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Thursday, 14 August 2014

Why Do We Have Members of Parliament?

When former Msanzala MP Joseph Lungu resigned and joined the PF in 2012 his only reason was that he wanted to “ensure development of Msanzala which had lagged behind for some time”. Mr Lungu said he felt he could not take development to his area as an independent parliamentarian.

A year or so later Howard Sikwela became the the first parliamentarian to abandon UPND in this parliament. He said, "One asks a question, where would an MP get resources to develop his constituency? Of course it is from the Government of the day. An MP must think development, talk development and dream development. It is with a heavy heart that today I have to announce my resignation as area MP and as a member of UPND”.

His reasons were echoed at the time by MMD defectors Steven Masumba and Gabriel Namulambe. Defections of course are usually driven by our "belly politics", poor ideological platforms and disorganised opposition parties. But it is interesting that the public justification is always that the MP's job is to bring development to local area and it is easier to do that under the party in government.

That is a powerful argument. Who can disagree with that? If the the job of an MP is primarily to  to bring development then everyone should join PF and try to give up their parliamentary gratuities as much as possible!

In fact that is what Miles Sampa MP (Matero) recently did. He has not given up his gratuity exactly. But he recently got a K250, 000 loan from Indo Zambia Bank to buy 10 taxis guaranteed by his gratuity with the repayments from the 10 taxi drivers set to repay it. When it is fully repaid his gratuity will still be there. In the unlikely event the business goes down Sampa loses his gratuity.

Why has Sampa done this? In his words, "I want to remain faithful to the campaign promises because it is my desire to better the lives of the people of Matero. Our passion, as PF, is to uplift people out of poverty and this is why we are looking at various interventions such as this one to support people...when we were campaigning in 2011 we promised jobs to young people and for the last two years we have not done much in that area"

An extraordinary gesture, or is it plainly misguided? Cynics will certainly say Sampa is merely a shrewd politician. He gets the applause but it does not cost him anything, apart from bearing the risk of default for a small period of time. After all setting up a venture like this is better than buying votes for food. As Michael Kaingu MP said, "It is not really a donation. It’s an investment”.

Other opposition MPs have reacted by touting their credentials as 'development parliamentarians'. Vincent Mwale MP remarked that, “You don’t know who Sampa has followed doing that...For example, I went round all the churches and promised all churches in my constituency that they were going to get roofing sheets from me if they have buildings that are grass thatched and that is from my own money.” A sense of jealous there perhaps. 

To be sure it is possible Sampa and Mwale mean well. A key point is that the logic of their actions is not different from Lungu, Sekwila and Namulambe. It is all based on the foolish notion of a "development parliamentarian". The idea that MPs are there to "deliver development". And many Zambians have bought this foolish notion.

Let us be clear. It is not the constitutional role of an MP to bring economic development, since in a well functioning society such functions would be performed by an effective local government with appropriate support from central government. 

The primary constitutional role of an MP is to vote on legislation and make laws on behalf of their constituency (the "legislative function"). This is why we need opposition MPs. If it was all about delivering development they should all join PF and deliver together. 

MPs also have an additional expected function of representing the views of their constituency to Parliament e.g. special problems they are facing which the executive branch has failed to address ("advocacy function"). The MP's role is simply to ensure that the local preferences are fully reflected in national decisions. Once the MP brings the problem to the attention of the Executive, it is expected that they would follow through where they can.

Unfortunately in our country, the local government is non-existent, due to ineffective capacity and molestation by the Executive (e.g. through large unpaid debts). So the MP has assumed the de-facto role of a leader. MPs have absolutely zero levers to deliver development, besides the Constituency Development Fund, which has its own problems and needs to be urgently scrapped. The CDF has actually contributing to distorting the roles of MPs by forcing them to perform executive functions.

In fact some MPs are spending their personal fortunes to appease their constituency ending up in bankruptcy. MPs regularly tell us that it is tough job being a parliamentarian because you have to be a Banker, Doctor, Marital Counsellor, Father, Wedding Ceremony master, counsellor and Undertaker. They are asked to do things that are simply outside their job description. As a result they under-perform everywhere!

Is it any surprise that our MPs are asleep on the draft constitution? It is actually their job description to push for it! Instead MPs have done the opposite. They have gone as far as to convince themselves through their self written National Assembly job descriptions that delivering development is their role. When that clearly is not their constitutional function. 

The sorts of action we see Zambian MPs undertaking is not fitting for a functioning democracy. You would not find British or Dutch MPs setting up businesses to "deliver development". Of course they lobby but only in advocacy role.  It is time for Zambians to now ask a basic question, 'What are MPs for?' We also need to ensure that reforms are undertaken that restores the MP to their proper place as legislators and advocates.

Chola Mukanga 
Economist | Consultant | Researcher 
Copyright © Zambian Economist 2014

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