Deputy ministers: Cost or saving?

TEMBO Benedict.

WHEN the National Dialogue Forum (NDF) started sitting, there was a lot of hope in the nation of resolving some outstanding constitutional and governance issues.
Most people in the country thought it was set up in good faith. And indeed it was. It was meant to deal with many issues that have affected the country for decades.
There should, therefore, be no departure from the good intentions of Government of giving Zambians a constitution that a pioneer democracy like ours deserves.
But I have noted with concern some of the awkward recommendations the NDF is making. One that immediately comes to mind is the proposal to reintroduce the portfolio of deputy ministers.
Why make such a recommendation? This proposal is guised as a cost-saving measure seeing what the treasury coughs out when paying gratuity to some controlling officers in ministries. The NDF further proposes that when deputy ministers are brought back, there will be need to reduce on permanent secretaries. Unless there is something I missed, I find such reasoning wanting.
I honestly thought the issue of deputy ministers was done and dusted by the amended Constitution of 2016 and we have seen Cabinet performing well without them.
Let me put things into proper perspective: Currently, Zambia has 30 Cabinet minister positions with the exclusion of the 10 provincial ministers.
Bringing back deputy ministers would mean creating employment for more than 30 Members of Parliament. But here is the cost implication: These deputy ministers would come with their own drivers, protocol officers, secretaries, brand new vehicles from the showroom which will not only need full tanks but maintenance at a huge cost.
Further, deputy ministers are entitled to maids, cleaners, cooks, airtime for their official mobile phones, office phones, computers, furniture, hefty salaries and allowances. So, where is the saving of costs?
This would be a huge cost to the treasury, especially now when our economy is trying to take off and our priority for now should be to reduce on public expenditure.
I am just wondering what real value deputy ministers add to the governance system as they are not part of Cabinet.
I expected better debates and one of the options is to revert to the original proposal to appoint Cabinet outside parliament.
Alternatively, if the number of ministries is reduced to 20 or 15, there could be room for deputy ministers provided no ministry has more than two deputy ministers.
There are times when Government operations face challenges, say, the minister is busy with Parliamentary business. If there is a deputy, they can delegate because not everything can be done by the permanent secretary.
Management of ministries should seriously be driven by the technocrats while control of the legislature is something that any executive would like to have. That is one of the reasons why deputy ministers or ministers of state used to be previously. Notwithstanding, times are changing and we need to have a more lean but efficient Cabinet.
Those are issues which need the energy and attention of the delegates attending the NDF and not debating on swelling up the wage bill with unnecessary positions that would mess the system up even more. Delegates should sit up and ask themselves why they were nominated. They should rise above narrow interests, and be issues-based.
We do not need deputy ministers, we need to define the boundaries of the current ministers.
The NDF should perfect lacunas identified in the 2016 amended Constitution.
They should focus on refining the electoral laws, reform the Public Order Act which hinges around the exercise of freedom of assembly, among others, so that a more levelled playing field is in place.
The contention around the POA is largely on its application by the law enforcement agencies.
These are key to the democratic process. We must have sound reforms that will enable institutions of governance to support and facilitate democratic practice in the country.
Citizens expect delegates to debate issues around reforms to the electoral process. Zambians have for a long time demanded proportional representation or its integrated form called mixed proportional representation.
This process, citizens believe, will make elections cheaper, less contentious in the outcome, and cure some ills including regionalism that have manifested in the country.
Instead, we are being taken back to the dark ages when councillors elected the mayor or the council chairperson, to clip their authority. President Edgar Lungu spoke against this, but the NDF still went ahead to recommend such an archaic proposal. Which begs a question: Whose interest are some of these NDF officials serving? Seriousness is seemingly lacking in the NDF.
I know that constitutional amendments are an ongoing process globally but we cannot be going back and forth; we must be progressive. The amended 2016 Constitution was a very good attempt and some clauses should not be done away with just for the sake of it.
The author is editorials editor at the Zambia Daily Mail.

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