Features

Parliament’s pivotal role in democracy

FACE CHALLENGES—MPs

The Malawi Parliament was formed as the country’s legislative body.

Malawi, then called Nyasaland, was declared a British Protectorate on May 14 1891. The Legislative Council (Legico) was established by the British Monarchy in 1907 with the mandate to make legislation.

The Legico can be traced as the origin of what is today the Malawi Parliament.

Six members of the council met for the first time in 1908. History has it that the governor presided over the council’s meeting until 1958 when Henry Willcox Wilson was appointed by the Queen as the first Speaker.

This was the beginning of the speakership.

Malawi became independent on July 6 1964 and the Malawi National Assembly was created based on a new Constitution. Until June 1994, the country’s Parliament was in Zomba.

The House relocated to State House in Lilongwe before relocating to its current building in Lilongwe’s City Centre where it was officially opened on May 21 2010.

After all these transitions and relocations, the question arises on whether the National Assembly is achieving its purpose of making legislation, representation and oversight.

Prince Ndala, a resident of Zomba, says in terms of contribution to democracy, Parliament has played an important role as it has resisted the temptation to pass bills that would infringe on democratic principles that Malawians fought for.

He, however, states that Parliament has failed to play its oversight work regarding following up on implementation of many approved programmes.

He also says development programmes that Parliament has approved fail to be implemented and sometimes funds are abused because there is no proper follow-up of such programmes.

“Parliament can do better in terms of performance. Recently, we have seen members prioritising party and personal interests ahead of national interests. We have seen very important bills being rejected in Parliament just because the other side thinks the implementation of such bills will not be in the best interest of their party,” Ndala says.

Mike Banda, who is Malawi Economic Justice Network regional coordinator for the south, however, says Parliament will always be instrumental in advancing democracy and improving socio-economic development of the country.

He says some of the factors affecting the performance of the Malawi Parliament border on inadequate resources.

“We have seen in some instances Parliament failing to meet because they have not been provided with resources to enable them deliberate issues of national interest. Even at parliamentary committee level, complaints that they are failing to meet and carry out specific assignments often arise,” he says.

Banda also says sometimes making progress is a challenge because politics affects the performance of the National Assembly.

“Sometimes, you find an issue of national interest being tabled for debate but because legislators are coming from a different political party that does not agree with the agenda on the table, they choose to suffocate the process,” he says.

According to Banda, there is also need to increase capacity among legislators so that they have an informed view of what they are doing. This, he says, requires the help of the international community and members of the civil society.

Member of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, Billy Mayaya, also thinks Parliament has been pivotal in contributing to the creation of improved legal frameworks in various areas.

“Without Parliament, Malawi would face an existential crisis legally and politically,” he says.

But like others, Mayaya is of the view that the major factor that underpins Parliament’s performance is the concept of separation of powers which enhances its ability to work independently in its pursuit of a legal identity of a more perfect democratic union.

“Parliamentarians, as representatives of the people, have generally pursued the common good by enacting legislation that advances the national agenda. This noble pursuit is often hindered by political pursuits which serve to undermine the growth of Malawi’s democracy,” he says.

Former chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Climate Change, Werani Chilenga, says legislators play a critical role in enacting laws that complement government policies.

But according to Chilenga, the biggest challenge that Malawian Members of Parliament (MPs) face is underfunding.

“The biggest challenge is that MPs in Malawi compared with those in other countries and within the region, are underpaid. That underpayment compels them to look for incentives elsewhere to meet their needs.

“Additionally, when we go to Parliament, most members do not adhere to representation of their constituents as they dance to the tune of their political parties,” he says.

MP for Mzimba South East, Ackson Kalaile Banda, who is also a member of the African Caribbean Parliament and European Union, says Malawi’s Parliament is different from other Parliaments because it is not as independent as people think.

“In Rwanda, for instance, MPs do not have constituencies; their job is full time looking into legislative issues while in other countries like Kenya, Parliament is independent and can manage to achieve its purposes without anyone dictating on what they do, because they run everything themselves.

“In Malawi, the biggest challenge is finances which are controlled by another arm of the government. If the other arm does not want Parliament to meet, Parliament will not meet,” he says.

But as already indicated, Parliament’s role in socio-economic development and democracy is phenomenal. All financial aid and loan bills are approved by Parliament. Checks and balances, as well as oversight of the Executive, are performed by Parliament and its committees.

Performance of ministries, departments and agencies is closely monitored by Parliament. It was the same Parliament, through its Agriculture Committee, that tackled the maize saga in 2017 when the local press exposed a deal where Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation allegedly flouted procedures to buy 100,000 metric tonnes of the grain from neighbouring Zambia.

Recently, the Public Appointments Committee (Pac) was involved in the assessment of Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) commissioners and its chairperson as directed by the Constitutional Court following the disputed May 21 2019 presidential election.

Apart from passing bills, MPs also pass and approve budgets of the whole system of the government. Appointments of certain accountability officers such as the Inspector General of Police and the Auditor General, among other officials, are approved by Parliament.

The accountability mechanism performed by the Public Accounts Committee is also vital in the assessment and production of audit reports by government, showing how financial resources have utilised and providing remedy actions to bring public offices to account for the resources allocated to ministries, departments and agencies.

Also on a positive note, Parliament is the only arm of government that is open in its dealings as plenary is open and citizens can observe the proceedings. Committees are also mostly open to the media unless issues being discussed are sensitive.

There is evidence on how committees have opened up for live coverage during enquiries of the maize saga and the performance of Mec commissioners.

Parliament’s decision are made and carried by majority vote either by voice or roll call and this is a democratic way of doing things and making decisions about issues that affect the public.

HEADS PARLIAMENT—Gotani Hara

It is also a plus that for the first time, the Malawi Parliament has a female Speaker, Catherine Gotani Hara.

In the face of the numerous challenges that the Malawi Parliament faces, the institution plays a crucial role in making legislation, providing oversight and representing the will of the people in various constituencies.

Tags
Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button
Close
Close