Namisa Blogger of the year 2013,Stimulating the much needed debate

PREAMBLE AND EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

I would like to congratulate His Excellency the President of the Republic of Malawi, Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika, for presenting the State of the Nation Address of the 45th Session of Parliament on 17th June, 2014.

Mr Speaker, Sir, before I proceed with delivering my response to the State of the Nation Address allow me to convey my heartfelt congratulations to you, Mr Speaker, Sir, and  your two deputies for making it to those noble positions.  It is my hope and the hope of every Malawian that you will serve that position with great expertise and honesty. I also wish to congratulate all Honourable Members of Parliament for making it to this August House. Special recognition and congratulations to the newly appointed Ministers. I would also like to recognise the past government for making the effort to have the tripatite elections.  It has been over ten years since we had councillors and including councillors in these elections required a bold move which previous governments failed to make.

Mr Speaker, Sir, the State of the Nation Address affords us with an occasion to take stock of what we have done and how we have performed during the past year, and also provides us with an opportunity on how we can chart our way forward as a nation.  On this particular occasion, since it is a new government, the main issues we have heard cover the way forward.

 

As Malawi approaches the 50th anniversary of her Independence, it is the responsibility of the people’s representatives in Parliament to give the President whatever help is necessary to make the people’s dream for a better and prosperous nation a reality. Sometimes, that help will need to be given in the form of agreement, support, and accountability for Government policies that are in the best interest of all Malawians; other times, that help from Parliament will need to be given in the form of calls on Government to add to its policy framework whatever helpful elements the people’s representatives consider to be missing. Even so, on other occasions and as the need may be, it will also be our responsibility as Parliamentarians to help the President and his Administration by deterring the Executive Branch of Government from any proposed policies that are not in the best interests of Malawians.

 

Discerning what kind of help the Executive needs from the Legislature in order to give Malawians the best possible service is no easy task, nor is it possible for the Executive to receive that help without having the humility to welcome or ask for it, along with the courage to use the best ideas our country has for its own development, especially where those ideas do not come from Government. However, without that spirit of discernment, humility, and courage from both the Executive and Legislative arms of Government, we will only be paying lip-service to the idea of Servant-Leadership that I championed in my remarks after taking the oath of office as a Member of Parliament a week ago and which the State President included in his State of the Nation Address before Parliament this week.

 

It is in that spirit of serving Malawians that I wish to make some preliminary remarks in response to the President’s State of the Nation Address to Parliament. To begin with, I wish to commend His Excellency the President, Professor Peter Mutharika, for his commitment to put Malawi back on the path to economic growth and transformation. The dominance of the economy in the President’s address shows that his Administration is aware of the greatest challenge that his leadership faces. For example, the President is right in his assessment that the “poverty, under-development, and economic and social injustice that are still prevalent in our society” are the chief villains we must conquer by pulling our forces and resources together toward victory. Similarly, I join His Excellency in lamenting the fact that the number of female MPs in the newly elected Parliament has dropped to less than 20%, a development which the President has rightly described as “unfortunate and retrogressive” as it threatens the full participation of women in the nation’s journey to economic growth. More women than men cast their vote in this year’s election, and it makes no sense that far less women than men made it to Parliament to represent the people’s interests. Since the President has yet to name and announce his Cabinet, I am hopeful that the cause of women empowerment will not suffer further damage in his selection.

 

I would further like to concur with the President’s call for an end to the chronic habit of changing national priorities to suit the interests of the ruling party. However, I must quickly add that this is easier said than done. While the President’s proposed establishment of a statutory Council to guide long-term national goals is commendable, it is our view that the establishment of such a Council cannot be the responsibility of his Administration alone. If that Council is either to operate in the long-term interests of the nation regardless of which Administration is in power or if it is to be accountable to the long-term voice of the people rather than the short-term rule of the President, then it is to the people’s representatives in Parliament that the President should turn to for the establishment of this Council. This is only one of several examples of innovations proposed in the State of the Nation address that may be better regulated by the Legislature than the Executive, especially in view of the President’s own commitment to the reduction of presidential powers. If that commitment is genuine, then the President may also want to consider proposing constitutional amendments to enshrine the reduction of presidential powers within the laws of the land. It is in this regard that the Malawi Congress Party’s position is that even the reduction of Cabinet size to 20 should be included in the Constitution, and knowing that the State President is committed to the reduction of presidential powers gives us confidence that he would be supportive of this development.

