“Information is the currency of democracy” – Thomas Jefferson
Revelation of the late President, Bingu wa Mutharika’s alleged financial and material worth estimated at 61 billion Malawi Kwacha caught most Malawians unawares, infuriated many and understandably re-ignited calls for the current presidency to declare their assets. It partly explains why most Malawians are not happy at President Joyce Banda and her deputy’s refusal to publicly declare their assets, even though they have assured Malawians that they have declared their assets through the speaker of parliament.
With the full knowledge that the law does not empower the speaker of parliamentary to make those assets public, Malawians have, through civil society organisations, NGOs and the media, asked the presidency to make this a moral issue and declare their assets. The point is that this is a matter of transparency and building the much-needed public confidence regardless of the legal stipulations. Responses from the presidency are unsatisfactory and have little to build national confidence trust in politicians.
Even worse, the answers have shown arrogance and have depicted the presidency that has more to hide than it is willing to reveal. Joyce Banda has gone as far insinuating that she is been forced to make her assets public merely because she is a woman. Many commentators have wondered what declaration of assets have to do with the president’s gender. Joyce Banda’s thinking is that her male predecessors did not face similar calls.
It is a naïve answer. It only shows a president that is out of touch with reality. Given Mutharika’s alleged worth, vast majority of which was accumulated during his eight years of presidency, and the on-going discovery of theft and looting of public money at the ministry of finance and the president’s own office, Joyce Banda should have been the last person to suggest she is being targeted because she is a woman. It is a cheap argument, defeatist and damaging to her reputation as well as those fighting for women empowerment.
President Banda has nonetheless settled to wait for the Declaration of Assets, Liabilities and Business Interest Bill to be tabled in the next seating of parliament, initially slated for November but now brought forward due to the looting and theft at Capital Hill. The bill is broader in scope than the existing law on assets declaration. This is a good thing because it will require other senior civil servants to declare their assets, too.
However, going by events at Joyce Banda’s press conference on her return from USA a week ago, it is not out of question that the broader bill is not entirely in good faith. Joyce Banda is clearly bitter that Malawians calling for her to make her assets available publicly. She wants as many people as possible on that ‘public suspects’ list. That is why the presidency has made it a point that NGOs must likewise declare their assets. It is more of a tit-for-tat than transparency and accountability by public officer bearers and elected officials.
The Declaration of Assets, Liabilities and Business Interest Bill, should not be seen as a problem solver however. The Weekend Nation of 12/10/2013 observed that the bill does not automatically guarantee that the Director of Public Offices Declaration, whose office will be the custodian of the declared assets shall have powers to refuse people access to that information. This is what, according to the report, human rights activist, Voice Mhone has called “an automatic loophole”, and it is mostly likely that the bill will go through the parliament and the president will certainly ascent with the “loophole” still on it.
Rogue politicians rule this country; they are all the same. A majority of them are only interested in lining their own pockets. Their only disagreement is who is going to have the right to loot before the next election. This is the argument that Malawians will settle via the ballot in May 2014. To paraphrase Karl Marx, poor people in this country are allowed once every five years to decide which set of political elite should plunder the public purse. This is why MPs have all along conspired to raise their own perks even when the country struggling without anyone of them raising a voice of objection.
This is where freedom to access information held by public authorities is important in any democracy. Freedom of information among other things ensures that government is more transparent and accountable to its people. It helps improve decision making within public institutions; it helps fighting corruption, it curbs impunity by those in positions of power, it encourages public participation in politics, it improves public understanding in government’s decision making and increases public trust in their government. All these are ingredients currently missing in Malawi. That is why there is looting of public money with impunity.
There is no coincidence that Access to Information Bill has been gathering dust at the parliament building for over a decade. The bill threatens MPs impunity. This is why it is not in their interest in passing it. The onus is on the taxpayers to demand transparency and accountability. Having access to information is very important to winning this struggle.
The most common mistake that people make is that Access to Information is just for journalists and media organisations. No. It is for the general public, it helps them monitor how the government is spending their money. Wrong decisions by government can be corrected before they become fatal. There will never be a good reason for public institutions to keep any information secrete, other than information that compromises national security, and one’s assets have nothing to do with national security.