Malawi President Joyce Banda has shaken up the government structure to achieve greater efficiency, but some analysts argue the move consolidates her power as the country heads for 2014 elections.
Among the major changes that have raised eyebrows is her decision to bring the National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust under the armpit of the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC), wrestling it from the Ministry of Information and Civic Education, less than two years to the general elections.
The commentators argue that with Nice directly under the presidency, its independence to conduct non-partisan civic education comes into question.
Through a circular reference number CS/S/001 dated May 21 2012, Chief Secretary to the Government Bright Msaka advises all Cabinet ministers and their deputies, the deputy chief secretary and all principal secretaries and heads of departments that President Banda ordered the changes.
â€œIn exercise of the powers conferred upon her by the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi and the Public Service Act, Her Excellency the President has directed that a new Malawi Government Structure be adopted,â€ reads the Msaka-signed circular in part.
The Nice controversy
The changes have also seen what were formerly sections turned into full departments. On the other hand, the new structure has maintained legally conflicting lineage in certain jurisdictions, notably the National Audit Office (NAO), which must report to Parliament, but operate under the Ministry of Finance.
The shifting of Nice from the Ministry of Information to OPC comes when Malawians are waiting for the Minister of Information to appoint new members into the Nice Board of Trustees after the former board, constituted by the late president Bingu wa Mutharika, was dissolved.
Article 4 Section 3 (a) of Nice constitution says: â€œThe Board of Trustees shall consist of eight members appointed by the Minister.â€
Nice, the most important civic education authority in the country, is critical to free and fair elections given its competencies in this area and its powerful network of volunteers in almost every community.
Meanwhile, Nice financiers, the European Union (EU), want the board to be appointed as a matter of urgency for them to release funding for the re-establishment of Nice structures run down during the period EU suspended support following political interference by the Mutharika regime.
Head of EU delegation Alexander Baum said on Wednesday that it is important to ensure that Nice is depoliticised and allowed to work independently.
But Baum indicated that EU is ready with initial funding of K120 million (about $480 000) for six months beginning July 1 2012. These funds, according to Baum, will help the Nice secretariat to recruit staff, pay salaries and run the office for half a year.
Nice programme manager Stephen Mkoka said in an interview he is not aware of the new government structure because it has not been communicated to him. He could not take further questions.
Malawi Electoral Support Network (Mesn) spokesperson Steve Duwa suggested that the arrangement to have Nice under OPC compromises the organisationâ€™s integrity and independence to conduct voter education ahead of the 2014 tripartite elections.
According to Duwa, Nice should be under the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, currently the custodian of all governance institutions.
Said Duwa: â€œWhen it comes to civic and voter education, independence cannot be guaranteed in this case. The role of politicians in influencing Nice decisions and activities should not be judged by the manner its board is appointed, but also which government ministry controls it.â€
This view was shared by chairperson of the Civic and Political Space Platform Moses Mkandawire who proposed a review of the Nice constitution immediately the new board is appointed.
Said Mkandawire: â€œHow do you conduct civic and voter education under the armpit of State machinery?â€
Information Minister Moses Kunkuyu said he would have to consult before discussing the new structure.
But constitutional lawyer associate professor Edge Kanyongolo of the University of Malawi said in another interview that the Minister of Information can still exercise powers guaranteed under the constitution even when Nice is with OPC.
â€œWhat matters is the constitution. Nice is a trust, I do not see how it can be under the directive of OPC,â€ said Kanyongolo Wednesday.
Secretary for Human Resource Management and Development Sam Madula said the new structure is already operational.
He, however, referred the matter to Charles Msosa, principal secretary for administration at OPCâ€”who suggested that Clerk to Cabinet Clement Chinthu Phiri was better placed to comment on the changes.
Chinthu Phiri is yet to respond to a questionnaire seeking explanation on the rationale behind the changes in the government structure.
Audit office independence
The full changes document, titled The Malawi Government Structure April 2012, has also maintained NAO under the Ministry of Finance much to the chagrin of advocates of NAOâ€™s independence.
In an e-mailed response on Thursday, Dalitso Kubalasa, executive director of the Malawi Economic Justice Network (Mejn) said: â€œIt is still our hope that any reforms in this structure will maintain the spirit shown and the hope generated towards what was being shared at the Cabs [Common Approach to Budget Support] meeting for the independence of this office [NAO], which is long overdue, to immediately institute the ideals of redress long awaited.â€
At the recent CABS meeting, it was announced that the position of Auditor General was elevated to that of Deputy Chief Secretary and that NAO was going to be reporting directly to Parliament in line with Section 28 (1) of the Public Audit Act.
