It is a humid Wednesday afternoon and Nkhotakota North East Member of Parliament (MP) Martha Lunji Mhone rises on the opposition benches to ask President Lazarus Chakwera a question.
“When should Malawians expect the commencement of the Duty-free Week and reduction of passport fees which was promised to be at K14,000 each passport,” Mhone asks.
The Duty free-Week and the K14,000 passports were among the promises the Tonse Alliance made to Malawians ahead of the June 23 2020 fresh presidential election.
Other promises included the creation of one million jobs in the first one year, increasing the minimum wage to K50,000; raising the tax-free threshold on Pay As You Earn from K35,000 to K100,000; establishing universal fertilser subsidy and the popular three meals a day.
Section 89 (iv) of the Constitution of Malawi says the President shall be called to Parliament to answer questions at such times as may be prescribed by Standing Orders of Parliament or on a motion of the National Assembly.
Responding to Mhone’s question, Chakwera said the external shocks that have rocked the economy as a result of the second wave of the Covid pandemic have resulted in his government slowing down on the implementation of the campaign promises as it commits resources towards ensuring that Malawians survive the deadly pandemic.
He said the move does not mean that government has backtracked on its promises.
“I can promise you. I can promise the people of Nkhotakota North East and I can promise Malawians that these promises will be fulfilled. If you want the year and a date and a month, I cannot give it to you now,” Chakwera said.
By summoning the President to answer questions from MPs is fulfilling one if not two of its critical roles of oversight and representation.
The other role of Parliament is legislation through which MPs are involved in the making of laws.
Public Accounts Committee (Pac) Chairperson, Shadreck Namalomba, says Parliament, through his committee, has powers to check public spending to ensure that there is no abuse of funds by the Executive as well as civil servants.
According to Namalomba, that is the reason the committee has been vocal whenever there are reports of public abuse of resources.
Just recently, Pac said it would engage the Auditor General to do a forensic audit of the K6.2 billion Covid funds following reports of abuse by some councils.
The committee also indicated that it would start conducting lifestyle audits for people in top positions to see if their lifestyle is in tandem with their means of earning resources.
Namalomba said Section 19 (f) of the Public Audit Act mandates Pac to pursue any matter that in its opinion the committee believes must be pursued.
The Pac chair said the lifestyle audit will target people with influence in government such as former and current Cabinet ministers, principal secretaries, directors, directors of finance, procurement heads, chief executive officers of parastatals, city council heads and district commissioners.
He said it is shocking to see people working in government constructing many mansions when their take-home packages are modest.
“Can’t you see what is happening around where people are earning just below K2 million a month and do not do any business but you will find that they have built many mansions? Where do they get the money?” Namalomba asked.
Budget and Finance Committee of Parliament Chairperson, Gladys Ganda, says Parliament, through her committee, has the responsibility of ensuring that government is spending resources in the budget prudently.
She says the committee has the duty of ensuring that budgetary expenditures are made in areas that would bring more benefits to the people in addition to ensuring that government borrows responsibly.
Chancellor College Political Analyst, Ernest Thindwa, says Parliament in crucial in ensuring good governance in the country.
“Separation of powers safeguards liberty by ensuring that all governmental powers are not concentrated into a single person such as a president or a group of people such as executive but rather dispersed and shared by the three arms.
“In essence, the doctrine of separation of power demands that political power would/ could only be applied forcibly or legitimately when the three branches of government agree on its use,” Thindwa says.
On his part, University of Livingstonia Political Analyst, George Phiri, says the major challenge with the Malawi Parliament is that MPs support a leader on party lines or for their benefits not development of the nation.
Phiri says, due to this reason, the role of MPs to check on accountability of the Executive arm of government is compromised.
“The people we elect have no independent thought or idea to defend. They can’t distinguish between what is for common good and individual benefits. The Executive arm of government to be accountable requires objective and critical thinkers to subject it to accountability,” Thindwa says.
Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency (CSAT) executive director, Willy Kambwandira, says in any country, Parliament is a central institution for enabling good governance, prudent and public finance management given its functions of oversight over the Executive, budget appropriation and tracking, law-making, and representation.
He says the legislative arm of government on one hand has a crucial role to play in promoting financial transparency and accountability in the country, but more importantly to hold the Executive arm accountable.
“Parliament has the mandate to provide legislative oversight to Executive actions and appointments. This is very important as it ensures independence of public officials and oversight institutions in discharging of their functions,” Kambwandira says.
While applauding the oversight role that Parliament plays, Kambwandira said it is worrying to note that the Legislature is more reactive than proactive.
“We have witnessed how billions of kwacha have been rooted right in the eyes of Parliament. We are greatly concerned that Parliament has failed to act on errant public officers that have failed to declare their assets. This is recipe for corruption.
“Moving forward, it is our recommendation that all MPs be adequately trained and oriented regarding their roles in parliament to enable effective scrutiny and oversight of government actions and policies,” he says.
In Malawi, lawmakers’ chances of retaining their seats largely depend on development projects they initiate. Still, observers argue, they should not shy away from keeping the Executive in check.