OBSERVANT readers may have realized that the Business Report, South Africa’s national financial daily, regularly carries briefs from across Africa.
Interestingly, even parliamentary developments occasionally feature. One notable observation is that it is mostly the more reforming parliaments which so feature. There is usually something to learn from such readings.
The National Assembly (reference to the Upper/Senate and Lower/House of Representatives as a single whole) of Nigeria has been one such a jurisdiction. It was recently reported on its oversight function. The brief noted that the Upper House was due to investigate a railway consersion that the Nigerian government wanted to grant to a United States firm amid allegations of regulations violations by government officials. It highlighted further that the House of Representatives had launched a similar inquiry a month earlier. Aim being to establish if government had opened talks with that US firm without consulting parliament.
How these Houses came to know about this has not been hinted, and that is of interest in the workings of parliaments. Those Houses may have learnt through formal reports to parliament and wish to verify the information. Exercise of oversight requires that facts be confirmed before a final conclusion. For example, a Chief Accounting Officer (CAO) in the case of Lesotho deserves to confirm details as they relate to his/her department. A CAO may even have to approach a Portfolio or Public Accounts Committee to get the record straight before the final report.
The Lesotho 6th Parliament PAC recommendations, on the Auditor General`s findings, to sanction Senate officials failed to be implemented because the final report used a wrong designation which parliament did not have. The report pinned the blame on a non-existent Senate office. That was embarrassing for the PAC, and it surfaced that the report had been hastily authored by an opposition MP (now late). Facts had not been verified, probably because of limited facilities: compelling MPs to engage in purely clerkly undertakings.
Another area of interest is the use of whistle blowers which other African parliaments already use. Such parliaments may even task the Auditor General to undertake a special audit in a matter raised through whistle blowing. This is another new development in the exercise of parliamentary oversight.
In this Nigerian case study, both Houses undertake an investigation of the same matter separately and simultaneously. One good feature of their 1999 Constitution is its clarity in giving equal oversight powers to its two Houses. Could such be possible for Lesotho? Most probably no; at least not now. Does this parallel approach not render a House which initiates action later superfluous or redundant? That could as well matter less where the primary intention has public interest at heart: where wish is to ensure that no single link or lead is missed.
Another dilemma of bicameral parliaments in Africa is levels of staff professionalism to support oversight committees. Are both Houses adequately staffed to effectively assist MPs? Do these investigations target the same witnesses? Does a concerned department have to respond to both Houses separately or a mechanism for a synthesized/joint response and Action Taken Reports has to exist? The 1999 constitution also wisely provides for joint sittings and meetings of both Houses and their Committees. That is actually what has to happen in a democracy. Bicameral parliaments have to have joint Standing Orders to facilitate their joint venture.
Every parliament has to be of a kind prescribed by the constitution. That of Nigeria (1999) and that of Lesotho (1993) are both post military rule products which differ considerably on the kinds of parliaments they create. A good constitution ought to be seen to have a wish to deliver democracy, and not to leave this at the mercy of trial and error by the ever changing actors through statutes. The Federal parliament of Nigeria has two PACs; and some other African parliaments have more than two, with each assigned a few portfolios to oversee. This is designed to ease and expedite oversight duty.
This Nigerian experience reflects the value attached to each House. Both are expressly charged, through the constitution, to “expose corruption…” and procure evidence which each House considers necessary. Does the word “corruption” appear anywhere in the Lesotho constitution? One has not to wonder why the Nigerian parliament has had occasions to even issue impeachment threats to the President, meant to check excesses of the Executive.
The above modes of parliamentary oversight are cited to be a matter of thought for those reformers which the “reformist” mill will deploy. They will have to embrace the principle of First Things First. Those things which matter most must have precedence over those that are just to tinker or temporarily put out imagined fires. A new constitution ought to come before and be such that is likely to deliver democracy. Any onward march has to start with a suitable constitution. This could be why up to now Lesotho has no Parliamentary Service. Attempts to undertake many voyages concurrently is not likely to reward this highly volatile society. No real democracy may be attained over a single parliamentary term as some seem to think. A suitable constitution is the basis of everything else.
What could have been the cause of some of the Terms of Reference of the 2004 parliamentary reforms effort to remain pending up to now (12 years latter)? The 1993 constitution leaves discretion to power relations of the ever changing actors. The constitution deserves to somehow be vocal enough and flag to the in-coming to start where the predecessor left off. Tendency is to always start afresh. A mechanism of continuity has to be devised e.g. orientation of a new parliament must include a brief on the performance of the predecessor, to enable inheritance of issues which deserve further attention. That however, has not to make us forget that an out-going or previous parliament may not prescribe to the next parliament. This is why in well oiled parliaments; the first duty to perform is adoption of Standing Orders. It has become a convention in Kenya to consider SOs at the end of every parliament to ensure that the successor finds them ready.
Another missing but important agency to inject some vitality in the Executive response to parliament is a functional portfolio of Parliamentary Affairs. Oversight is a two-way process like a tennis game where one has to return balls to the server; the expectation is for good balls to be returned, to make the game interesting.
Presently, Lesotho is politically sick due to its very many political parties and the ease with which their number increases. The Nigeria constitution makes an interesting mention about restriction of formation of political parties. Is the impending reform not the opportunity for the new constitution of Lesotho to come out more clearly in addressing this source of political instability, among other essential improvements? The MMP electoral model was adopted with a wish to achieve inclusivity in parliament. That has give rise to its abuse/misuse through incidents of intra-party conflicts which wrongfully spill over into parliament and government. The new constitution has to pronounce on this dilemma.