THE Zimbabwe Independent has initiated legal action to press parliament to release crucial documents of public interest detailing how legislators in Harare province utilised Constituency Development Funds (CDF) allocated between 2018 and 2023.
Parliament refused to release the documents when it was approached by this newspaper in June this year.
Senior reporter Miriam Mangwaya had requested the information in a letter dated June 15 as part of an investigation she was undertaking in partnership with Information for Development Trust (IDT). The probe’s goal was to ascertain how approved funds were deployed into Harare constituencies during the review period.
Mangwaya’s investigation was carried out before Zimbabwe went to polls to elect new legislators on August 23.
Deputy Clerk of Parliament Helen Dingane wrote to the Independent at the time, saying if the information was released, it would jeopardise prospects for some legislators, who were seeking a fresh mandate. Clerk of Parliament Mugove Chokuda, who was also approached for the documents, did not respond.
Through their lawyer Chris Mhike of Atherstone and Cook, who is being instructed by the Independent’s editor Faith Zaba and Mangwaya, later wrote to Chokuda demanding that he explains why he was refusing to release the information.
“The information we are seeking is of public interest and there is no justifiable reason for parliament to refuse to disclose,” Zaba said.
“Citizens have a right to know how their elected representatives are performing so that they make informed choices. They were denied that right.
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“The refusal also violated Section 62 of the constitution and the Freedom of Information Act. It is not the duty of parliament to protect the legislators,” she added.
On September 4, 2023, Chokuda said the elections had affected the compilation of information requested by the weekly.
"We are in receipt of your letter with the above-mentioned reference wherein your client requested information for eight constituencies with regards to Constituency Development Funds (hereinafter referred to as CDF)," Chokuda said in response to a letter of demand by the Independent lawyers.
"As you might be aware, parliament has a Constituency Development Fund Management Committee (hereinafter referred to as the "committee" that is established in terms of the CDF Constitution.
“It oversees and monitors the disbursement and proper use of the funds, amongst other responsibilities. Currently, the committee is compiling the 9th parliament CDF report, which is for all the 210 constituencies.
“The report will cover the issues of disbursements and utilisation of the funds during the period 2018 to 2023," he said.
However, Chokuda did not state when the report will be released.
Mhike this week wrote three other letters of demand to Chokuda, whose initial response he said was not satisfactory, and permanent secretaries in the ministries of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs and Finance and Investment Promotion.
In the letter to Chokuda, Mhike wrote: "Would you please indicate to us by return of mail the expected date of completion of the report that you refer to, and when exactly our clients may expect to receive the said report from your good office".
In the letters to the permanent secretaries, Mhike requested information pertaining to the total CDF amounts disbursed and usage by legislators.
"Pursuant to the objective of providing useful and reliable information to their readers, our clients have, in recent months, been seeking information pertaining the applications for the Constituency Development Fund by Honourable Members of Parliament; the award and relevant amounts emanating from those applications and the usage of those funds by successful applications," Mhike stated. Local public finance watchdogs criticised parliament for its failure to disclose the information, saying it was a blow to transparency and accountability in its oversight role.
Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe Chapter national director Tabani Moyo commended the Independent for holding state institutions to account.
"The pursuits by the Zimbabwe Independent towards broadening the spheres of access to information and holding power to account are critical strides towards building a society that makes informed decisions," Moyo, who is also the Misa regional director, said.
"It is part of the vibrant press to take the extra mile towards articulating uncomfortable truths and such a role of the press allows society to better reflect and keep on pushing the human race forward.
"To the duty bearer, Zimbabwe has a progressive constitution that guarantees access to information in which the press is supposed to gain unfettered access without going through struggles to attain the same," he added.
IDT national director Tawanda Majoni said: “Section 62 of the Constitution is clear on the obligations of public entities, parliament included.
“Upon request, they must share information of public interest with the media, citizens and organisations. It was, therefore, always going to be in bad taste for parliament to put a lid on information relating to the use of CDFs, which are public funds. Such opacity tends to encourage impunity.”
Zimbabwe Coalition for Debt and Development programmes officer John Maketo said parliament was not a political player hence there was no need to protect parliamentarians.
“Failure by the parliament to release information of public interest speaks to issues that we always talk about on lack of transparency and accountability on public funds. It’s an indictment on parliament as an organisation, which plays a very crucial oversight role,” he said.
“This will only result in the public losing confidence in the public institution, which has serious repercussions on law-making and governance."
Harare Residents Trust director Precious Shumba said utilisation of CDF was used by residents to measure the performance of MPs in their constituencies and their ability to account for public funds.
He said this was why information on the funds was important to the public.
“Parliament should be the pinnacle of good democratic governance,” Shumba said. “Members of Parliament should be held accountable for every cent received in the name of the taxpayers.
“We are fully aware that the majority of the members of parliament abused their CDF, with very little to show for all the taxpayers' money they were allocated.”
Tawanda Mapuranga, a lawyer, said refusing to provide CDF information was contrary to the dictates of the Constitution.
Section 62(1) of the Zimbabwe Constitution provides for every Zimbabwean citizen or media, the right of access to “any information held by the State or by any institution or agency of government at every level, in so far as the information is required in the interests of public accountability”.
“That conduct is completely unlawful,” Mapuranga said. “That information must be freely given in full. It is not the duty of the bureaucrats who do the administrative roles of parliament to protect the careers of incumbent parliamentarians.
“In fact it is completely illegal and unconstitutional for them to do so. They must release the information,” he said.