THIS week was a big week in Zimbabwe’s 2021 national budget crafting. Parliamentary portfolio committees were taking evidence on ministry bids for the coming year. However, the biggest shock was the Treasury and Agriculture ministry officials’ snub of the august House.The National Assembly has the power of the purse according to our Constitution.
It is clear that the National Assembly has power to approve the Appropriation Bills, the law that allows the government to use public money.
The Constitution further empowers the House to hold to account Executive expenditure and more importantly to approve all loan agreements with foreign or domestic lenders.
This is no mean feat for the people’s representatives.
They have the power to approve the votes for ministries and government departments.
In other words, the National Assembly has control over one of the most important development policy tools. This is a job that needs a certain level of expertise.
Unfortunately, the majority of MPs do not know how to read a balance sheet or do additions of figures with nine zeroes (billions).
The technocrats at the Finance and Agriculture ministries this week snubbed appearing before parliamentary committees.
They chose to be somewhere else despite that laws of the land are very clear that Parliament duties take precedence over anything else.
The recent snub is not an isolated incident. Finance secretary George Guvamatanga has failed to appear before the Public Accounts and Budget and Finance committees on several occasions.
On the other hand, Land Agriculture and Land Resettlement committee chairperson Justice Mayor Wadyajena this week booted Agriculture ministry officials from Parliament after secretary John Bhasera did not turn up.
Something interesting came out of the Budget and Finance Committee chaired by Felix Mhona.
A Treasury senior official Kunaka Pfungwa admitted the ministry dipped into the unallocated reserve to meet some of its expenses.
While the conduct may be lawful, it creates a loophole for abuse of public funds. Ministries and State departments can only use funds that have been properly appropriated to them.
Mhona clearly read through the loophole and said that Treasury was abusing its position and more often these days robs the kitty bag (unallocated reserve) without having to appear before Parliament.
The two ministries despite their central role in Zimbabwe’s economy, have chosen to keep mum about their 2020 budget performance.
They have in their wisdom decided that the people’s representatives are beneath their station and therefore there is no need for them to appear before Parliament.
It is worrying that Treasury as the custodians of all public finance has chosen to go rogue.
In 2019, the ministry brought Finance Adjustment Bill covering the years 2015 to 2018.
In that period, the ministry went ahead and spent a total US$10,2 billion without an Appropriation Act. In simple terms, Treasury breached the Constitution and lived to tell the tale without any sanction.
The Financial Adjustment Bill (2019) is still before Parliament and most likely to be passed in 2021 as Treasury officials continue to duck and dive from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to explain how the money was used. PAC chairman Tendai Biti last month threatened to have Guvamatanga subpoenaed to appear before the committee.
Treasury this year in the mid-term fiscal statement did not table any supplementary budget despite the fact that the budget approved for 2020 had been wiped out by currency depreciation.
Finance minister Mthuli Ncube insists that Treasury has recorded a budget surplus despite several financial appeals to the international community and development partners and failure to pay teachers and nurses salaries above the poverty datum line.
Ncube has been censured by Parliament for failing to seek parliamentary condonation within the constitutionally-prescribed timelines of any foreign debts contracted by the State or government-guaranteed debts.
Parliament and citizens are in the dark about Zimbabwe’s exact sovereign debt.
Treasury is behaving like it is running a personal cornershop in a small suburb where the proprietor is answerable to no-one.
The impunity by Guvamatanga and Bhasera points to two facts; most parliamentarians are not even aware of their powers in terms of the Constitution when it comes to public finance management and, secondly, the civil servants are taking advantage of Zanu PF parliamentary super-majority.
There is need now for Zanu PF to stop the conflation of party, State and government. Parliament has a duty to protect the Constitution. MPs should not be afraid to be recalled for being tough on civil servants or members of the Executive by making them accountable for their actions. It is time that the Constitution should be revisited, give Parliament some bite or its sterility will continue being exposed by arrogant and rogue Treasury officials who have the backing of the President.