The 2014-2019 cohort of Parliament was moderate on legislation, but strong on oversight, The Nation analysis and interviews with the august House’s watchers show.
Our search at Parliament Building in Lilongwe shows that enacted laws dropped five percent during the just disbanded House, chalking around 144 legislations against 152 by the 2009-2014 Parliament.
Of these legislations, only 35 were money bills compared to 55 in the previous cohort.
Some of the major legislations enacted over the past five years include Gender Equality, Access to Information, a compendium of Land reform laws, Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets as well as amendments to the Public Audit Act and Corrupt Practices Act.
But the cohort that disbanded on March 20 in line with constitutional order shone on private members’ bills, introducing six on the floor against zero in the preceding House, signalling progress on comprehension of the roles that individual legislators are supposed to play as lawmakers.
All the six private members’ bills, including Financial Services (also known as Interest Capping), were sponsored by opposition legislators.
One of the six, Anatomy (amendment) sponsored by Dowa East legislator Richard Chimwendo Banda, became law; the first time in the history of the Malawi Parliament that a private members’ bill got enacted.
The law provides stiffer punishment to people convicted of killing or being found with bones of persons with albinism.
However, based on our observations and review of records at Parliament this week, the level of scrutiny on some bills was lacking.
On many occasions, members of Parliament (MPs) were ignorant about the contents of the bills because government did not circulate the same for scrutiny in line with the stipulated 28 days before a bill is introduced. This left little time for legislators to consult their constituents on proposed laws.
The lack of or inadequate consultation with constituents on bills, especially loan authorisation bills, also meant that the majority of Malawians were not aware of how their government was further saddling them with debts.
In justifying tabling of money bills without adequate notice, Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe said the urgency of accessing the loan facilities before a window closes was the major factor.
On oversight, The Nation could not get information on how many committee hearings this cohort held, but Parliament watchers and some MPs agree that this is an area in which this Parliament was most productive.
University of Livingstonia political and governance commentator George Phiri said in an interview this week that parliamentary committees “performed well”, but have been let down by the Executive, which failed to take up their recommendations.
But the converse is also true because, while this Parliament was more aggressive in holding the Executive accountable through hearings, they did not go far enough to monitor implementation of their recommendations.
For example, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was instituted at a time the public waited to understand what happened in Cashgate.
Led by then Dedza South West MP Alekeni Menyani with firebrand Rumphi East legislator Kamlepo Kalua as vice chairperson, the committee presided over Cashgate inquiry.
But attention from the committee waned after the hearings. To date, the public is still waiting to get a progress report on the prosecution of those involved in the K236 billion fraud.
Yet, the public has PAC to thank for the revelations into how the country’s top brass nearly connived to purchase maize that was not needed through the so-called Maizegate.
A joint parliamentary committee recommended the firing and censure of then minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development George Chaponda, which President Peter Mutharika reluctantly complied with.
Menyani, who also served as executive committee member of the Southern African Development Committee Organisation of Public Accounts Committees (Sadcopac), said he is proud that MPs challenged themselves to raise the levels of oversight that would be needed to bring needed changes to the country.
“All in all, we did our best and let others take over and perfect the work. We also had a Speaker who prioritised oversight and a great vice-chairperson in Kamlepo Kalua,” he said.
Committees were also at the heart of inquiries into attacks of persons with albinism, irregularities in the implementation of the 2016/17 Farm Inputs Subsidy Programme (Fisp) and the inquiry into the Malawi Police Service food rations scandal that allegedly defrauded taxpayers billions.
While in committees, political plays were minimal, the same could not be said of the jostling for relevance that took place in the chamber.
As the government pushed its agenda in Parliament boosted by 11 MPs from the United Democratic Front (UDF) through a parliamentary working relationship with the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the opposition was left reeling as bills they opposed passed and those they wanted were shot down.
At the start of the 2014 cohort, the House had 50 DPP MPs, 48 for Malawi Congress Party (MCP), 26 for People’s Party, 14 for UDF and 52 independent.
But even with UDF on its side in a parliamentary alliance, DPP had less numbers compared to the opposition combined, but, still, there were several instances in which the opposition failed to consolidate its numbers.
Several motions died a natural death because movers were not confident they would get the support needed to achieve their goals.
The governing party was able to thwart some bills by rallying MPs, including independent, to reject those advanced by the opposition.
However, governance commentator Henry Chingaipe said in an interview that the problem is not weakness on the part of the opposition. He feels the public expects too much from the opposition.
He said: “The problem for me is not that the opposition was weak. The problem is that our Parliament continues to be subjugated to the Executive so much that MPs who belong to the ruling party see themselves as belonging to the Executive more than to Parliament.”
Chingaipe observed, therefore, that the last five years were not just a lost opportunity for the opposition, but the whole Parliament as an institution because it was beholden to the Executive.
He said it was wrong to leave the function of accountability to the opposition alone when that should have been the responsibility of the whole Parliament.
“I would say Parliament rejected electoral reform bills because the duty to make law is for Parliament. I would not say the opposition failed to get numbers to pass the law,” Chingaipe said.
Former Dedza East MP Juliana Lunguzi said the performance was a mixed bag with room for further improvements.
“That House at times can be a ground for the government to bulldoze issues, money bills for instance. How do you bring three money bills on the last day of meeting? That is cheating. I would also say the debates at times were limited to statements,” she said.
Leader of House in the just dissolved cohort, Kondwani Nankhumwa, appointed to the position in May 2017, told Parliament on Friday that as a united Parliament, they passed many landmark bills among them Access to Information, Citizenship (amendment) Act and National Intelligence Services.
“As representatives of the people, we rose above petty party politics and upheld the primacy of our function as legislators,” he said.
It was the view of the outgoing Speaker Richard Msowoya that during his tenure, committees met regularly and investigated a number of issues and brought them to light to Malawians and Parliament.
“We need to guard jealously the supremacy of Parliament by ensuring that it becomes an operationally independent arm of government. To do so, we need to process amendments of some existing laws and indeed parts of the Constitution,” he said without elaborating.
This cohort also struggled with high absenteeism rates that parliamentary leadership failed to quell.
Most apparent in the whole five years was poor attendance by the members in the House and for a good part of that period, the Speaker of Parliament failed to reign in the rampant absenteeism. His warnings and threats of financial sanctions fell on deaf ears.
It became normal to see empty government and opposition benches to the extent that voting on a motion or bill would have over 50 absentees.
The Standing Orders 41 (3) states that “a member who is absent without seeking leave of absence shall forfeit all allowances during the period of absence”, but enforcement has been poor.