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Now constitutional obligation for ministers to respond

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Last week in the National Assembly a question was posed relating to why ministers were not responding to questions and motions from back benchers on time. The answer to this question is simple.

Parliament with John Makamure

Ministers not responding to Question Time in Parliament are violating the Constitution and must be brought to account for their actions.

Before assuming duties, every minister or deputy minister takes an oath or affirmation of office before the President, or in the absence of the President before the Chief Justice or the next most senior judge available. The oath or affirmation of a minister reads as follows:

“I . . . swear (or solemnly affirm) that I will be faithful to Zimbabwe and, in the office of Minister, will uphold the Constitution and all other laws of Zimbabwe; that I will give my advice to the President of Zimbabwe freely and to the best of my judgment whenever I am required to do so, for the good management of the public affairs of Zimbabwe; that I will not disclose, directly or indirectly, any secret that is debated in Cabinet or any secret that is entrusted to me in the course of my duties as Minister; and that in all respects I will perform the duties of my office faithfully and to the best of my ability.”

When one takes oath of office, you are fully bound to that oath. It is therefore illegal to violate oath of office. And if one swears to uphold the Constitution and all other laws of Zimbabwe, it means exactly that. You cannot select the provisions that you respect and disrespect the others.

All constitutional provisions must be fully adhered to. This is what is meant by Section 2 (2) which states in no uncertain terms that the obligations imposed by the Constitution are binding on every person, natural or juristic, including the State and all executive, legislative and judicial institutions and agencies of Government at every level, and “must be fulfilled by them”.

So what constitutional provisions must be fulfilled that relate to question time and motions by members of Parliament?

Section 107 speaks to the accountability of Vice-Presidents, ministers and deputy ministers. While every Vice-President, minister and deputy minister is accountable to the President for the performance of his or her functions, they “must attend Parliament and parliamentary committees in order to answer questions concerning matters for which he or she is collectively or individually responsible”.

Attending Parliament sessions or committee meetings is an obligation, not an option. The crafters of the Constitution came up with this provision after observing the recurring problem of ministers not taking Parliament business seriously. This provision must be enforced for the problem to be addressed.

Otherwise, our Constitution will become one of the many documents well written but suffer from non-implementation. And there is no one to enforce this provision than the legislators themselves. They must take time to understand the constitutional provisions that empower them in their everyday work.

It is also important to make reference to Section 194 that outlines basic values and principles governing public administration.

They include, among others, a high standard of professional ethics; efficient and economical use of resources, responding to people’s needs within a reasonable time, public participation in policy-making, public administration that is accountable to Parliament and providing the public with accessible and timely information. Question Time deals with public policy matters.

So any Minister that does not respond to Question Time is violating these constitutional principles with impunity.

Parliament has a constitutional responsibility to ensure public officers act responsibly in line with the principles governing public administration.

Section 198 calls for an Act of Parliament to enforce the principles, including measures requiring public officers to make regular disclosures of their assets; establishing codes of conduct to be observed by public officers; specifying the standards of corporate governance to be observed; and providing for the disciplining of persons who contravene the codes and standards.

So the onus is upon Parliament to enact the necessary legal framework that enforces constitutional provisions on conduct by public officers, including ministers. The MPs should not only enact, but ensure that these legal provisions are observed.

This also applies to Parliament’s own rules and procedures that must be tightened up to make sure questions and motions are responded to. Hon. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Leader of Government Business in Parliament, is right when he responded to the debate in Parliament by challenging the MPs to enforce their own rules.

John Makamure is the Executive Director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust. Feedback:john.makamure@gmail.com

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