Citizen Participation in Local Democracy a Panacea to Grassroots Empowerment
Citizen participation is a primary and vital aspect of democracy. The development world constantly embraces citizen participation as an omnipotent mechanism of developing grassroots capacity towards community development, poverty eradication and wealth creation.
According to Fung (2001:41) local democracy gives citizens the freedom to participate in making decisions that are locally appropriate and serve the needs of the local community. It simply means the rule by the people, i.e. giving people a say in the decisions that affect their lives and access to resources that are theirs.
In Zimbabwe, citizen’s participation in local matters is relatively high in urban areas and extremely low in the rural and farming areas. It is this local engagement of citizens and their political and administrative leadership which remains the hope towards the reduction of illicit financial flows, mal administration and abuse of locally produced resources primarily intended for public consumption.
The local political space provides an opportunity through which citizens prepare themselves for national engagement and a platform for growth and development of aspiring candidates. This scenario is not the same with the administrative arm of local democratic spaces. In Zimbabwe, the constitution calls for the development of the administrative arm of local matters through which citizens have a direct interaction with and access to their elected representatives and administrative authorities. Despite this opportunity for citizen enjoyment and participation, citizens are still entrapped in poor service delivery, corrupt council officials and illegal underhand allocation of resources.
Local government elections
Election in itself being one of the key pillars towards the democratization agenda presents an opportunity for local people particularly youth in participating and through elective processes and appointments. The local electoral cycle, which is supposed to allow the emergence of competent leaders, is also contaminated by incompetent and unqualified candidates who have had a record of stealing from the people. Chitungwiza town council is one such example of mal practice and abuse of office by council officials.
Political elects have a bad reputation of bypassing the role that local citizens have not only to question and evaluate their deliverables but also to support them as they execute their constitutional duties. Local bureaucrats particularly in Zimbabwe have further little interest in, and priority for, citizens’ voices. They still regard citizens as an object and provide limited space for local decision-making, and the relationship with citizens is still hierarchical, not that of a partnership. Such kind of arrangement defeats the purpose of representative democracy. It is thus key to permeate the local governance spaces through participating in the budgeting processes, going further beyond the consultative to policy implementation and financial flows within local government programing.
Information sharing: A pillar towards local accountability
Information sharing and education remains one of the alternatives towards capacitating vulnerable youth to develop politically and raise their chances of participating with an informed perspective. It can be argued that young people risk manipulation if they cannot be able to differentiate between what is good or bad for their own welfare. This kind of capacity can only be ignited by the amount of information and knowledge that the young generation is exposed to. It is thus key that young Zimbabweans regroup as the nation is on the verge of an election in 2018. It is through that elective process through which citizens particularly youth can be able to execute their influence in local governance matters and ultimately go beyond the grassroots level in electing the national leadership.
Developing the capacity of the ordinary citizen in ascertaining the political cycle in the affairs of local democracies is essential in rooting a powerful citizen engagement capacity and sustainable grassroots empowerment.