 

There are places where the State of the Nation Address fell short. For example, we note with great concern that although young people under the age of 30 make up more than 60% of the population, the section on Youth Development was only given 2% of the State of the Nation address. Young people all over the country have every reason to be disappointed by this oversight, and I hope that the President will take measures to make the development of young people in a nation dominated by young people the center piece of his agenda. Similarly, his discussion of the agricultural sector included the bold declaration that he plans to abolish the use of coupons in the implementation of the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP), but he was unprepared to propose any replacement of this mechanism, nor did he say anything about the prospects of the Farm Input Loan Program (FILP) initiated by the previous regime. This is but one example of several places in this State of the Nation address where it was apparent that the State of the Nation address delivered before Parliament in February 2013 by the former President, Dr. Joyce Banda, was not consulted to ensure that long-term government programs initiated under the previous Administration are fully accounted for in the new Administration’s assessment of the state the nation is in. The President curiously failed to account for the state of ongoing tax-funded or donor-funded programs like the Social Cash Transfer Program, Public Works Program, Food Aid Program, the rehabilitation of the Beira/Sena railway line and the Nacala Corridor, the progress of the Shanghai Construction Company Ltd in the previously proposed plans to build a new airport at Chileka, among many other initiatives.

 

Malawians have the right to know what the state is of previous programs that have not yet been concluded and how those programs will be factored into new initiatives that the DPP-led Government plans to introduce. Most importantly, they have the right to know how any continuation, reduction, or termination of ongoing government programs and the introduction of new government programs is going to be done in a way that ensures that the President and his Administration do not break their promise to reduce public spending. Of even greater concern is the lack of detail about how the President will ensure that his intentions to have zero corruption in the use of public resources does not turn out to be another broken promise in a 20-year history of broken promises to root out corruption. During the campaign season, his own Finance Minister admitted that during the previous DPP-led government that both the President and the Finance Minister were part of, there was corruption. The people deserve to hear what the President proposes to do to bring to justice all those in the previous People’s Party and Democratic Progressive Party administrations who acquired riches and property illegally at the expense of Malawian tax payers.

 

Malawians are not just angry about Cash Gate, but about the gross mismanagement of public funds that has prevailed in government for the past decade. The truth is that Cash Gate under a PP-led government was a result of a porous financial management system that was put in place by a DPP-led government. We are therefore eager to hear the specifics of the measures the President wishes to put in place to ensure that neither the looting in the previous PP-led government nor the excesses of the DPP-led government before that go unpunished or ever happen again. We hope that in its efforts to remove the stench of corruption from the public sector, the DPP-led Government will lead by example by cleaning its own house first and bringing its own looters to book first. Corruption is more than a bad practice in our society. As the President himself said, it is an evil. But I’d add that it is an evil that has become enshrined in our culture, our systems, and all our transactions with both domestic and foreign partners. No President can stamp out corruption completely without first cutting his own arm, and this means exposing and prosecuting corrupt politicians in his own party as well as corrupt banks and business interests with strong links to and a long history of dealings with Government. The President’s ability to do this remains to be seen.

 

In general, it is our considered view that the President’s State of the Nation address had no shortage of good descriptions of how bad things are and not shortage of good intentions to make things better. However, neither a good diagnosis of a disease nor a good memory of what it felt like to be healthy is the same as having an effective cure, and it is that cure that still leaves a lot to be desired. And by the look of things, it will be sometime before the President proposes a cure, since even though it is now almost 30 days after Malawians cast their votes for President, the new President has just told us that Malawians will have to wait another 100 days before he has a budget for the year. These are worrying signs of a lack of preparation, and in my view, a justification for all Malawians to demand their President to take his own very good advice when he said, “Government is serious business, and one needs to be ready. Being president is no time for on-the-job-training”. Well, with all due respect to the President, a provisional budget smells like on-the-job training to me. If it isn’t, then I call on the State President to give us a comprehensive action plan without gaps, a complete budget without delay, and a capable cabinet without hand-clappers. It’s what the people hired you for. We, the people’s representatives in Parliament, are ready for work when you are.

 

 

THE RESPONSE

MR. SPEAKER SIR,

 

Let me now consider the State President’s speech in more detail. Overall, the address is ambitious and mentions a lot of important things the government can do to develop the country.  I am glad that the president recognizes that this country has enormous and daunting challenges which require urgent action. Now as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Malawians are tired of repeated rhetoric which has become so irritating at times.  In fact sometimes it feels like you can actually super impose any past parliament inaugural speech with the one delivered now. What I am saying is that while what we heard yesterday may have sounded hopeful and reassuring, the point is we have heard it before. Same content no action. What we need now is a clear road map with specific time frame within which clearly defined deliverables will be attained. However, it is unfortunate that the state of the nation address was delivered in the absence of the cabinet. Not having a full cabinet even as we respond to this address for instance sends a wrong signal especially when we promised that we would hit the ground running if voted into power. It is hard to envisage how the DPP led government  will Transform Our Country into a Prosperous Nation.

