June 17, 2006

Budget postponement receives mixed reactions/Government under pressure to enact information law

Civil Society, Labour Movement and politicians in Zambia have received the announcement by Government to revise and postpone the national budget, following the appreciation of the local currency, with mixed feelings. While the labour movement states that there is no need to revise the budget as the local currency has started loosing value, Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) commends the idea but some politicians feel the move is as a result of lack of competence by the Minister of Finance. Minister of Finance and National Planning, N'gandu Magande had before announced in parliament that Zambia would suffer a loss in revenue of about K800 Billion as a result of Kwacha's appreciation, used a rate of $1 to K4,500 at the time the budgte was realesed in February. As a result of this development, government will revise the budget and postpone some of the projects, he furthermore announced.

According to Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD) president Edith Nawakwi, the deficit announced is historic considering that Zambia has just had the debt written off. She precised that Magande and his team should have put into consideration the consequences of the possible appreciation of the Kwacha into perspective before using the K4,500 to a dollar rate. " Magande should have used what we call sensitivity analysis. Ideally, a clever Economist should have estimated the possible appreciation of the local currency,'' she said. Nawakwi also stressed it was disappointing that Zambia has recorded a deficit immediately after having a debt cancellation under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). According to her, the in-put and out-put matrix, also known as ecometrix method, would have been a great tool in focusing the economic future of the country. „What I am saying is that Government failed to plan after the debt cancellation. Magande should have focused the exchange rate,'' Nawakwi stated.
Moreover, Zambia's approaching general elections have increased pressure on the government to enact the Freedom of Information bill, more than three years after it was withheld for "wider consultation". If passed, the bill would compel public officials to release information being sought, and enable a petitioner to go to court if they refused.
Parliamentarians, media practitioners and other interest groups have warned that further delay would stifle media freedom to expose shortcomings in government operations and the process of holding democratic elections, scheduled for later in 2006. Legislators have cited the lack of information on President Levy Mwanawasa's recent illness as an example of when the freedom of information law would have been handy for journalists attempting to access news of the head of state's health. Members of the opposition contended that Zambians had the right to know about the president's illness to help them make informed decisions about the coming elections. Mwanawasa has resumed light duties after reportedly suffering a minor stroke in April.

The government has argued that parliament would not have enough time to approve the Freedom of Information bill ahead of the elections. Government spokesman Vernon Mwaanga pointed out that the impact of the bill would not be restricted to the media, but would also affect the public at large and required wider consultation. According to Mwaanga, 40 of the 191 United Nations' member countries had freedom of information legislation in place and Zambia was among 80 countries in the process of developing it. (African News Dimension, South Africa/ The Times of Zambia, Ndola)

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