Strengthening Parliament’s role in public finance management in Africa

This suggests that a key element of a contemporary democratic system is parliamentary oversight of public spending.

TODAY’S African legislative institutions carry out all of the fundamental roles of a representative assembly, including representation, supervision and legislation.

Particularly, their duties encompass drafting laws, approving Executive policies, verifying appointments, managing government agencies, representing and educating the public, serving as a launching pad for political careers, relieving high-ranking public officials of their duties and more.

This suggests that a key element of a contemporary democratic system is parliamentary oversight of public spending.

It is crucial now more than ever to make sure public monies are used responsibly because of the growing concern and austerity requires given the volatile economic environment. In addition to keeping an eye on the delivery of public services and value for money, effective financial scrutiny guarantees that governments are held accountable for their deeds and decisions regarding fiscal policy. The country's anticipated and actual revenue and expenditures are reflected in the budgetary process, which mimics it.

Despite the creation of contemporary representative institutions on the African continent, Parliaments have remained relatively weak in comparison to the Judiciary and Executive branches of government and they are also susceptible to the historical constraints that have shaped their existence.

As the primary symbol of democracy, they were intended to be weak but visible, according to a number of studies, but they also have lower authority and significance than the Executive branch of government. For example, Benin’s Constitution grants the government the power to borrow money without consulting Parliament and will only report its usage to Parliament. Despite being the least important of the three political power structures in Africa, legislative institutions have persisted in their status although there are constitutional mandates to the contrary.

The unique circumstances of the representative institutions of Africa call for more thought in order to fully comprehend them, even though it is acknowledged that parliamentary authority, privileges and reputation are declining globally. The legislature in Africa was never intended to serve the same functions as comparable institutions have and continue to serve in other political systems. Nor has it ever been permitted to do so.

Because of these issues, Parliament has been unable to carry out its oversight function on public finance management and has thus been hindered in its ability to function as an effective tool of reining in government in participatory democracies. Consequently, in several African nations like Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Kenya, public debt has skyrocketed. One important aspect of the budget is public debt.

Through the budget, Parliament oversees outstanding debt commitments, including the issue of new debt and the repayment of existing debt. Therefore, Parliament is crucial to the budget process because of its ex-post scrutiny role (via the Public Accounts Committee and other mechanisms) and its authority to approve the budget (the power of the purse).

This helps to ensure the budget's legitimacy and efficient management of the public debt. As a result of the Executive branch not exercising restraint in its voracious spending, Parliament is accused of abdicating its mandate if it does not fulfil its major function in the budgetary process. Due to a lack of strong legislative oversight, the Executive branch’s priorities are frequently reflected in budget appropriation, execution, and oversight. In some nations, like Zimbabwe, Parliament has failed to keep an eye on the nation’s spiralling debt, putting the country in a precarious situation.

Concerns about lack of accountability and transparency have been expressed regarding borrowing in light of recent increases in public debt in some African nations.

Parliaments have been slack in their examination of reports that various governmental entities submit in numerous financially distressed African nations, including Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola.  Moreover, reports regarding irregularities concerning the number of recesses during the year and the meetings of the Public Accounts Committee have not been promptly addressed by Parliaments.

In some instances, the committees’ internal strifes have made it more difficult to review the reports in time, and there have been claims of witch-hunts and bribery. For example, in March 2024, Ugandans alleged that Anita Among, the speaker of Uganda’s National Assembly, had embezzled millions of dollars in public funds. There were protests during which organisers shared documents that were leaked to journalists and human rights activists by Members of Parliament. The documents revealed the corruption in Parliament and other State institutions in Uganda, as well as official documents from the internal financial intelligence agency. Additionally, there have been allegations of corruption involving several public accounts committee members.

Governments continue to lose billions of public monies annually as a result of poor public finance management, corruption and financial leakages at local and central levels. This means that there might be repercussions due to lack of transparency and Parliament must play a part in ensuring transparency. 

A more robust legislative framework is required to support a number of policy frameworks for domestic resource mobilisation and prudent public finance management, including the recently enacted Sadc model law on public finance management.

This suggests that in order for African legislators — especially the newly-elected ones — to be sufficiently capable of supervising the management of public finances, they must be strengthened with adequate and independent sources of funding, well-trained support staff that operates independent of the Executive branch and modern reprographic equipment which meet the demands of contemporary legislation. 

Expanding and strengthening legislator’s capacity-building training programmes is necessary in order to meet the unique requirements of each Parliament as well as international reform standards and best practices for managing public finances.

Furthermore, Parliament should be reinforced with a system that acquaints them with the audit’s scope, methodology and approach through workshops and vested powers to further capacitate them to execute their public finance management mandate effectively. In order for the public to become familiar with parliamentary activities regarding debt issues and public finance management, Parliament should, as a matter of administrative procedure, grant the media access and services required to enable them to cover proceedings.

Without a doubt, this collaborative approach will aid in the battle against the mishandling of public funds. Lack of funding shouldn’t be a justification for Parliaments to call off sessions and avoid debating important issues on public finance management. Rather, Parliaments should use the limited resources at its disposal to carry out its mandate as best it can.

  • Artwell Dzobo is a Policy Analyst. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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