Unless the Office of the Director of Public Officers’ Assets Declaration is given teeth to bite, the annual exercise requiring public officers to declare their assets, will just be repetitive with lawbreakers walking scot–free, the office’s director Christopher Tukula has cautioned.
In an interview on Friday, ahead of the July 1 to 30 submission of annual declaration update returns by listed public officers this year, Tukula stressed the need to review the Public Officer’s Declaration of Assets Liabilities and Business Interests Act (2013), to give the directorate more enforcement powers.
Under the current law, the directorate only recommends dismissal of errant officers to the appointing authority.
Said Tukula: “My office can only report to the Monitoring Committee of Parliament for it to take appropriate action. So, in that sense, the penalty of dismissal although slated to be mandatory under the Act, is dependent on the appointing authority’s discretion. That is a big loophole.”
Last year, the office wrote former Speaker of Parliament Richard Msowoya to declare vacant seats of six MPs who did not declare their assets for the year 2016/17.
The six included former Cabinet minister Grace Chiumia and the directorate also wrote the Office of President and Cabinet (OPC) to take action, but both the Speaker and OPC did not effect dismissals despite acknowledging receipt of the letters, said Tukula.
The other MPs in question were George Chaponda, Christopher Mzomera Ngwira, Willard Gwengwe, Henry Shaba and Davis Kadzinja.
According to the director, invoking sanctions selectively is tragic to the realisation of the objectives of the law, which are promotion of integrity, transparency, accountability and rule of law.
Said Tukula: “Evidently, the failure to adhere to the law on this issue goes beyond the directorate’s control. We need all relevant authorities to respect the law to avoid creating a scenario where some public officers are perceived as being above the law.”
An update on asset declaration for President Peter Mutharika and his previous Cabinet for the financial years 2016/17 and 2017/18, which Weekend Nation reviewed last October, showed that most of them did not disclose money in their bank accounts, sources of their income and financial activities of immediate families such as spouses, as the law requires.
Failing to declare assets is a criminal offence punishable by two years imprisonment, according to the law.
Section 15 (e) of the assets law obliges public office holders, their immediate family members and associates to declare their full financial status by disclosing details such as bank accounts, the location of the accounts and names of the banking institutions.
The section also requires full disclosure of any other asset the official or any member of his or her immediate family has financed, owns in any other name other than his or her own and description of the asset, its location, date of acquisition, amount paid for the asset, its current valuation, and name or names in which the asset is held or owned.
For instance, new Minister of former minister of Health Atupele Muluzi and former Finance minister Goodall Gondwe, simply responded ‘Not Applicable’ on the declaration form, implying they had nothing to declare in the period despite the law explicitly requiring them to declare their income and its source and the status of their bank accounts.Finance Joseph Mwanamvekha,
Former Information minister Nicholas Dausi declared 2 000 bags of 50 kg maize while former Education minister Bright Msaka declared one motor vehicle, a Mercedes worth K5 million.
But a legal scholar Danwood Chirwa, who is also professor of law at Cape Town University in South Africa, observed in an earlier interview that there is no problem with the law as it stands. The problem, he said, is that the assets office is failing to enforce the law.
He said: “There are currently no loopholes in the law. If there is any lapse in enforcement, the blame must fall squarely on the director of Public Declaration of Assets and Liabilities in whom the enforcement of compliance with the law is vested.”
Lingson Belekanyama, former chairperson of Parliamentary Monitoring Committee, said in an earlier interview that failure by Cabinet members to comply with the law showed that the legislation was being undermined.
But he agreed with Tukula that there is need to review the law to ensure that the existing loopholes are sealed.
“The law has gaps. The office has powers but we need to make some amendments. We need indicators to track financial transactions. The law should cover the bank statements every year. The law doesn’t specify how such issues such as money should be handled. We have tested that law; some of the provisions will be changed. As a committee, we discovered that apart from financial transactions, some people in government do not declare assets,” said Belekanyama.