitable: Devolution in Zimbabwe–From Constitution–Making to the Future. Constitution-building in Africa (104-34). Baden-Baden: Nomos and Community Law Centre.

Muchadenyika, D. and Williams, J.J., 2016, September. Social change: Urban governance and urbanization in Zimbabwe. In Urban Forum (Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 253-274). Springer Netherlands.

Nyathi, M. and Ncube, M., 2017. The Myth of Devolution in Zimbabwe: The Reality Post-May 2013. U. Botswana LJ24, p.27.

Cannon, B.J. and Ali, J.H., 2018. Devolution in Kenya Four Years On: A Review of Implementation and Effects in Mandera County. African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review8(1), pp.1-28.

Kanyinga, K., 2016. Devolution and the new politics of development in Kenya. African Studies Review59(3), pp.155-167.


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