Updated: Jan 21
An occasional dream is necessary. It is essential to get us going, to energize…to get us to lucidly see the destination we desire. Here is our aspiration for Lilongwe City.
When Nellie Jobo of The Nation quizzed newly-elected Lilongwe City Mayor, Dr. Desmond Bikoko, about his grand plan on raising resources required to transform the city, his transformational answer was he would invest his mayoral time in reaching out to high-profile political elites. At the end of January 2017, Mr. Bikoko assured Lilongwe city residents he had already received green lights from a few. A year on, Lilongwe City is stuck to its old self that affiliates with characterizations of city filth, unstable water and energy supply, shaky security, poor schools and a chaotic urban plan. Besides the institutional challenges his office faces, the city’s residents seem to advance neither economically nor socially.
Mr. Bikoko was wrong. He was wrong for embracing a disposition of the old ways that have culminated in the worship of elite government officials and their foot soldiers who make things happen. He was wrong for underestimating the authority of his own office to revolutionize operations of an office capable of instituting change in the city. And he erred on the aspiration to solicit resources from a government system that has been predominantly run to fail. The youthful Lilongwe City Mayor opted, among options for radical change at his disposal, instead to align with business as usual.
As a municipal part of the local government, the Lilongwe City Council (LCC) carries a decentralized mandate to collect its revenues from the numerous levies it imposes on services provided by the municipality to residents as well as their visitors. Unfortunately, the LCC itself has not embraced a finer decentralized structure, under overhauled bylaws, that could lubricate efficiency in collection of dues and invest in a vibrant City Assembly that would prioritize public amenities residents need for a better standard of living. This article demonstrates how an additional step to decentralization of the city assembly that creates sub-cities would almost immediately ramp up services.
A 2011 Urban Profile for Lilongwe City, funded by the United Nations, showed that the population of Lilongwe’s Area 47 had grown from 5,497 in 1998 to 8,242 in 2008. This was mainly out of expansion of the area for new housing projects. Some of it was to cushion more ambitious Cashgate looters who minded less the planting of a house on the river banks of Lingadzi River (on the Northern side of the town), as long as it massaged the ego behind putting money to some wiser use. Going by the lifestyle of Area 47, this article will hypothesize the standard household size of five, which averages out the small families together with those that deserve medals for reproduction based on anecdotal experience. This implies an average of 1,400 households that will be useful for explaining our imaginary analysis.
Despite the imagination, the realism of 1,400 households whose earning potential is high may work out to be a crucial financial force when one intersects relatively high incomes with the potential amount of property taxes that the average resident would not quite feel the pinch paying their local LCC outpost. Based on the foregoing assumptions, we will settle for an even realistic monthly levy of MK150,000 in city rates that the average household can remit to the LCC. The resulting monthly LCC collection comes to a neat MK210 million. The yearly total is the collection of at least MK2.5 billion under Mr. Bikoko’s watch, from Area 47 alone.
But this is the departure point for incentives for such seemingly high city rates too. The impetus to continue sustaining these payments to public coffers will not only be based on the feel-good effect from one’s earning potential but the returns from them. Even at today’s state of the economy, it is easy to see how MK210 million suffices to cater to services tailored to Area 47 lifestyles. For example, these resources would run a waste management service with 10 waste management trucks that will routinely collect from all houses the rubbish that potentially makes its way to their backyards. But these resources would also run a more robust and well-resourced police service, staff that would manage a power plant, a water plant and operationalize a decent school. With families encouraged to pay subsidized fees, these public schools would provide better education to the town’s children than most private schools would. To circle the whole administration loop together, these resources would run a local town administration that would program and oversee the provision of services under an accountability mechanism.
These families employ people that expand the scope of care of the town. Social and development services would have to extend to employees of residents as much as the employing classes to make for a more equitable environment. It is important to facilitate equality of opportunity to the rich and the urban poor who are important contributors to the success of the elites. They would benefit from quality education, security, sanitation, utilities and, if possible, even medical facilities that do better than hand out Fansidar and antibiotics for every ailment that surfaces.
A local Area 47 city office would run under the authority of a collaborative government-community arrangement. The local council, made of representatives from all five Sectors, would be accountable to the residents of the town while ensuring the local city administration is also answerable to Mr. Bikoko. That is clout he can be proud of at the end of every day of really hard work. The same system, applied to all the more than fifty towns in the city, gives him the requisite power and money at his disposal for city-wide development.
There are advantages in collecting resources for local towns. These benefits do not only accrue directly to the residents and perhaps allow for a local office tithe to be set aside for the LCC, they also enable the City Assembly to collect what it has not been able to for decades. The city would stop going out of its way to squeeze silver out of truants of city rates, as it did in the first quarter of 2016, when it hired professional debt collectors to macho the LCC’s way through some difficult clients.
Of course, the current configuration of residents might show that not all residents will be able to afford heightened city fees. However, city zoning was intended to allow residents with the income to afford living in certain neighborhoods to do so, which implies that those who are failing to persist in Area 47 today are ripe for transfer to localities within the city where they can comfortably and enjoyably live.
Mr. Bikoko need not look outwards of the very city he is in charge. Solutions that could cater to many of the city’s ailments lie before him. He would need to move a few pieces to fit the puzzle together. But the virtues of an elected office might actually assist for a man at the helm of a city whose inhabitants stomach an ambition for better things. Today, Lilongwe City hosts more than 1.1 million people. This means expanding this devolved system city-wide will make Mr. Bikoko’s budget is worth boasting and results worth blowing the trumpet for. It is likely that the elites he once courted at the dawn of his term might turn to him someday.
He must unleash his youthful gut to realize this dream, for him and for all Malawians.