Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Rethinking Increased Funding for Zambia’s Parliament

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By Isaac Mwanza

On September 8, 2023, the third session of the 13th National Assembly of Zambia will convene, marking the resumption of its proceedings. The session will kick off with an address by Republican President, His Excellency Hakainde Hichilema.

Guided by the Speaker’s leadership, the Assembly is composed of the Vice President, 156 elected representatives and 8 nominated members. In theory, the Zambian Parliament is one of the three independent arms of government, modelled after the Westminster system of government. In practice, it is the weakest of the three.

Beyond its legislative responsibilities, the National Assembly holds a pivotal role in overseeing the exercise of executive power. The roots of this duty are firmly embedded in Articles 63(2), 94, and 95 of the Constitution of Zambia.

This institution should stand as a champion of equity, safeguarding the aspirations and rights of every Zambian citizen. Regrettably, the prevailing sentiment among Zambians is that our National Assembly has not lived up to its potential in terms of scrutinizing and challenging executive decisions.

These public sentiments align with the truth. The Assembly merely rubberstamps or endorses legislative proposals and measures put forward by the executive branch. Ideally, our legislative body shouldn’t bear this perception.

It should instead be a dynamic and empowered entity, far from being perceived as bureaucratic and lacking influence. At its core, the legislature should serve as a guardian of our democratic equilibrium, ensuring a robust and balanced system that thrives on accountability and representation.

In its defence, the primary concern frequently echoed by the National Assembly revolves around insufficient funding. But the question that begs an answer is whether increased funding to the National Assembly could improve its effectiveness.

To answer this question, we must dissect the current state of the National Assembly and subsequently evaluate whether increased funding could indeed bolster its effectiveness.

There are several weaknesses and challenges that have hindered the effectiveness of the Assembly. These issues need resolution prior to government and cooperating partners considering any increase in funding.

One of the notable challenges is the prevailing supremacy of the executive branch over the legislative wing. Any proposal, motion, or bill seeking approval from the Assembly can only be passed only when the executive makes its endorsement.

Regarding private members’ bills, it’s even more remarkable that not a single piece of legislation has been introduced on the floor of the House or ever passed. So, the question arises, why is this the case? Could it be that the Standing Orders and the assembly’s leadership have created hurdles for backbenchers attempting to put forth legislation?

The dominance of the ruling party also extends to presiding over some general and portfolio parliamentary committees, which hold the responsibility of examining measures or bills that necessitate parliamentary endorsement.

Committees of parliament play a crucial role in overseeing and scrutinizing government activities, proposing and reviewing legislation, and conducting investigations. To address our parliament’s weak committee system requires a committed leadership within the Assembly and internal reforms, rather than funding.

There are several reasons why having committees led by opposition or independent members can contribute to a more effective system of checks and balances. Committees led by opposition and independent members often provide a more independent and impartial oversight of government actions.

Opposition or independent members are naturally inclined to scrutinize government activities and policies more rigorously to ensure transparency and accountability. This has been an impressive case with the Mwambazi-led Public Accounts Committee.

If committees lack the necessary autonomy and motivation, and their decisions can easily be overlooked by the whole House, their effectiveness can be compromised. On the other hand, when citizens see both ruling and opposition members involved in scrutinizing government actions, it lends credibility to the checks and balances mechanism.

In the past, we witnessed committees under the guidance of MPs such as Cornelius Mweetwa, where diverse perspectives flourished. This ensured that various viewpoints were brought into debates and decisions, fostering comprehensive outcomes. Under the leadership of the opposition and independent MPs at that time, discussions flourished, leading to balanced legislative and policy conclusions.

However, with the entrenchment of the ruling party’s influence within some committees, a cloud has settled over their independence. This entrenchment has granted the executive substantial control over legislative choices, consequently curbing the National Assembly’s autonomy in impartially examining and holding the government to account.

There is also a question of party royalty. By observing discussions on critical matters within the parliament, it becomes evident that certain Members of Parliament place greater emphasis on allegiance to their party rather than fulfilling their obligations to their constituents and the nation.

Parliament has had an opportunity to draw lessons from the United Kingdom and other countries where they visit. However, even when parliamentary leadership and MPs visit other nations, it often appears that these visits primarily serve as opportunities to receive allowances. Regrettably, WE the people, seldom witness tangible outcomes in terms of parliament applying the valuable insights acquired during their trips funded with taxpayers.

