Integrity in public life: Dealing with conflict of interest

KELVIN Siwale.

IN CASE you didn’t know, non-declaration of interest when faced with a conflict of interest is a criminal offence under the Anti-Corruption Act number three

of 2012.
Conflicts of interest occur when a person who is part of the process of decision-making has a private interest. When faced with a conflict of interest, an officer is faced with a choice either to uphold public or private interest. If one chooses public interest, they will declare interest and recuse themselves from the whole process. Failure to resolve this ethical dilemma, professionally, is what graduates a mere conflict of interest into a crime. Incidentally, the presence of a conflict of interest is independent of the occurrence of impropriety. Basically, a conflict of interest is in itself not a crime, but failure to declare personal interest is what constitutes an offence.
According to the aforementioned law, if you are in a meeting where a relative, associate, spouse or a business you have shares in is the subject of the discussion, you have to declare interest in writing and forthwith recuse yourself from the whole process. Contrary to the law, people have taken declaration of interest as only walking out when their matter is being discussed, then go back to the panel afterwards.
Don’t you think you will try by all means to fail other contenders when you are back on the panel? Immediately you know that you have interest in the matter to be tabled, or an interview, you are not supposed to take part in the proceedings. This should include the preparatory processes such as developing the score-sheets and interview tools. Being part of the processes gives you an undue advantage over other contestants.
It is common during land allocation that councillors from local authorities, despite being applicants, are privy to the score-sheets and expected answers to the interview questions as they sit on the panels interviewing their contenders. What an unfair way of competing! Fairness demands that if you are an applicant, you distance yourself from the whole process so that you are also treated as a contender.
This argument is in line with Section 27(1) of the Local Government Act, chapter 281 of the laws of Zambia, which states that: “If a councillor has any pecuniary interest, direct or indirect, in any contract, proposed contract or of other matter, and is present at a meeting of the council at which the contract or other matter is the subject of consideration, he or she shall, at the meeting as soon as practicable after the commencement thereof, disclose the fact, and shall not take part in the consideration or discussion of, or vote on any question with respect to the contract or other matter”.
Being part of interviewers or evaluators when you are also a contender constitutes a conflict of interest, and so the right thing to do is to stay away from the processes. If all the councillors are contenders, neutral interviewers should be found. How can one be a judge in their own case? Where is the principle of fairness in public dealings?
Declaration of interest is meant to ensure objectivity in the delivery of public services. Imagine facing a judge who is a relative to the person you have dragged to court, do you expect justice? There is always a temptation for officers to think they can continue to take part in the processes they’ve interest in, without declaring interest, after all, their interest is not known in the organisation and to other interested parties.
Alas, some people who thought it was hidden to everyone and did not declare interest are being prosecuted for conflict of interest. Once convicted, first offenders may be slapped with a jail sentence not exceeding 14 years, other offenders to a minimum of five years but not exceeding 14 years.
The call to everyone is to be benevolent and declare interest whenever need arises. In instances where officers become adamant and do not declare interest, those with information should be patriotic enough to report to the anti-corruption commission and their identity will be kept confidential.
Government loses a lot of money when officers are irresponsible. For instance, because of personal interest, we end up engaging Government in inflated contracts, hire incompetent human resource or procure substandard materials or works.
Lastly, let’s endeavour to do what is right no matter what it takes. Loyalty to the public is a must. In the health circles, they say eating a fruit per day keeps the doctor away; in the anti-corruption circles, we shall say heeding to anti-corruption advice keeps investigators and prosecutors away from you. However, the motivation to do right things should be intrinsic rather than extrinsic factors.
The author is an anti-corruption specialist.