â€œThis, to us, was a moment of hope at the beginning of signs towards the realism of the independence of the office,â€ said Kubalasa.
He said: â€œAn independent Auditor Generalâ€™s office would definitely go a long way in institutionalising and operationalising all ardent calls for PFEM [Public Finance and Economic Management] reforms for improved and much stronger public finance management system.â€
The issue of NAOâ€™s lack of independence has been controversial as it defeats the very essence of the office. The legislative conflict is even acknowledged and reflected on NAO website.
In another e-mail interview, NAO corporate communications Officer Thomas Chafunya said an Institutional Review Implementation Taskforce was established by the Auditor General to help in the implementation of the recommendations set out by consultants on reforms for NAO’s independence.
â€œThe team has come up with proposed legal amendments which NAO believes will address the conflict between the two legislations. We have now moved a step forward by engaging the Ministry of Justice in finalising the process,â€ said Chafunya.
The legal conflict provides two major challenges to the functions of NAO. These are budgetary constraints and reporting structure.
Following the realignment of the legislation, the country will have a scenario where NAO will present its own budget to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which will scrutinise it and pass on to the Finance Minister to incorporate in the national budget. This will mean that NAO will have a protected budget and most of its activities will not suffer, according to Chafunya.
Other notable changes
The new structure also splits some ministries, including the Ministry of Youth and Sports. On the new structure, the ministry has six departments, but principal secretary Alex Mseka said the ministry has three departments.
â€œWe also made the same observations. I guess we will have to give guidance in future,â€ said Mseka in an interview on Wednesday.
Mseka said the departments in the ministry are Youth Enterprise Development, Youth Development and Sports Development.
The new structure shows the ministry has departments of Youth Development; Sports and Athletics; Youth Guidance and Counselling; Youth Empowerment, Participation and Leadership; Youth Career and Development and Youth Welfare.
The Ministry of Labour is now in-charge of technical and vocational training after the department of technical and vocational education has been shifted from Ministry of Education.
The Technical Entrepreneurial Vocational Education and Training Authority (Teveta), which was reporting to the department when it was in the Ministry of Education, is not aware of the changes yet, according to the Teveta communications specialist Lewis Msasa.
Ministry of Education, Science and Technology now has a Department of Universities, separate from Department of Higher Education.
In the Ministry of Justice, law revision is now a department separate from Legislative Drafting Chambers.
Commenting on this, Law Society President John Gift Mwakhwawa said: â€œAs long it is within budget lines, this would increase efficiency.â€
Although law review is clearly indicated as a department in the new structure, Solicitor General Anthony Kamanga said it is not a department but still a section under legislative drafting chambers.
â€œIt is a section of Legislative Drafting Chambers. We describe sections in the ministry for convenience, so I will not read too much into the descriptions which by the way, came from OPC,â€ Kamanga said in an interview on Thursday.
Because of the Decentralisation Policy adopted in 1996, issues of public works had moved to Local Government and Rural Development Ministry in the past as a way of implementing the policy.
But the new structure has moved public works, which includes issues of food-for-work in paving rural roads, back to transport under the renamed Ministry of Transport and Public Works.
Principal Secretary for Transport and Public Works Moffat Chitimbe acknowledged the assumptions created with the change, but said such functions as food for work will still be decentralised to councils with the ministry providing oversight (Transport and Public Works).
The 1996 Decentralisation Policy, among other things, devolves powers in several areas from the central government to local government councils.
On the other hand, the National Transport Policy adopted in 2004 does not include issues of public works in its structures.
In the new structure, the Ministry of Agriculture has maintained Agriculture Research and Extension Trust (Aret) even after Parliament passed a law combining it with Bunda College of Agriculture and Natural Resources College to form the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
In the Ministry of Information, the Central Office of Information (COI) appears separate from the Department of Information on the new Malawi Government structure.
Secretary for Information Anthony Livuza acknowledged that COI has always been under the Department of Information but the ministry will be reviewing COI structures and functions to a department.
“The essence is to make the ministry all inclusive in the world of communication,” he said.
The smallest ministry, according to the new structure, is that of Disability and Elderly with two departments only â€“ Disability Programmes and Elderly Programmes.
According to the new structure, the only ministry dissected is Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Resources, now divided into Ministries of Energy and Mining; and Environment and Climate Change Management.