Business was crippled in parliament this week because the majority of MPs chose to pocket allowances with no intention of attending deliberations. And even after pocketing those allowances, they decided that national business should cease being a priority, unless their personal loans of K3 million apiece were sorted out.
We understand that all things considered, MPs are just as human as you and me. They have families to feed and dreams to pursue. And in those dreams are economic aspirations such as buying cars and building houses. So, at any rate, they require reasonable remuneration. A mind that is endlessly assailed with worries about financial issues can hardly retain the focus it requires for effective contribution to the national discourse.
But what is worrisome is that our MPs have begun to put their personal priorities ahead of national ones.
When they were running for their seats, they promised heaven on earth. They told us they would move mountains to fight for the interests of their constituents. It is a huge betrayal, therefore, to see them now saying, “Me first, nation later.”
In the middle of this week, parliament was suspended because of loans. MPs said they would only reconvene if their conditions of service were discussed and reviewed. The house that fractures along party lines easily found no ground for disagreement on this matter.
Let’s deal with these two issues separately.
Pocketing allowances without showing up in parliament is theft
At the organization I work for, if you obtained an allowance and failed to attend the conference for whatever reason, you must pay back. There are no two ways about it. They check even aeroplane boarding passes to ensure that you landed in time for the conference and left only when the conference ended. And at the conference, you sign attendance sheets every day. Auditors check those things, leaving no room for any shenanigans.
It seems, however, that such controls are not applicable to our parliament. Speaker, Richard Msowoya, seems completely helpless despite standing orders empowering him to discipline the unruly MPs. A standing order clearly states: “A Member who is absent without seeking leave of absence shall forfeit all allowances during the period of absence.”
Msowoya attempted to bring order to the house this week, saying: “With immediate effect, the office should recover the allowances from members who do not attend the plenary and committee meetings without leave of absence or without valid reasons.” But what did the MPs do? Right the next day half the house was empty, with no reasons for the absences, effectively telling the Speaker to go to hell.
The Speaker and the Business Committee are to blame, of course, as are whips of various political parties. If an internal control is there, why don’t they just apply it? It’s shocking that they haven’t been applying this standing order at all. Why don’t they just recover all the allowances for the absent MPs without sounding apologetic about it? Do they even owe those MPs an explanation?
Like Pontius Pilate, I will have to say that what is written is written. MPs must not only be good at making laws; they should be exemplary at following them. By what right can they hold accountable other institutions, such as the Anti-Corruption Bureau or the National Audit Office, when they themselves are glaringly failing to be accountable?
Leader of Opposition, Lazarus Chakwera, has been pressing President Peter Mutharika hard to appear before parliament to explain a few things. Will he appear before a house that is half-empty? To make matters worse, the few that are there are often photographed dozing.
So, Mr Speaker, Sir, just end this theft-disguised-as-allowances and recover the money. Go back to June, 2014, when your term began, and recover in retrospect from every MP who was absent without seeking leave. I reckon we could recover millions enough to build a maternity wing in some district hospital.
Loans, yes, but to the extent of suspending sitting?
I have no qualms with MPs pushing for loans. As already said above, MPs are people too. But what I find atrocious is that the entire house considered it an honourable thing to suspend business just because of loans! Do they care at all that there are critical issues the house is supposed to deliberate, including the buying of maize for starving Malawians?
What would have happened, then, if the government failed to secure the loans? No budget from next month? After all, Treasury Secretary, Ronald Mangani, recently wrote the Speaker, informing him that the Malawi government has over K2 billion arrears with commercial banks for MP personal vehicle loans. Mangani said it is not possible to extend more loans to MPs.
Members of Parliament need to realise that by offering to be elected to that august house, they are shouldering an enormous responsibility that transcends financial interests of a personal nature. In any case, the majority of the people they represent can hardly afford three square meals a day. It is quite inconsiderate, therefore, to hear their representatives worry about loans that run into millions of kwacha, worse still using the non-availability of those loans as a pretext for absconding their duties.
Parliament, of course, resumed business on Friday, but that the question of suspending business arose at all is shameful, to say the least.
And so, in conclusion, we can say: Do MPs deserve reasonable emoluments and access to loans? Absolutely. But is the non-availability of those loans adequate justification for suspending parliamentary business? Not at all.
What should we, citizens, do to remind our MPs that they need to take their jobs seriously? March naked in the streets, perhaps?