The case of a toothless Legislature

HARARE - Many people might have been left outraged and appalled by the contemptuous behaviour of Home Affairs minister Obert Mpofu in Parliament last week.

But to any keen follower of local politics, the bulky minister was just striding in very familiar territory.

While appearing before the parliamentary portfolio committee on Mines and Energy on February 22, Mpofu caused a storm when he refused to respond to questions on matters that were under his purview when he was Mines minister.

These included the contentious $15 billion in diamond revenues, which former president Robert Mugabe alleged in 2016 went missing.
Mpofu told legislators they could not lecture him on Parliament, as he has been a legislator since 1997.

He then took a swipe at chairperson of the committee, Norton legislator Temba Mliswa, accusing him of pursuing a personal vendetta.

“I have no mandate to speak for the ministry of Mines and you must be aware of that comrade. I have been abused by the chairman (Mliswa), who has been saying things in public, attacking me and maligning me.

“I have been attacked by the chairman in the papers, where he has called me names, yet he nicodemously comes to my house in the cover of the night to talk about things. I live 600 kilometres from here,” Mpofu said; and then stormed out of the august House.

To students of history, it is easy to conclude that history is about to repeat itself.

In 2006, Mpofu was charged with contempt of Parliament after the legislative assembly found out that he had lied under oath.

Mpofu was minister of Industry and International Trade at the time when a scandal involving the plunder of the Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company (Zisco) exploded.

When the issue came up for discussion in Parliament, Mpofu had told legislators that he had names of Cabinet ministers and other influential people behind the scandal. He even committed himself to bringing the report to the committee in a week, heightening national expectations as people waited with bated breathes for the naming and shaming of the said Members of Parliament and ministers.

But, alas, there was an anti-climax.

To everyone’s amazement, Mpofu walked into the meeting only to declare that he had no knowledge of such a report.

“I am not sure of any particular MP or Cabinet minister or senior person or anybody involved in Zisco,” he told the committee.

He then decided to absent himself from subsequent meetings and, despite persistent efforts by MPs, the public and civil society, government refused to release the report and it died a natural death.

Further investigations into the Zisco scandal were halted, leaving Parliament seized with trying Mpofu for contempt and lying under oath — offences for which he faced jail or fine or both.

He escaped with a ZW$40 000 fine.

This became one of the biggest letdowns for Zisco workers, their families and the nation at large.

Word was that Mpofu had backtracked following an outcry from colleagues in his party and government.

This time around, Mpofu is not alone in being contemptuous of Parliament.

At about the same time when the minister disregarded the Legislature, Basil Nyabadza, the chairperson of the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority (Arda) was doing the same to the parliamentary portfolio committee on Lands and Agriculture.

Nyabadza’s case was even worse because he completely lost his cool and charged at the committee’s chairperson, Justice Mayor Wadyajena and almost manhandled him.

Twice, Nyabadza and his team refused to bring documents which the committee wanted to assess, something which is tantamount to contempt.

The two cases provide a perfect example of how Parliament is made powerless in executing its oversight function.

Parliament basically has three major functions namely legislative (lawmaking), representative and oversight.

While there has been widespread criticism over the other two roles — legislative and representative — not much has been said about the oversight function, despite it being just as equally important as the other two.

Oversight is a function granted by the Constitution to Parliament to monitor and oversee government actions.

Parliament derives its powers from the Standing Orders that are made in terms of section 57 of the Constitution.

The oversight role is conferred on Parliament and codified by the House of Assembly Standing Order 159(2) and Senate Standing Order 149(2).

Parliamentary portfolio and thematic committees that are formed on the basis of such provisions have powers to summon any person or institution to give evidence or produce documents, and to report to them.

Critics have argued that the truest test of democracy in any nation is the extent to which its Parliament can ensure that government remains answerable to the public.

This is done by maintaining constant oversight (monitoring) of government’s actions.

Parliamentary standing rules and orders (SROs) go further to say any public official that fails to avail himself or herself for a committee meeting could be charged with contempt of Parliament.

When exercising oversight, Parliament ideally tries to ensure implementation and observance of the law, application of budgets as well as effective management of government departments, State enterprises and local authorities.

