Ministers dodge questions in parliament

Clemence Manyukwe

PARLIAMENTARY backbenchers are getting frustrated as they wonder at how Zimbabwean ministers have perfected the art of dodging questions posed by MPs.
Ministers either choose to attend to other business or simply walk out of the chamber until the ques

tion on the Order Paper is deferred to another date without a guarantee that the query will receive attention. Other ministers delegate colleagues to apologise on their behalf for the absence.
Cuthbert Masara was among guests in the public gallery at Parliament House on a Wednesday — a day reserved for the House of Assembly’s question and answer session — at the end of October 2004. 
Having narrowly escaped death at the Marondera Agricultural Show when soldiers used live ammunition at a mock military drill, he had come to hear answers on what really went wrong and the action the army had taken on the culprits.
Questions posed by MDC MP Giles Mutsekwa, a retired army major, had been on the Order Paper for three weeks. Shortly before the question was asked Masara watched in disbelief as Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi left the chamber for the dining hall.
Because he was out of the chamber, the question was deferred to the following week. Conveniently, the minister emerged shortly afterwards when a report by the Parliamentary Privileges Committee which saw former Chimanimani MP Roy Bennett being sent to jail was presented.
Since October 2005, Mutsekwa has been trying to get an answer from Sekeramayi on the alleged security the government is providing to DRC president Joseph Kabila.
Up to now, the question has not been answered.
Mutsekwa is not the only legislator from the opposition or ruling party who has waited for months with his questions going unanswered by government ministers.
Parliament’s question-and-answer session generally reveals how a minister is versed with issues under his or her portfolio, judging by the way he or she tackles the issues raised.
In some cases, the responses reflect how government is accountable for its actions. But since the emergence of a strong opposition in 2000 many ministers have literally been caught napping by probing questions asked by the backbenchers.
They have responded by adopting a casual approach to parliamentary business to avoid thorny issues.
Mutsekwa believes that the appointment of non-constituency ministers has contributed to this as ministers pay allegiance to the person who appoints them, not the people they are supposed to serve.
For the past six years the problem of absentee politicians, some of whom show so much zeal during campaigns for polls by turning up at every political meeting or rally has continued unabated.
Those who turn up for parliamentary sessions have a generally halfhearted approach to the business of the House as they either skirt questions or provide no satisfactory explanations for legitimate concerns.
One is reminded of a hollow answer by Education minister Aeneas Chigwedere in May 2004 when asked if he had any powers to close schools during his war with private institutions over fees.
Chigwedere said: “We did not close any schools but we prevented them from opening. We said you raised fees without the ministry’s authority against the provision of the Education Act.”
When Zanu PF and the MDC were engaged in talks, Patrick Chinamasa, then the ruling party’s secretary for legal affairs, confirmed there was dialogue, but refused to say what progress had been made. He told legislators party representatives would report to their parties.
Zimbabweans were only told by South African President Thabo Mbeki last month that the two sides at one time actually came up with a draft constitution.
This week MDC chief whip Innocent Gonese blamed the appointment method of the ministers for their failure to respect business of the House.
Gonese said if ministers were appointed after approval of the legislature like in some countries, they would take the business of the legislature seriously. He said ministers know that failure to do so would see them failing to get approval the next time.
Gonese said apart from being censured, there is no penalty for ministers who abscond.
“In Zimbabwe ministers are appointed by the executive and not by parliament,” said Gonese. “If there was a constitutional provision that required ministers to get two-thirds approval of all sitting MPs, they would take business of the House seriously knowing that their continued tenure depended on performance.”
The Mutare Central MP has previously expressed concern over  absenteeism by ministers.
Zanu PF chief whip Joram Gumbo said as far as he was concerned, there was no problem of ministers not turning up for parliamentary sessions. He said the absent ministers would be attending to important business.
Gumbo’s claim is however a nullity as ministers can submit written answers if they are going away and must be absent.
Gumbo said that ministries who did not have deputies were the most affected since the deputies could answer the questions on their behalf.
“We are so responsible we know what to do, but we have many things to attend to. You attend to some things and you miss others,” said Gumbo.
He said MPs as well were absent from parliament and “we never have a full house”.
Gumbo said if ministers were continuously absent, he liaised with Chinamasa to compel the ministers to attend parliament.
Except for being censured he did not think that there was any need to penalise ministers as the rules stipulate that any member who is absent for 21 consecutive days is dismissed.
Clerk of Parliament Austin Zvoma referred all questions to Chinamasa who said if such issues were brought to him or the Speaker of the House of Assembly they would talk to the individual concerned.
He said there was no penalty for absenteeism.
“There is no penalty. If it is brought to our attention we talk to the ministers. The ministers would have good reasons,” Chinamasa said.