A wandering into the disengagement of the state from its citizens
More than other dimensions of governance, state-citizen engagement is a fundamental ingredient of a working governance system. It facilitates communication between the two, mutual understandings of the needs, priorities, and the challenges faced by each side. Where the state maintains the effective participation of citizens in governance processes, funding decisions, policies, and infrastructural development programs implemented by the government have a better chance of accurately addressing the realities of the people. For Zimbabwe, state-citizen engagement is arguably the biggest governance problem. The absence of this engagement quite inevitably leads to laws and initiatives that do not meet the concerns and needs of the population.
State-citizen engagement in Zimbabwe has been in steady decline since independence from Britain in 1980. The rise of the MDC opposition party in the 2000s saw the proliferation of state-sponsored political violence which was employed to intimidate opposition supporters. Exposure to graphic violence induces fear which can cause individuals to overestimate the probability that they will personally face a similar bad outcome (graphic violence). As a consequence of seeing the reality of political violence, the role of state arms such as the police and army in political violence, impunity afforded to pro-ZANU PF perpetrators of political violence, most people now live in fear and distrust of the government, police and the army. The generality of the Zimbabwean population are risk averse. To avoid persecution, arrest and political most citizens retreat from participation in governance process to minimise contact with repressive state machinery. They disengage from talking about the government and governance issues, they disengage from dialogue with the State and they also disengage in democratic governance processes.
Disengagement is done as a way to reduce risk/exposure/susceptibility to labelling. People are reduced to “voters, but not yet citizens” because they do not exercise citizen agency, they do not participate in and influence anything as citizens. Voting alone does not mean there is active citizenship. Rather, voting is a way in which they attempt to keep themselves safe within the polarised polity.
Respondents in a recent Afrobarometer Report were asked if the following question: “Have or would you attend a demonstration or protest?” The responses are shown below:
“No, would never do this”- 69.2%
“No, but would if I had the chance”- 28.0%
“Yes, once or twice”- 1.4%
With 97.2% showing an aversion and less than 5% showing a keenness to participate, it can be seen that state-citizen disengagement is mostly driven by citizens’ fear of participating in normal democratic processes.
Citizens are not motivated to participate in governance processes and structures led by leaders who have no regard to public opinion. The factionalism that has engulfed the two main political parties has forced the main political actors in government to prioritise their political survival more than understanding and addressing the challenges faced by citizens. Within ZANU PF, internal competition between two factions has seen the near implosion of the party. The MDC has also experienced factional fighting, leading to disintegration of the main opposition party. Because of these internal fights, attention is then paid to surviving and less towards serving the people. Citizens thus do not benefit from the political competition between the ruling party and its main opposition party. These intra-party fights have gone on for so long and have left citizens disillusioned with the efficacy of the Social Contract between them and the State, and them and their political parties. Residents cannot get access to the “responsible authorities” to register their complaints on water cuts, electricity faults and pot holes [in the roads]. If they have the courage to make a physical visit to the concerned offices, they face even more resistance in the form of the cyclic referrals from one office to the other, one floor to the other. In essence, the space for citizen feedback to policy makers, implementers and the state as the main service provider and regulator or referee in service provision is non-existent in practical terms.
Downward accountability is non-existent. It becomes clear to all of us that politicians are only concerned with political expediency and survival, hence the ordinary citizen slides into the culture of disengagement with the state. This becomes manifest in the dearth of consultation of citizens in formulation, implementation and monitoring of policies.
Solutions to address State-Citizen disengagement in Zimbabwe
1. Capacitate the Local State to carry out its functions
The Local State (Provincial, Metropolitan and Local Councils/Rural District Councils) has been progressively declining in terms of their ability to carry out its mandate. Administratively, they lack capacity and are affected by poor funding from the central government. Regularly, simple issues like waste disposal prove to be mammoth tasks for some local councils resulting in frequent outbreaks of cholera, typhoid etc.
2. Provision of access to information
In many cases, when ordinary people request to meet (or communicate) with either elected or appointed officials, the process is so cumbersome that one can tell it is intentionally structured and applied to be so. There is no political will to get feedback from citizens. Government offices are so tough to reach for the ordinary citizens, despite the mission statements that profess “Accountability”, “Responsiveness”, etc.
3. Creation of spaces for State-Citizen dialogue
If citizens cannot communicate with their officials, then the officials cannot claim to be amplifying the voice and needs of the local people. There is a need for officials to return to the grassroots to see the realities of the lives of the people they represent/serve. In doing so they can have interface meetings (virtual or face to face) with the people so that programmes, policies and laws address identified realities that are relevant to the targeted communities.