- Committees want President’s benefits reviewed
- Say unrestricted privileges are recipe for abuse
The removal of some of Vice-President Saulos Chilima’s security detail last week has created a backlash with members of various parliamentary committees calling for a review of the President (Salaries and Benefits) Act.
The Parliamentary Legal Affairs Committee wants a review of the law to limit benefits for the presidency.
Chairperson of the committee Maxwell Thyolera said: “It is the feeling of the committee that the Malawi Law Commission should institute a review of the Act to make it in tandem with the demands at the moment. But to let things be done haywire is a violation of the laws.
“Secondly, it is abuse of resources and of office, but again from 1994 to date, a lot might have happened which necessitated the beefing up of security personnel for the President and Veep as to what is prescribed in the Act. So, this can be addressed in the proposed review or amendment.”
In an interview on Thursday, the legislator said Chilima’s case attests to the fact that there is no adherence to entitlements by the presidency and, by implication, the law has been violated all along.
Thyolera said it’s likely that the President also has more personnel than is prescribed by the law.
Government reduced the Veep’s security after he declared that he will contest in next year’s presidential elections, but not as a DPP candidate. He is now leading the United Transformation Movement (UTM).
Chilima has also criticised government for corruption.
In a letter issued a week ago, Chief Secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) Lloyd Muhara instructed principal secretaries and heads of departments that the Vice-President should “only be accorded such privileges as prescribed by law”.
According to the law, the Vice-President is entitled to seven police officers, but currently has an extra 46 officers, who last week were withdrawn together with some vehicles. The officers and the vehicles have since been returned after the Vice-President sought an injunction pending a judicial review.
A member of the Parliamentary Committee on Privileges, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the culture of secrecy on presidential privileges is fuelling abuse of resources.
Discussions around such entitlements are mostly viewed as “sensitive” and bordering on “security” by some oversight institutions including Parliament itself, observed the member.
Said the legislator: “The law is not adhered to. Some government offices keep hiding information in the name of security and other officials are taking advantage of this. That is why we also have a challenge of ghost workers because there is no openness.”
The member said even other members of the Parliamentary Committee on Privileges do not know the number of workers at State House, a situation he feared is a recipe for abuse.
Chairperson of the cluster for International Relations and Defence and Security Alex Major observed that the country needs to embrace modern technology and do away with excess security detail for the presidency.
He cited America, where at the White House there are less security officers and a lot of CCTV cameras and other gadgets.
Said Major: “The call for a review of the Act is very important because in 1994 we did not have cell phones or CCTV. What we see is that at State House there are more than enough personnel.”
He also gave an example of the Speaker of Parliament Richard Msowoya, who he said is entitled to just one security guard compared to Chilima who has over 40 officers, but the two are supposed to be at par.
According to the President (Salaries and Benefits) Act of 1994, apart from a free house in Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Chikoko Bay in Mangochi, the President is entitled to free food, water, electricity and medical services, and personal physician for, spouse and children under 18 years.
The President is also entitled to free transport, duty-free importation of items for personal use, a motorcade escort, a presidential convoy, one chief of staff, one Aide–de-camp (ADC), personal assistants, three personal body guards, one secretary, and one staff supervisor.
Besides, the First Citizen is also entitled to one head security guard, unlimited security guards, three storekeepers, six cooks, four head gardeners, unlimited gardeners, unlimited house staff, one copy typist, one messenger, one tailor, one valet and one dresser.
Benefits for the spouse include travel abroad at government expense if in the company of the President.
The spouse is also entitled to travel abroad privately at government expense but restricted to three times a year for a duration not exceeding 14 days each time.
But a constitutional lawyer Edge Kanyongolo has cautioned the MPs to tread carefully with the suggestion that the Act should be reviewed, arguing that courts through a judicial review are best placed to handle such discretions.
For example, he said, it was for obvious reasons that the law does not prescribe the exact number or put a limit on the security detail for the President.
Said Kanyongolo: “The security detail for a President may vary [depending] on the security situation such as when there is a security breakdown, or if there is a coup attempt, and so on. I think interpreting the law should be done with that in mind, and that circumstances may require that there is a little flexibility.”
Some economists have also weighed in on calls to review benefits of senior officials in government, saying there’s need for prudence and value for money.
Malawi Economic Justice Network (Mejn) executive director Dalitso Kubalasa challenged that time has come to start rewarding to people in offices depending on the value they are giving to the country.
He said: “If the service was to be excellent and above board, why not reward such people with the benefits they want? But if the service is already falling short and the country is failing to progress, it is a leaking bucket, why should taxpayers be spending huge sums of money on benefits without getting any value?”
On his part, Catholic University of Malawi’s economics lecturer Gilbert Kachamba noted that expenditures in State Residences are way too high compared to the size of the economy.
“I think on the security of the President and the Vice-President, we don’t need to compromise but on the number of casual labourers, it’s not economic to have too many of them,” he said.
According to government records, President Peter Mutharika, who is the fifth multiparty president, has also over 16 special assistants.
Weekend Nation calculates that each special assistant gets a monthly package of roughly K1.6 million, which translates to K25.6 million per month and K307 million annually.
The presidential aides also enjoy special privileges when they accompany the President to local functions, where they are provided luxurious accommodation, attracting more expenses for the taxpayer.
Mutharika’s aides include a special adviser on maternal health and safe motherhood, chief political adviser, chief adviser on domestic policy, chief economic adviser, special assistant and adviser on national unity and parliamentary affairs, special assistant responsible for the civil society and NGOs, special assistant on press, adviser on religious affairs, special assistant on youth affairs, special assistant on women affairs, personal assistant on special duties, personal assistant on international relations, deputy personal assistant on international relations, special assistant to the First Lady, executive and special assistant on capacity building.
Although Mutharika has a lean Cabinet of 20 members, compared to an average of 40 for his predecessors, he has been criticised for having a bloated number of advisers.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita of $100 and is only better than war-torn South Sudan and Somalia.