Mr. Speaker, Sir, the speech lacks detail. It therefore, inherently makes it a serious challenge to figure out the real critical issues important for success of the country.  Simply put, the speech spells the ‘what’, the “wish” list but not much of the ‘how’ including where the resources to meet such lofty ambitions and aspirations will come from and how they will be mobilized. Furthermore, there are no timelines given, no milestones articulated and no sense of prioritization in terms of importance and time line basis. There are also no implementation challenges identified.

Mr Speaker, Sir, let me mention some of the points that lacked clarification.  The president mentioned the Cashgate scandal, however he did not give details in terms of an action plan and which periods would be investigated.  We are coming from a background where government resources were massively stolen. There is need to be clear on what exact steps government will take  to ensure that the cashgate and jetgate scandals are going to be concluded to the satisfaction of all Malawians. Malawians are anxiously waiting for answers on what happened to their money and who stole their money.   We also hear that there is an audit report that was done before the cash gate and jet gate scandals which also revealed massive fraud during the DPP regime. This will be a real test for the current government to ensure that the findings of that report are brought to the attention of the public and perpetrators are brought to book in line with the law. The president has said that in his government there will be no sacred cows. We are waiting to see him walk the talk with respect to all these events which go back to the previous DPP regime.

 

As the action plan to address Cashgate looks at all aspects of public finance and economic management, including accounting, internal controls, budgeting, procurement, disciplinary issues, administrative reforms and capacity building needs; the state of the nation address did not incorporate the various forms of Cashgate to curtail degeneration. We also think that there is need for government to conduct an audit on key institutions that were not part of the audit of the cash gate especially where large procurements have been happening.

 

Mr. Speaker Sir, on agriculture the issue cannot just be about subsidies. Abolishing the coupon system will not necessarily address challenges facing the agriculture sector in this country. The address did not tackle the issue of access to markets which is critical to the agriculture sector. It is not right that in this day and age that some of our high value crops are still sold by the road side due to lack of an organised market system. Again food security cannot just be about maize production. We need to go beyond maize production to achieve sustainable food security. Again we need to accept that income security is key to achieving food security.

 

Tobacco is still a key cash crop in this country. We hope therefore that what we experienced in the previous DPP regime of threatening buyers will not be the order of the day. Contact and dialogue should be the guiding principle and not threats and fights.

Mr. Speaker, Sir, subsidies being an expensive business, there was need for more detail in terms of the expected returns, how and who would finance such, the operational aspect during implementation, and the unintended consequences there from including a bloated and unmanageable  fiscal burden.  This could be a recipe for macroeconomic chaos, leading to heavy fiscal deficit and heavy government borrowing that could result into increased interest rates, high inflation and including the crowding out of the productive private sector.

Mr Speaker Sir, We ask government to prioritize and speed up the process of the national identification system. We are concerned that the address did not cover this issue which in our view is key to effectively address and deliver many development programs to its citizens.

 

Mr. Speaker, Sir, the President mentioned a lot about continuing from 2012, where DPP left off.  2012 may have been uncomfortable as evidenced by decline in governance indicators and macro-economic performance.  We would have expected a selective approach that separates the good from the bad policies and implementation systems.

 

Mr. Speaker, Sir, the President’s speech was silent in resolving some of the issues that led to economic downturn.  For example, the interfering in the price systems of fuel, foreign exchange and agriculture.

 

Mr. Speaker Sir, on our international relations, our memories are still fresh of the acrimony that characterized our relations with our major partners during the previous DPP regime.  We hope this new DPP government will be a listening government when offered constructive criticism on political and economic governance regardless of where it comes from. We do not want to put peoples’ lives at risk just because of our arrogance which led to freezing of much needed aid and we ended up adopting  the ill conceived zero deficit budget and we are all witnesses to what happened.

 

Mr. Speaker Sir, on tourism we would like to express our concern that the address did not touch on government policy direction on what government intends to do with people that acquired land close to the lake for instance making it almost impossible for further tourism development. It is standard practice that you leave some good distance from shoreline to allow orderly development along the lake shore.

