By Tuesday Bwalya
Local authorities, commonly known as councils, are governments closer to the people.
As the name suggests, they are local tier of government in any society and provide many services to the people. Services provided by local authorities include registration of marriages, provision and maintenance of burial sites, lighting and cleaning of streets, maintenance of roads, and the provision of markets and bus stations. And for the councils to provide these and many other services, they require money.
In Zambia, the major source of income for local authorities is the various levies such as property rates (money paid by the owner of property), market and bus station levies (money paid by marketeers and bus operators) and personal levy. Further, by law, councils in Zambia are supposed to receive grants from the central government in the form of local government equalisation fund.
But today, local authorities are limping financially; they do not have money to provide services in their localities. Worse of, many councils do not have even money to pay their workers’ salaries. You may be aware that last week, council workers countrywide were on strike, demanding to be paid their delayed salaries. Government condemned and threatened them for demanding what is rightfully theirs.
Some local authorities in the country have not been able to pay their workers for more than three months. The situation in terms of finances is so bad that many of our university graduates will be shunning away from working in councils; local authorities are no longer in a position to attract highly qualified personnel.
Reasons for financial incapacitation of local authorities are well known. Principal among them is the fact that their major source of income, the markets and bus stations, have been taken away from them by cadres from the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party. These cadres have literally hijacked the management of bus stations and markets. Even at the newly constructed Mazabuka bus station in Southern Province, council officials are already in a contest with PF cadres who want to take over. These cadres collect and share money from users of markets and bus stations; very little, if any, is given to local authorities.
I have been wondering where cadres draw their authority from. The laws governing the operations of local authorities and administration of markets and bus stations are very clear (the Local Government Act No. 2 of 2009; the Markets and Bus Stations Act of 2007). In the Markets and Bus Stations Act of 2007, Section III, clearly states that money from the markets and bus stations should be paid to the councils. It does not say money will be paid to cadres from any political party.
Further, the Local government Act No. 2 of 2019 does not say anything authorising cadres to help themselves with council revenue. It is also worth mentioning that despite local authorities losing their major sources of income to the ruling party cadres, the government does not consistently release the local government equalisation fund. This has further complicated the situation for local authorities.
The government has been paying lip service to the issue of cadres controlling markets and bus stations. In 2018, the then local government minister, Vincent Mwale, told Parliament that the ministry had started appointing boards to run markets and bus stations, which in turn would be remitting money to councils. This was done through a statutory instrument Statutory Instrument number 12 of 2018. This has not removed PF cadres from markets and bus stations; they are still roaring like lions and collecting money.
Last month, youths from the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) wanted to help the local authorities by removing PF cadres from markets and bus stations, but the government opposed the move and instructed police to arrest any youth who wished to carry out such a noble duty. Why is it difficult for the government to remove PF cadres from markets and bus stations? Do government officials benefit from what the cadres collect? Where are institutions such as the Local Government Association of Zambia?
I fail to understand why town clerks and council secretaries could allow someone who is not authorised to collect money from their facilities. It seems these cadres are untouchable because they belong to the ruling party. They can collect levies and share, leaving local authorities stranded.
The fact that the government has allowed cadres to collect money in markets and bus stations is enough evidence of State support for lawlessness. There is so much lawlessness in this country because our leaders seem to condone it. We never saw this level of lawlessness in markets and bus stations under the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD).
When you visit our neighbouring countries such as Botswana and Namibia, you will not see lawlessness in the markets and bus stations; cadres do not manage markets and bus stations. The local authorities there are in charge. Why can’t those in government learn to do the right thing? The right thing is to remove cadres from the markets and bus stations so that local authorities can administer them.
In conclusion, I wish to appeal to local authorities countrywide to be documenting the names of cadres who are collecting money in markets and bus stations so that in case of change of government in 2021 or 2026, those cadres should be prosecuted for stealing public money. This could serve as a lesson to other cadres who may wish to engage in the same illegal activity in future.
The author is a lecturer at the University of Zambia, department of Library and Information Science.