By so doing, Parliament is able to ensure that service delivery takes place, so that all citizens can live a better life and public funds, as in the case of Nyabadza who runs a statutory organisation, are accounted for.

The major reasons of exercising oversight are to detect and prevent abuse of office, to prevent illegal and unconstitutional conduct on the part of the government, to protect the rights and liberties of citizens, to hold the government answerable for how taxpayers’ money is spent and make government operations more transparent.

Portfolio committees have often been described as “engine rooms” of Parliament’s oversight and legislative work. They also interact with the public.

For example, the parliamentary portfolio committee on Finance annually conducts pre-budget consultations to gather public sentiments before the fiscal appropriation bill is tabled in the National Assembly.

Input from the consultations is incorporated into the budget.

After the presentation of the budget, each committee conducts hearings with the respective government departments over which they exercise oversight.

This serves to determine whether the department has kept its undertakings of the previous year, and spent taxpayers’ money appropriately.

In another example, one of the most important aspects of the oversight function is the consideration by committees of annual reports of organs of State, and reports of the auditor-general.

However, there have been grave concerns about the effectiveness of the entire process.

Some critics have argued, with a certain amount of justification, that oversight has been intrusive and meddling; others think it is short-sighted and counter-productive.

The most critical ones have dismissed it altogether saying it is just another component in the political cockpit of partisan politics from which it should be immune.

There is also an ample catalogue of examples that help the cause of those vehemently critical of the whole oversight functions who now are convinced that it severely lacks credibility.

Critics point out that Mpofu’s 2006 case clearly stands out as an aborted mission. While some argue that the fact that Parliament actually achieved something by charging and fining him as an oversight milestone, others think it was actually a major letdown because in the end it did not address issues of public interest for which it was intended.

The portfolio committees have also suffered from truant ministers who decide to abscond the meetings or chose not to respond to their reports, a situation which heavily compromises the entire process.

A case in point is the famous clash between former Local Government minister  Saviour Kasukuwere and the then chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on Youth, Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment, Justice Mayor Wadyajena.

The committee wanted to interrogate the minister on his dealings during his tenure as minister of Indigenisation, particularly how he handled community share ownership schemes.

It took almost a year, repeated efforts and arrest threats for Kasukuwere to appear before the committee, and when he finally did, the meeting was reduced to a mere drama and exchange of harsh words between the two.

Kasukuwere reportedly saw Wadyajena, who was his political nemesis, as seeking to harm his reputation and discredit him. Far from attending to the critical issue, the meeting became a platform to settle political scores and there was no answer to an eager citizenry — only entertainment to an interested press.

For Parliamentary Monitoring Trust director Sibanengi Ncube, such behaviour renders the parliamentary oversight function worthless.

“Parliament, which is the central institution of democracy and the key institution in oversight, suffers from crisis of credibility. The biggest problem I seem to notice is that because of the highly polarised nature of our politics, MPs are afraid of taking the Executive to task,” said Ncube.

John Makamure, executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust, said even though accountability mechanisms are embedded in the parliamentary procedures, which, on paper, means the august House is doing its work, implementation and assurance of accountability mechanisms are not being allowed to work.

“For someone who works with Parliament everyday, I think we can do better through enforcing the provisions of the Constitution and the SRO.

“We have seen presiding officers of Parliament, namely the Senate president and Speaker of the National Assembly, Jacob Mudenda, giving threats to ministers that do not bring bills to Parliament and that abscond sessions. That is good but threats alone will not serve us. There is need for action,” he said.

There have also been complaints about government failing to act on reports produced by these committees.

But one area which has been glaringly lacking has been that of auditor-general Mildred Chiri’s reports that have exposed major shortcomings in State enterprises and local authorities. She has religiously submitted these to Parliament, but her recommendations have never been implemented.

Instead, she nearly lost her job over those reports but was saved by MPs who refused to sanction her ouster.

The Zimbabwe Parliament, like all Westminster Parliaments around the world, should have a vibrant oversight function.

For example, in South Africa, former president Jacob Zuma has had to answer to corruption allegations emanating from reports that he used public funds to upgrade his rural Nkandla home among numerous other cases that later claimed his job.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is weekly subjected to a barrage of questions by the House of Commons while United States of America President Donald Trump reports to both Senate and Congress regularly.

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