Maputo — The bill on the theft of state funds presented to the Mozambican parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, by the country's main opposition party, the former rebel movement Renamo, has been rejected, not approved, as was erroneously announced last week by the Assembly's chairperson, Veronica Macamo.
When a vote was taken on the first reading of the bill, last Thursday, nobody voted against it, but only 40 deputies (from Renamo and from the Mozambique Democratic Movement, MDM) voted in favour. The 161 deputies present from the ruling Frelimo Party all abstained.
Despite this, Macamo declared the bill approved. On Wednesday she said that was not her intention - but it is certainly how she was interpreted, not only by the Renamo benches, but also by the journalists reporting on the session and by many Frelimo deputies.
When AIM talked to a Frelimo member of the Assembly's Constitutional and Legal Affairs Commission, he had no doubt that the bill would now go into its committee stage, and would be heavily modified by the Frelimo majority on the Legal Affairs Commission.
Frelimo regarded the bill as badly drafted, and wanted the subject simply to be incorporated into a new Penal Code which should be approved later in the year. Renamo appeared to accept this proposal inside the Legal Affairs Commission, but changed its mind in the Assembly plenary and pushed matters to a vote.
Renamo's victory in the Thursday vote was meaningless, since both the Mozambican constitution and the Assembly's own standing orders state that Assembly decisions are taken by the vote of more than half the deputies present.
Nonetheless, when the Assembly plenary sitting resumed on Wednesday the spokesperson for the Renamo parliamentary group, Saimone Macuiana, demanded to know why the bill has not been returned to the Constitutional and Legal Affairs Commission for its second reading.
Macamo replied that the bill had fallen because it not received the favourable votes of more than half the deputies present. If she had given the impression that the bill passed its first reading, "that was just a slip of the tongue".
Since both the Constitution and the Standing Orders were perfectly clear, there was no point in continuing the discussion. "As chairperson, I cannot violate the rules", she said.
Yet Renamo continued attempts to rescue its bill. Jose Samo Gudo claimed that the bill had passed on Thursday "because those who abstained are indifferent". He tried to draw an analogy with elections, where the result is valid, even if more than half the electorate abstains.
But the Constitution does not establish any quorum for elections, while it clearly does for parliamentary votes.
Frelimo deputy Jose Chichava thought it made no sense to discuss something that was in the Constitution. If Renamo though Macamo was misinterpreting the Constitution, then they could appeal to the supreme body in matter of constitutional law, the Constitutional Council.
"Frelimo wants to deceive the people!", retorted Macuiana. "Frelimo wants to continue to allow the corrupt to go unpunished".
MDM spokesperson Jose de Sousa took a much more moderate line. The MDM had voted in favour of the Renamo bill, "but we recognise that the constitutional command must be respected", he said.
When Macamo tried to move onto the next business on the Assembly's agenda, Macuiana demanded that a vote be taken - but Macamo insisted that the Assembly cannot vote on whether or not to comply with the Constitution.
She said she had allowed a debate "to let the Mozambican public know what each of us thinks". But taking a vote was out of the question.
"We're not going to vote against the Constitution", she said. "What is there to decide?" Despite some Renamo heckling, Macamo stuck firmly to her position and the Assembly could move on to its agenda for the day, a question and answer session with the government.
The Renamo bill was intended to fill in gaps in the present law pointed out by the Attorney-General, Augusto Paulino, when he addressed the Assembly in April 2011. He pointed out that it was difficult to punish theft of funds by state officials who do not sign the cheques or have direct access to the money, leading to the unjust situation whereby officials who order theft receive lesser penalties than their subordinates.
Interviewed by the independent television station STV, Abdul Carimo, head of the government's Legal Reform Technical Unit (UTREL), said that this matter is fully dealt with in the new Penal Code which the government has submitted to the Assembly. There was thus no need for a separate piece of legislation.