Tuesday, September 15th 2020 marked the International Day of Democracy when people globally reflected and celebrated the milestones of democratic governance in different jurisdictions. Mzalendo Trust in partnership with the Ghana-based Parliamentary Network Africa and the support of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) brought together Parliamentary Monitoring Organizations (PMOs) from across the continent to share their unique experiences particularly in the Covid-19 context.
Across the region, governments responded in a similar manner with PMOs noting the loud silence by Parliament, the Executive’s dominance and the importance of parliamentary monitoring by the civil society and the public. The conversation on democracy could not have been timelier.
Responses and reactions by governments across the world have seen rights and freedoms being threatened and violated, legal procedures bypassed and a top-down, opaque flow of information approach being adopted by leadership. A question arising on where oversight bodies have been as all this unfolds. Parliaments being critical oversight institutions have in turn been put on the spot as far as holding the Executive and government agencies accountable.
In Kenya, it will be remembered that Parliament quickly adjourned sittings in March upon the confirmation of a positive case in the country. In an effort to contain the spread of the virus, the Executive issued a number of directives concerning economic cushioning, movement of persons and interaction of people in public spaces. Parliament then had to work backwards where upon resumption of sittings legislators were put to task with expediting the legal framework for these directives. In addition to this the Ministries and government agencies had to urgently procure protective equipment and in the process contravened procurement laws and procedures. In the absence of Parliamentary oversight, these procedures presented opportunities for mismanagement of funds that were meant to be utilized to fight the virus. It didn’t take too long before allegations of corruption emerged.
Pressure is now piling on the parliamentary committees to uncover the theft and recover the stolen funds to ensure the Kenyan taxpayer does not get a raw deal as has been the norm.
The conversation on oversight and accountability not only focuses on preventive frameworks but also whistleblowing. Alternative voices namely; media and civil society carry a fair share of responsibility in protecting democracy and keeping government in check. The lack of a robust opposition in the Kenyan parliament has left the responsibility of whistleblowing to the media and CSOs. The fourth estate has been on the post for regurgitating the government narrative on the pandemic and failing to ask tough questions while they should. The pandemic has indeed disrupted most sectors that are now playing catch up.
Adapt or die is the choice that different players in governance have now. Parliament seems to have adopted the former with the adjustments in sitting arrangements in the chambers and use of technology in conducting sittings to ensure they deliver on their mandate to legislate, represent and conduct oversight. This is a move that PMOs highly encouraged for posterity to ensure that government institutions are always a step ahead.
To protect democracy, the task cannot be left to Parliament alone. Media and civil society should step up to ensure the voice of the citizen is not silenced and more importantly to watch the watchdog.
This blog piece was initially uploaded on 15th September 2020.