16 March 2018

Namibia: Elected Representatives Conflicts of Interests

opinion

Conflicts of interests are one of the main reasons behind unethical conduct which leads to corruption by African elected and public representatives.

Even the perception of conflict of interest is harmful to public institutions as it undermines trust in public institutions and representatives, raises doubts about their fairness and damages the credibility of public decision and policy-making processes.

In broad terms, conflict of interest is when elected representatives deliberate or vote on issues in which they have a private interest or benefit, which clashes with the public interest and their public duty. Such a private interest can be monetary or non-monetary.

Cabinet ministers and public servants have large discretionary powers, and with it naturally come more frequent possibilities of conflicts of interest. Many elected representatives do not understand when they are conflicted. It could be serving personal interests. It could be exclusively focusing on ethnic, regional and the representative's home constituency.

Conflict of interests could be narrow party political - an elected representative serving party or a faction of the party's interest. It could be the representative's narrow focus on making decisions solely to secure re-election.

For example, many African liberation movements such as Namibia's Swapo, South Africa's ANC and Zimbabwe's Zanu-PF have demanded their party-elected representatives serve the interests of the party first, rather than the public interest.

This is clearly a conflict of interest. Similarly, the elected representatives of many African liberation movements in government have prioritised serving the party leader, rather than the wider public interest - which is also a conflict of interest.

Some elected and public representatives claim that their "culture" allows them to serve narrow partisan interests, rather than the wider democratic public interest. For example, some claim that their version of African "culture" demands of them to look after the interest of their extended family, community and ethnic group. This is one of the main reasons for post-independence ethnic divisions in many African countries, as those outside the constituencies of elected representatives violently fight being excluded.

Others again claim that receiving gifts for "services" rendered is acceptable in their version of African culture. To be honest, no culture will allow elected representatives to solely serve their private interests or that of a small group. For another, no culture will accept corruption, bribery and self-enrichment using public resources as "normal".

A first start to tackle conflicts of interest among elected representatives would be to secure a common definition of conflict of interests, and get broad societal acceptance for the definition, and then implement the rules, monitor adherence to the rules and punish those who breach them.

The second is to make it compulsory in African countries to have elected representatives complete declarations of interest.

In addition, elected representatives must make declarations of interest before every hearing, debate and vote.

All declarations of conflict of interest must be made publicly available and easily accessible for ordinary citizens, civil society and the media. It is important that councils and legislatures have registers of interests - which are regularly updated.

Making declarations compulsory and public will help to point out potential conflicts of interest. Greater openness will minimise conflict of interest.

Many elected representatives in Africa appear not to know what to declare. Financial interests include income from employment outside parliament, legislature and council, directorships and shareholdings in companies, sponsorships and sources of election funds.

It may be useful that African countries consider having elected representatives declaring the interests of spouses and children also, as many elected representatives often park corruptly acquired assets with their spouses and children. The big question is whether it is enough to just declare an interest and then debate, participate in voting and making decisions on the conflicted issue. Countries take different approaches on this.

In Germany and the United Kingdom, legislatures have made it compulsory to declare conflicts of interests, but the conflicted member can still vote on the issue. In Australia and Canada, where it is also compulsory to declare conflicts of interests, members can still participate in a discussion of the issue in conflict, but cannot vote on it.

In Sweden it is compulsory for elected representatives to declare conflicts of interests but they cannot participate in whatever manner on an issue on which they are conflicted. African countries could consider the approach of Sweden.

But for many African countries disclosure of interests of elected representatives may not be enough, however. Countries could consider introducing restrictions on certain activities and outside interests which may negatively impact on elected representatives' public responsibilities.

In most African countries, elected representatives who have been found to have breached conflict of interest rules are often not held accountable. Sanctions for breaching conflict of interest rules are often negligible. There has to be stronger sanctions for contravening conflict of interest rules, including public reprimand, docking pay and suspensions.

Conflicts of interest are often not policed by elected peers, civil society and the media. African governing and opposition parties, civil society and the media must also be more vigilant to spot, expose and shame elected representatives breaching conflict of interest rules.

* William Gumede is chairperson, Democracy Works Foundation; and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times.

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