 

Mr. Speaker Sir, on Natural resources protection and development, we expected to hear a clear stance of government on the out of control wanton cutting down of trees. Forests are being depleted before our own very eyes and we seem helpless to curb this destructive charcoal business in this country. There was nothing in this regard.

 

Mr. Speaker Sir, on Industry and Trade, we welcome the notion of reviving the Best Buy Malawi Campaign. However it is our observation that previous governments have themselves not been exemplary in this regard.  Government has the worst penchant for things from outside. Government cannot for example even buy for public hospitals and public schools for instance cooking oil processed by cooperatives. This country can stimulate and accelerate the growth of local industries if we were genuine about promoting producer cooperatives and link them to both local and international markets. Why should tomatoes and cabbages be rotting by the road side in Dedza, Ntcheu, Mzimba etc? And yet we policy makers drive past these commodities in our expensive vehicles and we have the whole ministry of Industry and Trade. We are  quick to travel to Brussels and other European capitals but do nothing about our local economy that would benefit the vast majority of our people.

 

Mr. Speaker Sir, there is now talk of subsidizing malata and cement. I hope we will not become a subsidy country.  Let alone if we can afford to subsidize everything. Why don’t we sometimes spend some time to check why these things are so expensive and what we can do to make them affordable without necessarily subsidising them. The cost of transportation in  this country is very high. Most of our things are coming into the country on trucks by road from Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa etc. How about serious transportation by rail both within the country and from outside the country?

 

Mr. Speaker, Sir, the speech presented the DPP dreams of expanding development into constructing four airports for example, while this looks colorful, the more than 80 percent population out there would have problems appreciating this, realizing that the availability of social services like schools is non existent  and children continue to learn under a tree, which is infringing on their basic human rights. The people out there cannot access quality health care services, with malaria drugs consistently out of stock, a disease that continues to claim many lives.

 

And the HIV response program continues to rely on outside finances.

 

Mr. Speaker, Sir, the president did not say anything on the quota system having made it a campaign issue.

 

Mr. Speaker Sir, we take note that the President mentioned the need to invest in the youth as a critical group.  Unfortunately, the address fails to appreciate the current situation facing the youth who constitute over 60% of the total population.  It also again fails to disaggregate the youth to capture the different issues facing them.  The majority of our youth are facing high levels of unemployment, poor access to opportunities and abuse at the hands of politicians.

 

As MCP, we are equally disheartened that the youth programs are highly politicized based on political affiliations.  For example, the Youth Enterprise Development Fund launched in 2010 was highly publicized and did not benefit the youth of this country but ruling party sympathizers.  The State of the Nation Address fails to address comprehensively these issues of proper youth empowerment programs.  We have youth in the streets, Youth out of the schools, Youth with disabilities, poor young women and girls.  As MCP, we are not happy with the marriage age of 16 as this fails to empower young girls and young women.

 

Mr. Speaker Sir, there is also need to harmonize political party dreams with our national policies.  There is a mention of plans to come up with a National Development Youth Service (NDYS) to enhance skills’ development and opportunities for the youth.  However, the statement fails to recognize the existence of a similar program, the National Youth Service, within the National Youth Policy (2013).  If the DPP government is serious, then it has to respect the country’s laws and policies that were developed with consensus from all Malawians.

 

Mr. Speaker Sir, there is need to finalize the National Constitutional Review.

 

Mr. Speaker, Sir, the speech says a lot about promoting professionalism, integrity, technical competence and efficiency.  However, it remains silent on deployment of professionalism that is not Civil Service related.

 

Mr. Speaker Sir, The President in his address talked about a medical insurance scheme for civil service. This is a very welcome development. However the information we have shows that Principal Secretaries although they were put on medical insurance government does not pay monthly premiums and as a result these senior officers do not use the scheme. How will government pay when it includes everyone in civil service?  What of the farmers who largely fund such services?

 

Mr. Speaker, Sir, coverage on good governance is inadequate without talking about good and transparent electoral systems, especially after the recently chaotic tripartite elections.  We wish he had said more on electoral reforms including restructur​ing of MEC in view of what happened. The speech gave the impression that all was well and hence no need for any reforms.

 

Mr. Speaker I could go on and on but I hope to provide feedback when this house is presented with a budget whenever that is because a budget will tell us the priorities of this government. We were told that they would hit the ground running but looks like we will have to wait another three months or so.

 

I thanWk you Mr. Speaker Sir and all Honourable Members for your attention

God Bless Malawi.

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