In the fourth phase administration (2005-2015), the Tanzanian parliament developed a strong reputation as a parliament with teeth.
It was a space for vibrant discussion, provided oversight of other arms of the government (albeit with limitations), and was a public institution.
The oversight committees, especially those chaired by the opposition such as parliamentary Parastatal Organisations’ Accounts Committee (POAC), Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and Local Authorities Accounts Committee (LAAC), were front runners in advancing accountability. Examples like the Richmond electricity power scandal that led to the fall of the government under Prime Minister Lowasa in 2008, the petition to censure Prime Minister Pinda that led to expulsion of 8 ministers in 2012 following a very bad auditor general report on government accounts and the Tegeta Escrow scandal in which $128m were fraudulently withdrawn from central bank are always cited as evidences of parliamentary accountability. Increasingly, sensitive issues of national importance were advanced by cross-party coalitions.
Mobilise support and popularity
Parliament was able to mobilise public support and popularity. Parliament sessions were watched live and followed by people across the country. It became normal to walk into a bar or restaurant and find the TV tuned into parliament and the customers avidly watching.
In fact, the Tanzania Communications Regulator TCRA found that more people tuned in to the parliament session of the reading of the Escrow report in December 2014 than they did to the World Cup finals in July 2014.
The public was therefore on top of monitoring their elected reps and to follow their contributions and decision making.
That in turn contributed to increasing support for the opposition who were more vocal in articulating the grievances and needs of the majority of Tanzanians.
It is necessary to provide that historical comparison in order to demonstrate the extent to which recent political changes in Tanzania have affected the ability of parliament to effectively implement its role. These changes have included
a) Banning of Bunge live coverage
b) The imposition of parliamentary leaders who are seen as a presidential appointees rather than colleague legislators
c) Parliamentary committee chairs were appointed despite a lot of resistance from opposition parties who did not agree with the decisions made.
To conclude on some of these recent changes, there is growing executive interference and control of parliament which mirrors the increasing authoritarian nature of the President across the political sphere (banning of party rallies), the economic ( increasing state muzzling of private sector ) and social sphere (rolling back of family planning). The Executive has consciously and systematically co-opted institutions that are a challenge to his powers and to his particular world view, including parliament.
Governance and development
What does this mean for parliament’s role in governance and development? I will refer to two cases in order to illustrate my points more clearly. The first case is the shooting of fellow MP Tundu Lissu who until today is still under treatment in Belgium.
The second case is the more recent attempt to protect cashew nut profits for smallholder farmers. In the former investigations have not yet been concluded to nab the so called unknown assailants who gunned Tundu Lissu with clear intention to kill him.
Worse, the parliament denied Mr Lissu his right of treatment funded by the state. On the latter the government decided to change law to take total control of rents from cashew industry leaving farmers without inputs for the seasons to come. Already production of cashew is down from last season.
These two case studies provide very important backing for my take on the future of parliament’s role in Tanzania. Firstly, multi-party democracy in Tanzania has weakened. Opposition parties are under attack, media is under attack, civil society is under attack. And all these are intrinsic to an effective parliament.
With the current trend, 2020 may see the lowest numbers of opposition MPs in parliament. We are back to election results that are reminiscent of elections under one party rule- over 90 per cent of votes going to CCM, for example.
These trends may be worsened by proposals under amendments to the Political Parties Act that will further restrict political activity and opposition.
The second conclusion from the cases mentioned is that a weak parliament will lead to weak oversight which will open up massive opportunities for corruption and fiscal mismanagement.
The last CAG report raised questions around missing Sh1.5 trillion, which until now has not been answered.
The Tanzanian economy is already reeling from the mismanagement. For example exports of manufacturing sector was halved and businesses closing and hundreds of jobs lost.
New changes to the Statistics Law mean that no one, not even parliament, can challenge the data being generated and produced by the government.
How then will it be possible to challenge and interrogate the Government on its statements and actions? How will a parliament function in an environment where evidence and data is not just contested but is possibly a criminal offence?
Lastly, and very much related to the other two points, parliament is being used to rubber stamp executive decisions and to continue with a veneer of democracy.
In reality, parliament and elected leaders are becoming increasingly disconnected from the people, development is being led by appointed officials who are answerable to the president and not to the people, and only one interpretation of development is being allowed to reign in the country.
In conclusion therefore, the role of parliament should be critical for the future of Tanzania. Unfortunately, it will be a difficult and bitter fight in order to retain even some role for the parliament. And as I end my remarks, my question to you all is, can the international community.
The writer is the Member of Parliament for Kigoma Urban and leader of opposition Act-Wazalendo