With few exceptions spanning over two decades, a consistent commitment to the party often results in a reluctance among MPs to question executive choices or ensure government accountability. This hesitancy stems from apprehensions of potential repercussions originating from their party leadership.

There is another weakness of the National Assembly’s limited capacity for thorough debate and oversight. Time constraints, the constant gagging of MPs by the Speaker and Second Deputy Speaker and a lack of resources may prevent MPs from engaging in in-depth discussions on important matters.

As a result, debate in Parliament shows that crucial legislation does not receive the level of scrutiny necessary to ensure its effectiveness and alignment with the public interest. Time should never be major hindrance in conducting in-depth discussions on crucial bills and matters. It is better to enact very few bills that are well-debated and scrutinised than rush parliament, thereby necessitating further amendments within a shorter time.

Members of Parliament also need to build a technical expertise and research support and this is probably where resources may be needed. In the United States, Senators have research support staff which enhances their ability to analyse complex issues effectively.

Without access to reliable and well-researched information, MPs might struggle to understand the implications of proposed legislation or government actions, reducing their capacity to provide meaningful checks and balances.

Further, public accountability and public trust in our National Assembly has gravely been affected by the lack of transparency in its operations, including budget allocations and decision-making processes especially for committees that hold their meetings in camera.

Why should the ratification hearing for members appointed by the President be shrouded in secrecy when deliberations in all other committees are broadcast on its radio and television stations? A National Assembly that is itself not transparent cannot be expected to be effective in providing checks and balances.

The tendency for MPs to vote along party lines rather than based on the merit of the legislation is a common issue in many jurisdictions. But this reduces the opportunity for independent decision-making and can lead to decisions that do not necessarily reflect the best interests of the country.

Finally, the question is to what extent can a Member of Parliament hold Parliament itself accountable for actions done by Parliament? For example, the Constitution has vested in all persons the right to defend the Constitution, and this includes Members of Parliament.

Where Parliament has made wrong decisions or passes orders, rules or laws in breach of the constitution, to what extent can a Member of Parliament invoke Article 2 right to defend the Constitution?

While the general concept is that parliaments world-over ought to get funding, increased funding for our National Assembly would achieve nothing substantial. A focus solely on funding might divert attention from addressing underlying structural and procedural issues within the assembly.

Reforming the assembly’s internal mechanisms and promoting a culture of accountability and independence is equally crucial at this point. To thus address the National Assembly’s weaknesses and strengthen checks and balances, a comprehensive approach is needed that includes reforms to enhance independence, transparency, oversight capacity, and the alignment of MPs’ interests with public welfare.

One may argue that weaknesses exist in all parliaments in Africa and around the globe. But it’s important to emphasize that there are exceptions to these trends, and many African countries have vibrant, engaged parliaments that play a crucial role in governance and oversight.

For example, countries like South Africa, Ghana, and Kenya have active and independent parliaments that engage in robust debates and carry out effective oversight. These parliaments require appropriate funding to function effectively, despite challenges that might exist in other countries.

The treasury and Zambia’s cooperating partners ought to appreciate the fact that increased funding that does not lead to visible improvements in the Assembly’s effectiveness could lead to public disillusionment and increased scepticism about the impact of additional resources.

Simply pouring more funding into the National Assembly without addressing these issues could risk perpetuating or exacerbating existing challenges.

[For any feedback and contributions, write to [email protected]]

4 COMMENTS

  1. The biggest problem isn’t the structure of the National Assembly but individuals that comprise it. You can’t expect much from a bunch of brainless individuals chorusing praises of their great leader at every opportunity.

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  2. Isaac, are you applying for a Job or what? These guys are a waste of space and get paid too much money already. The sit there doing nothing buy waiting for the supreme leader to dictate what do in parliament.

  3. Well spoken. We can do without the National Assembly in my thoughts since all it does is mechanically managed by the executive. Was shocked Nelly Mutti as talking about building a new building? For what? For a moribund institution?

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  4. These useless leaders always thinking how they can fill their tummies neglecting people who vote for them….Zimbabweans were celebrating when Munangangwa overthrew Mugabe and they thought things will improve…Gabonese are celebrating after military take over but unfortunately whoever becomes President will continue looting and enriching themselves and their close friends…nothing will change …ZAMBIAN PARLIAMENT IS USELESS…just getting hefty salaries and sleeping around with UNZA students

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