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Respect the public purse



ONE of the most malignant maladies at the heart of Zimbabwe’s governance crisis is the despicable tendency by the government to recklessly contract public debt while subverting parliamentary oversight.

Zimbabwe’s public debt is a crime scene. The government has carte blanche to take out loans, while completely disregarding Parliament’s oversight role. Not every loan is beneficial to the republic.

Taxpayers have been left saddled with an unsustainable debt burden. Even the unborn will eventually pay through the nose.

What Zimbabwe needs urgently is a comprehensive debt audit to establish the true magnitude of the public debt.

Officially, the consolidated debt is said to be US$17.5 billion. But who can really believe this figure, considering the lack of transparency and accountability in the handling of public finances in this country?

Not only that; the audit must also show what the billions of dollars were spent on and whether such expenditure was in the national interest. Debt is not necessarily a bad thing; loans can be worthwhile if they are used for productive purposes, but if they are hijacked by political elites to fund aimless consumption, the taxpayers are ultimately burdened.

In recent days, the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (Zimcodd), an organisation that advocates socio-economic justice, won a landmark victory at the High Court.

In granting Zimcodd’s application, the High Court ordered Treasury to gazette, within 12 months, a Bill amending the Public Debt Management Act [Chapter22;21], after it emerged that the Finance minister has been approving loans without Parliament’s authorisation, in violation of the constitutional tenet of accountability.

There is currently a lacuna in the law — a yawning gap or deficiency that needs plugging.
Section 20 of the Public Debt Management Act enables the Finance minister to contract public debt on behalf of the government, without parliamentary approval. This is highly problematic because the constitution — in sections 299, 300 and 302 — underlines the role of Parliament in approving public expenditure or any levy to the Consolidated Revenue Fund.

You do not need a PhD in law to appreciate that the Act must be amended to align it with the constitution.

It is trite law that any Act that is inconsistent with the constitution is null and void to the extent of its own inconsistencies (Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment 20 Act 2013:16).
In its founding affidavit, Zimcodd showed that the government issued guarantees for domestic creditors amounting to ZW$20.2 billion and US$1.4 billion without Parliament’s approval in 2021 alone.

As the civil society organisation correctly notes, the approval of loans without Parliament’s endorsement weighs heavily on citizens, who end up coughing up, since the loans or debts must ultimately be paid by the people of Zimbabwe through the Consolidated Revenue Fund.

Some of these debts are toxic. Political elites and their corporate cronies are gaming the system for self-aggrandisement.

They take out loans in their personal capacities, but when they fail to repay, the debts are offloaded into the shoulders of long-suffering taxpayers.

Today, a politically connected person can use his proximity to power to acquire agricultural equipment on loan.

When he fails to pay back, the debt is “inherited” by the state tomorrow.
These opaque dealings are corrupt, unjust and unacceptable.

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