THE writing off by government of US$9 million car loan scheme debts for legislators has provoked uproar amid criticism that MPs are lazy and greedy, seeking self-aggrandisement like fortune hunters instead of dealing with development issues in their constituencies and ensuring public services delivery.
Report by Herbert Moyo
The decision by Finance minister Tendai Biti to write off the debts has caused outrage as critics say the current crop of legislators has benefitted substantially despite a struggling economy which they have done little to revive.
Besides their failure to deliver, a recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report titled Baseline Survey on Sector Specific Capacity Building Requirements for Committees of Parliament, says 65% of Zimbabwe’s current MPs require intensive training in legislation and budget analysis as they are not skilled and competent to perform their tasks.
At least 300 legislators, including Lower House MPs and senators, got US$30 000 each under the car loan scheme which is a revolving fund. In addition to the cancellation of debts, it also emerged last week that in December last year Treasury deposited a flat US$15 000 into all MPs’ accounts.
This was despite the fact that MPS were not entitled to the allowances.
Biti let the cat out of the bag when he told the House of Assembly last Tuesday: “We wrote off the US$30 000 loans for the vehicles even though the law says you must repay. Last year, we gave you that bonus, which I shall not mention, otherwise it will be written in the papers. We have done a lot of things for you because we really understand your plight.”
In May legislators demanded residential stands at subsidised prices in “respectable suburbs”, arguing this would save Treasury the burden of paying exorbitant hotel bills for their accommodation. The term “respectable suburbs” is an indirect reference to residential areas which are not high density neighbourhoods, meaning MPs want to distance themselves from poor communities.
In July, they demanded laptops and desktop computers from Information Communication Technology minister Nelson Chamisa.
And in September, the MPs said they wanted US$8 million from Copac for the 90 days they claimed they were underpaid during the constitution-making outreach programme. They said the US$25 they received was way below the approved allowance of US$75 per day for any parliamentary business, but their demands were dismissed.
MPs also arm-twisted the executive into making blanket payments of US$15 000 each as sitting allowances despite records showing some of them only attended parliamentary sessions sporadically.
Currently legislators are supposed to be paid a US$1 400 base salary per month, along with US$75 in sitting allowances and stipends for leadership positions or committee posts.
However, they claim that they were being paid US$250 per month from 2008 to 2011.
While the legislature made one demand after the other, their performance has been heavily criticised.
In June NewsDay reported about 52 House of Assembly legislators and 23 senators had not uttered a word in debates, let alone delivered maiden speeches.
The image of MPs has been further dented by truant ministers some of whom, according to the NewsDay article, had missed sitting more than 20 times by June.
The main pieces of legislation that the current parliament has passed since 2008 include the Public Finance Management Act, the Audit Office Act, the national Security Council Act, the Reserve Bank Amendment Act, the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment No 19, the Deposit Protection Corporation Act and the Small Enterprises Corporation Amendment Act.
Executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust John Makamure has pointed out that: “The GPA (Global Political Agreement) mandated parties to come up with a legislative agenda that conforms to the spirit of the agreement of promoting democratic values, human freedom and security of the person. One can safely say that there has been limited progress in that regard.”
He said MPs had limited time before the next elections to make a difference in terms of enacting good laws, noting “failure to do so means this parliament will only be remembered for clamouring for improved conditions of services which cannot be justified in the absence of tangible outcomes on the law-making front”.
Makamure urged MPs to make a difference through introducing private bills.
In 2010, Treasury introduced the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) through which MPs were given US$50 000 to fund development initiatives in their constituencies.
However, some of that cash was abused by unscrupulous MPs who have been arrested or are facing arrest over the issue. An audit into how the funds were used was indefinitely put on hold amid fears culprits would be allowed to get away with it.
Former MDC MP Job Sikhala, who represented St Marys from 2000 to 2005, said although legislators were advanced vehicle loans during his time, the money was deducted every month from their salaries.
“We chose cheaper cars we could afford because you had to pay back everything or risk the car being sold to defray expenses,” said Sikhala. “We didn’t have any of this madness in which MPs get cars for free.”
However, Bulawayo East MP Tabitha Khumalo (MDC-T) defended MPs, arguing they were only trying to ensure their remuneration reflected their social status as elected representatives.
“It is only fair that we also engage the executive on issues pertaining to our welfare because we haven’t been paid our sitting allowances,” she said.
Institute for a Democratic Alternative for Zimbabwe public policy and governance manager Jabusile Shumba said, of the 19 bills presented in the course of the fourth session of parliament that ended on October 29 2012, only the the Finance and Appropriation Bills giving effect to the 2012 Budget and Older Persons Bill were passed, showing MPs have been sleeping on the job.