The Office of the Director of Public Officers’ Declarations says it has secured K13.1 million to push for law reforms and the enforcement of penalties for public officers who do not declare their assets and liabilities as required by law.
The assets directorate deputy director Michael Chiusiwa in an e-mailed response yesterday said the directorate has taken steps to ensure that all public officers comply with the law which requires that both elected and non-elected officers should declare their assets and liabilities for transparency and accountability.
He was responding to The Nation questionnaire on what steps the office would take to ensure compliance following the refusal last year by the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) and the office of the Speaker of the National Assembly to fire six members of Parliament (MPs) who failed to comply with the assets law.
Said Chiusiwa: “A more permanent solution would be to amend the law by making the process of enforcing dismissals automatic rather than discretionary. Currently, the Directorate relies on the cooperation of the appointing authority to enforce the law.
“In the current [2019/20 financial year] budget, we have set aside K13.1 million for consultations with various stakeholders for possible law reform and the area of enforcement of penalties for non-compliance is one of the priority areas.”
The Public Officer’s (Declaration of Assets, Liabilities and Business Interests) Act of 2013 requires all public officers who are required to declare their assets, liabilities and business interests to do so within 90 days of assuming office.
Chiusiwa said both President Peter Mutharika and Vice-President Everton Chimulirenji, who had until August 28 2019 to declare their assets and liabilities after their swearing in on May 28, submitted their declarations by the deadline.
MPs and Cabinet ministers, who were sworn in on June 18 and June 20, respectively, have their deadlines this month.
Other non-elected public officers had until July 30 to submit their declarations but Chiusiwa said the compliance rate is low among that group.
He said: “Civil servants are posing a challenge in compliance arguably due to several factors. One of them is poor or lack of coordination at institutional levels. Most heads of institutions or controlling officers do not take this law as part of their responsibilities in as far as management of public resources is concerned.”
Chiusiwa added that the office would also engage the Public Appointments Committee of Parliament, which also doubles as a monitoring committee, to seek guidance on its recommendations to authorities for dismissals.
The window for declarations, according to law, is between July 1 and 31 each year and non-compliance attracts penalties such as dismissal or losing seats for legislators while the law also recommends a two-year jail term for false declarations.
However, Lilongwe-based legal experts Justin Dzonzi said there could be some legal impediments if the law were amended to allow for the automatic dismissal of non-compliant public officers.
He said: “Of course, the amendment can be practical. But for a provision of that kind to function, there must be a number of things that would be required to take place otherwise there would be lots of legal impediments. The procedure to be followed must sync with other laws.
“For example, if dismissal for non-compliance becomes automatic that has to give room for natural justice for someone to be heard. Besides, there must be a chance for appeal and that should be reflected in all contracts so that office holders are made aware of what to expect.”
In 2018, the Assets director’s office wrote then Speaker of Parliament Richard Msowoya to declare vacant seats of six non-compliant MPs including former Cabinet minister Grace Chiumia, George Chaponda, Christopher Mzomera Ngwira, Willard Gwengwe, Henry Shaba and Davis Kadzinja.
In the 2018/19 fiscal year, 1 100 public officers did not declare their assets yet none of them were meted with any punitive measures.
Our sister paper The Weekend Nation in 2018 reported that even the declarations by President Mutharika and his Cabinet did not contain some critical information.
The paper’s review of the declaration for Cabinet members found that most of them did not disclose money in their bank accounts, sources of income and financial activities of immediate family members such as spouses, which is a violation of the law. Two law experts who were then quoted on the matter, University of Cape Town-based Danwood Chirwa and Dzonzi differed on their analysis of the problem with Chirwa blaming the office of the Assets director for failure to enforce compliance while Dzonzi pointed out the gaps in the law itself which he said did not make declaration compulsory.