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Lack of ATI law frustrates voters in Nsanje

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Many people have the impression that access to information (ATI) law will benefit journalists only. JOSEPHINE CHINELE explores how lack of access to information is frustrating voters in Nsanje.

IT was a very cold day coupled with chilly drizzles. Many would want to be indoors on such a time but it was a ‘must’ to go out.

This was a crucial decision-making day. It required individuals to get out of their comfortable homes despite the chilly weather. It usually ends into disappointment if one thinks that others will decide for them.

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Even though Nsanje is an extremely hot district in the country, it had shared the chilly weather on May 24, 2014; probably conducive enough for people to have a peaceful sleep, that without mosquitoes.

But by 5:30 am on this day, Rose Njazi of Kaphata Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chimombo in the district was one of the first five people standing in the queue to cast her vote. She was positive that this time around, her vote would not be wasted.

Malawi had its first-ever tripartite elections in 2014. Citizens were supposed to vote for their president, parliamentarians and councillors at the same time.

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As aspirants were busy campaigning, civil society organisations conducted voter education and enlightened the masses in their areas on qualities of a worthy candidate.

“I believed that I had acquired enough knowledge through civic education this time around. And it was time to show my decision through the ballot. I was so hopeful,” Njazi recalls.

She says she had in mind a councillor and a parliamentarian that will ensure that her area has, among other developments, nearby health centre, maternity waiting shelter, portable water and school blocks.

But two years after her ‘wise’ decision, she is frustrated. The people she entrusted with her needs have completely changed.

“During campaign, they said it was as if they were applying for a job and it was up to us to either hire them or not. We hired our suitable candidates but they are now behaving as if they were our employers and not the other way round,” she laments.

Mike Kaafachi of the same area shares Njazi’s frustrations. He says the councillors, parliamentarians and the council are not accountable, especially for projects from Constituency (CDF) and Local Development (LDF) funds.

“During campaign period, MPs [Members of Parliament] promised to represent us in Parliament, requesting developments from government on our behalf. Councillors, on the other hand, to be involved in the implementation of development projects,” he says.

The Daily Times has established that there is a wide spread concern throughout Nsanje that even though MPs are also members for Area Development Committees (ADCs), they usually do not attend their meetings but delegate others who could be anyone even their driver.

This has had an effect on the running of various development projects. Members of the ADC are supposed to be part and parcel of choosing a development which could use funds from LDF and CDF.

But as Njazi and Kafaachi explain, even members of the ADC are not involved at any point and they just realise that there is a construction project going on within their area.

After noting this problem, a Nsanje-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Tiphedzane Community Support Organisation (Ticoso) sourced funding from National Democratic Institute (NDI) and established accountability clubs in all the five constituencies in the district to enhance access to information on development activities. The accountability clubs were established last year.

The clubs were established with an aim to build the capacity of the grassroots people in making sure that both the elected and non-elected duty bearers are accountable and transparent on public resources.

One of the components of the project goals is to facilitate capacity building of local structures such as accountability club members, Village Development (VDC) and Area Development (ADC) committees on Public Expenditure Tracking (PET).

It also aims at empowering the grassroots to have access to information on budgets and reports, on how public resources are being run, both at local government level and at national level.

But accountability club members have a different story to tell. Their operations are also frustrated by poor access to information.

Secretary for Malemia Accountability Club Henry Zongolota says it has been very difficult for the clubs to get information from the councils, councillors and parliamentarians.

“We know that we are not journalists. But we got basic training in how to request for information and maintain discipline and etiquette when we go to the office bearers or the council or public hospitals requesting for information,” he explains.

Zongolota adds: “None of the people who are supposed to provide information is willing to give it out. We have been told right in the face that we have no right to ask for such information from them because they have their own competent auditors not ordinary people.”

Shadrick Nyantondole of T/A Nyachikadza says sometimes district council officers tell the clubs that all the information was sent to ADCs through MPs and councillors with the hope that they are members.

“But to our surprise, the councillors and parliamentarians do not share the information either. They give us all sorts of excuses for them to release the documents,” Nyantondole says.

He says after the district was hit with floods in the 2014/2015 rainy season, many people and organisations provided aid in cash but the council has failed to give them information for them to appreciate how much was received and distributed.

Executive Director for Ticoso Mike Dansa says it is democratically unhealthy that despite the commitment made by government on the matter of access to information by citizens, citizens are still finding more challenges.

He points out that there are several tricks which those responsible use in order for others not to understand such as the use of complicated budgets which ordinary citizens cannot understand, use of technical language and jargons, and duty bearers giving too many excuses when asked to give out particular information.

“Easy access to information increases transparency, which in turn, promotes accountability by enabling citizens to hold duty bearers accountable for their actions.”

“Accountability clubs initiative aims at addressing the challenge of citizens’ limited access of relevant information. Limited access undermines achievement of development outcomes, weakens democracy and frustrates enjoyment of all rights. Limited public access to information on government actions perpetuates a culture of secrecy, which undermines public confidence in public institutions and its officials,” he notes.

District Commissioner for Nsanje Gift Lapozo, however, dismisses allegations that the council is reluctant to give out information.

“I don’t understand what these people mean when they say we are not willing to give out information. We always have council meetings where traditional leaders, councillors and parliamentarians attend and we expect that the information should trickle down to communities,” he says.

Lapozo says the district has so many NGOs working in governance projects and it becomes so big a task for the council to respond to the needs of individual organisations that “I even don’t have information on my desk about the accountability clubs requesting for information. I’m not aware that anyone was turned back.”

But all Njazi and the other accountability clubs are looking for is to know everything that is going on to compensate for the hours that were spent in the cold waiting to cast a vote.

“If it continues like this, they will have to give us back our votes. There are only 193 people who might want to keep information to themselves but there are 17 million people out there who are eager to know what is going on. We demand for access to information for transparency,” she says.

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