As a citizen—and particularly as a journalist—I should probably be beside myself with joy with the momentum that the Access to Information Bill has gathered.
Idealists among us aver that we will have the most open government ever once the ATI legislation has been approved by Parliament. Elected and appointed public officials will be held accountable for their errors of commission and omission, pilferage of public resources will be a thing of the past and all that hogwash. Well and good.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but I just don’t share that enthusiasm. Having a law is one thing, respecting it is another. To begin with, this is an unwilling government that is being frogmarched to pass a law it has no scant regard for. To imagine the same government will be tasked with its implementation!
Besides, in Malawi, impunity by rulers and government officials is endemic. Our government is like a mafia organisation which is beyond reproach, which shall render this law just another illustrious, but useless, piece of legislation. It is not as if Malawi is lacking for laws; our biggest challenge has been and shall always be implementation. Until our implementation mechanisms are robust enough, such initiatives shall remain white elephants.
Take, for instance, the independent audit commissioned by the Auditor General early this year which uncovered nefarious activities by civil servants who manipulated the payroll by, among others, creating ghost workers, paying themselves double salaries and introducing unauthorised pay codes in government payroll systems. Government knows who stole what, how and when. Government succeeded in naming and shaming the evil—not civil—servants involved, but then, so what? And yet we have laws that govern against theft and fraud.
It is not as if we don’t know who stole what; what we want to happen is for those people to be dealt with. And that’s what we should be agitating for as we push for ATI. Otherwise, it will become just another law, with lots of potential but zero delivery.
Dilemma of a drum
I have a friend named—for purposes of this narrative—Mwatakale, who stays about 200 metres away from me. His house, however, does not have piped water, so for quite a while he comes to my house everyday to draw water in a bucket, which he pours into a huge drum back home. Occasionally, I draw water in my drum and take it to his house where he pours it into his.
One day, when I go to leave him some water, I notice that his drum gave at the seams and is leaking water like nobody’s business. I empathise with him and I tell him to fix the drum before he can come around to draw water again. He obliges. Actually, I volunteer to find a tinsmith who can do the job very well. He accepts.
The tinsmith goes around to Mwatakale’s house and tells him what should be done—such as the type of materials he should buy and where he should place it once it has fixed—to minimise or avoid future damage. As usual, Mwatakale agrees.
Three months later, the water drum is not yet fixed; but Mwatakale hasn’t minded at all because he has been surviving on rain water. But he knows he does not live in an equatorial region where it rains for most of the year, so he knows he will soon need water from me. So, he comes to me on bended knees asking for water.
I ask him: “Did you fix the drum?”
With a face cast down he responds: “No, but I’m in the process of fixing it.”
“Now, Mwatakale, if I give you water, where do you expect to keep it? Shouldn’t you repair your drum first before coming here to beg for water?”
“But I need water or else my family and I will die of thirst,” he responds.
I know that if I give him water, it will be wasted before it does its function. But if I don’t, he and his family will die of thirst.
I still don’t know what to do; do you? n