One of the most celebrated tenets of the new constitution of Zimbabwe is that it makes a serious attempt to lay the foundations for a democratic state.
There are several provisions in the Constitution that confer supreme power to the people to have a final say in political and economic decision-making.
In a modern democratic state, supreme power is exercised by the people through their elected representatives. These representatives must legitimately sit in Parliament. In other words, they must be elected through a free and fair electoral process. This explains why Parliament is considered a central institution in any democracy. The effectiveness with which Parliament carries out its central functions of law-making, representation and oversight of the Executive is therefore essential to the quality of democratic life.
While Parliament is central in a democracy, it can only effectively play that role if other important institutions and practices are prevalent. They include a guaranteed framework of citizen rights, an active citizen body or civil society, media pluralism and a number of independent institutions supporting democracy.
Chapter 12 in the Constitution is about independent commissions supporting democracy. They are the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, the Zimbabwe Gender Commission, the Zimbabwe Media Commission and the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and the Zimbabwe Media Commission have already been established while the remaining two are still to be established.
The objectives of these commissions are outlined in section 233 as follows:
l to support and entrench human rights and democracy;
l to protect the sovereignty and interests of the people;
l to promote constitutionalism;
l to promote transparency and accountability in public institutions;
l to secure the observance of democratic values and principles by the State and all institutions and agencies of government, and government-controlled entities; and
l to ensure that injustices are remedied.
These objectives clearly demonstrate that the independent commissions have an extremely important mandate if democracy is to prevail. By their nature, independent commissions must be truly independent. Those appointed to independent commissions are not allowed by the Constitution to act in a partisan manner or further the interests of any political party. In fact, those appointed to an independent commission must relinquish their membership of a political party within 30 days of their appointment.
The independent commissions must report to Parliament on their activities in line with Section 119 (3) of the Constitution which states categorically that all institutions and agencies of the State and government at every level are accountable to Parliament. Section 323 requires every commission to submit to Parliament, through the responsible minister, an annual report describing fully its operations and activities. The report must be submitted no later than the end of March in the year following the year to which the report relates.
The commissions have not been reporting to Parliament in complete violation of this constitutional provision. Some of the commissions say they have submitted their reports to ministers who, for some strange reason, have decided to sit on the reports. Failure to submit reports means that the public, whose rights must be protected by these independent commissions, have no idea what the commissions have done for them. It also means the commissions are not being accountable to anyone.
Parliament should flex its muscle and demand reports to be submitted. The submission of reports is not optional. It is a constitutional requirement. The MPs must remember that their mandate is to protect the Constitution, and should not allow commissions and their ministers to violate the supreme law with impunity.
Section 323 of the Constitution goes further to say that an Act of Parliament may require a commission to submit further reports in addition to the annual report, and may prescribe the way in which such reports are submitted. So Parliament can come up with a piece of legislation that requires the commissions to submit some of their reports directly to Parliament. Maybe this is the solution to deal with errant ministers that are sitting on annual reports from commissions.
One of the main reasons why the commissions have not been able to carry out their functions effectively is inadequate resources. Budgetary allocations to the commissions have been paltry year-in-year-out. The underfunding of commissions is in violation of section 9 of the Constitution which compels the State to ensure that all institutions and agencies of government at every level, “in particular commissions and other bodies established by or under this Constitution”, are provided with adequate resources and facilities to enable them to carry out their functions conscientiously, fairly, honestly and efficiently.
Section 322 is explicit in that “Parliament must ensure that sufficient funds are appropriated to the commissions to enable them to exercise their functions effectively”. Section 325 requires that commissions and other institutions established by the Constitution are given a reasonable opportunity to make representations to a parliamentary committee as to the funds to be allocated to them in each financial year.
Some parliamentary committees have managed to invite commissions to make such representations. However, the recommendations have been largely ignored by Treasury, thereby reducing such meetings to an academic exercise. This has to stop if Parliament and the commissions are to exercise their constitutional mandate of strengthening democracy characterised by effective governance and the rule of law.
l John Makamure is the Executive Director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust. Feedback: email@example.com