Parly fiddles while Rome burns

Every five years, Zimbabweans go to the polls only to get their right to a decent life trampled upon by the people they vote into power.

For the second year running, parliamentarians have threatened to block the approval of the national budget unless government gives in to their demands for new cars and sitting allowances of US$75 per sitting dating back to 2008.

Indications are that the three principals in the inclusive government have bowed to the legislators’ demands and agreed to pay a whooping $3, 3 million in outstanding allowances.

On Monday 28 November, MPs were given a chance to analyse the budget at a post budget analysis workshop with support from the Southern Africa Parliamentary Support Trust (SAPST). Instead of getting down to serious business, they turned the workshop into a circus. Rest assured they were paid sitting allowances for spending half a day hurling insults at each other like high school students. Yet one week after that incident the legislators allegedly refused to debate the budget, arguing they need more time to scrutinize it.

The legislators’ demands for hefty payouts at a time when citizens are battling with daily power cuts, food and water shortages amid frequent disease outbreaks, has attracted condemnation from various political commentators.

Political analyst, Professor John Makumbe, said whilst parliamentarians are entitled to their allowances, they should put national priorities before their own interests. “ If the Finance Minister pays out those allowances he will not be able to improve the income of civil servants who are earning less than half of the Poverty Datum Line”, said Professor Makumbe.

Harare Lawyer and political commentator, Dzikamai Machingura, said, “It is surprising that parliamentarians are only becoming visible when they make noise for their own pockets, yet the legislative agenda has not moved an inch except for passing iniquitous pieces of legislation”.

SAPST reports that most parliamentary question and answer sessions are attended by a few parliamentarians where they are expected to respond to questions pertaining to their specific responsibilities. It is also worrisome that government agrees to dish out these ridiculous amounts to legislators whilst the majority of the nation is living on less than $2 per day.

It is no secret that the government at this point is cash strapped and some of the commitments made on the 2012 budget are simply paper commitments as there is not enough money to disburse. Government has failed to increase civil servants salaries, not even marginally. Meanwhile, among a host of other national maladies, maternal mortality rate stands at 795 deaths per every 100 000 live births- nothing short of a disaster. To put it more graphically this amounts to more than ten bus loads of women who die during the process of giving life!

As Parliamentarians get a ‘windfall’ in allowances, there is essentially nothing allocated towards programmes under the Ministry of education. Of the $700 million allocated for education in the 2012 budget only one percent is for programmes whilst the bulk is going towards salaries. To make up for deficits, the Education Minister has authorized school fees hikes-further squeezing the heavily taxed poor citizens.

Given the above scenario it is imperative to ask the moral question why the electorate has to endure the cost of maintaining legislators and not be able to demand what is due to them. “This Parliament has not performed to expectation in respect of the legislative agenda, due the paralysis in the inclusive government, so they have not quite executed national duty save for the deliberations on the constitutional review.”, said Professor Makumbe.

The level of debate in Parliament, and the gravity of the issues challenging the nation are worlds apart. A Harare-based law and parliamentary monitoring group, Veritas reports on how parliament rubber-stamped a controversial $98 million Chinese loan for the construction of a National Defence College (NDC) without much debate. In the process they ratified borrowing for non productive purposes. The state’s diamond revenues are to be used to service the loan. Article 9 of the loan agreement requires the government to ensure that its income from the Sino-Zimbabwean Anjin joint diamond-mining venture at Chiadzwa will be dedicated to making payments due under the loan agreement. ‘To actually draw on the loan the Government must first enter into an agreement “to establish an escrow account to secure the payment and repayment of the Facility with the revenue of the Zimbabwe side’s benefits from Anjin Investment (Pvt) Ltd.”, reads the Veritas report.

Further, Article 2.5 of the agreement states that “goods, technologies and services” purchased with the proceeds of the loan must be “purchased from China preferentially and also from Zimbabwe where this will benefit the Project and End-User” – the End-User being the Ministry of Defence, according to the Veritas report.

Veritas also reports that despite some resistance to last-minute rubber stamping and despite MPs querying misplaced priorities and the country’s capacity to service the loan, the debate in Parliament did not sufficiently reflect the outrage that people have been publicly expressing about this deal, nor did it probe the purposes to which the college will be put.

Public concern has focused on the diversion of diamond receipts from far more pressing needs, on the fact that the NDC will benefit an elite few rather than the struggling general population, and on reports that the complex will include VIP recreational facilities and medical facilities and a “techno-spy centre”. – in stark contrast to the lack of health facilities for the general population.

A recent visit to one of the hospitals in Bikita by this writer exposed the appalling situation where several people injured from a car accident could not get their wounds dressed for three days despite the doctor having indicated they only needed saline water and Betadine to clean the wounds. Two out of the three deceased people from that accident died due to excessive bleeding which could have been avoided if there was a ready ambulance to ferry the injured on time. The nurse to patient ratio at the hospital on that particular day was roughly 1: 50! A visit to Parirenyatwa hospital in October this year indicated that health workers at the hospitals are almost always overwhelmed and the quality of service is likely to be compromised.

Zimbabwe is already struggling to repay its external and domestic debts of $7.1 billion and $1.5 billion respectively-which debt is affecting the poor the most. This debt has blocked new lines of credit and at this point, no matter how ‘cheap’ a loan can be, government is not in a position to repay non-productive loans such as the NDC loan.

Interestingly also, Parliament allowed an agreement between government and Essar Africa Holdings in which the latter is acquiring 60 percent stake in ZISCO Steel as well as 80 percent of the Iron Ore mining unit BIMCO. Critics have argued that the Essar deal is ceding more than necessary to ESSAR and the deal is more likely to benefit the Indians than Zimbabweans. It remains to be seen whether or not the revival of ZISCO steel will make a difference in the lives of the company’s retrenchees that have been in the woods since its closure in 2008. One also wonders whether the purported benefit of employment creation in the – most likely to be a low-wage arrangement, would make up for the whooping 80 percent iron ore stake gone to the Indian company.

The above are some of the important issues resulting in the suffering of the Zimbabwean electorate-which issues should be taken seriously at the level of parliament and government rather than them draining the fiscus through foreign trips and huge allowances. Parliamentarians’ demands for ‘special’ treatment ahead of civil servants and the rest of the citizens is tantamount to abusing the people’s vote unless it tallies with the discharge of their legislative duties.

The citizens should be empowered to recall non performing MPs, demand accountability and seek redress when parliamentarians fail to address their priorities, particularly humanitarian ones. The electorate should not continue to endure 5 years of subsidizing Parliamentarians' lavish lifestyles. If those hefty allowances are paid, it most certainly means more pressing needs are sacrificed and neglected, translating to more maternal deaths, an increase in malnutrition and fewer resources channeled towards education, safe water, energy, food security and other social services. All this despite Finance Minister Tendai Biti constantly warning the government against “eating elephants after killing rats”.

One parliamentarian once likened the Zimbabwean government’s skewed priorities to a patient enjoying an ambulance ride under paramedic care and commanding the driver to take a longer route. And ignoring the consequences of that ambulance running out of fuel.

Post published in: Opinions

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