The highly paid, yet silent-majority backbenchers in the National Assembly seldom contribute to discussions in the august house, raising concerns on whether the taxpayers are getting a return on the N$693 769 annual salary investment for each of them.
Focus this week turned to these individuals who hardly say a word or contribute to parliamentary debates meant to improve the lives of Namibians, but they nonetheless continue to draw a salary. Taxpayers fork out over N$16 million annually on the ruling party’s backbenchers. The annual salary bill for members of the National Assembly is in excess of N$70 million.
A key number of Namibian backbenchers do not even make regular appearances in newspapers, on radio and television, yet they continue to draw a fat cheque.
Critics warned in 2014 when the ruling party bulldozed through constitutional amendments that gave the greenlight for the expansion of parliament from 78 to 104 members that the move will render backbenchers irrelevant.
Backbenchers are mostly active in the respective committees they find themselves in, but a significant number of them are yet to make contributions even in these setups.
A backbencher is a Member of Parliament who is not a minister and who does not hold an official position in their political party.
National Assembly Speaker Professor Peter Katjavivi this week confirmed that there are some backbenchers who do not make any contribution, saying “it is due to a lack of capacity”.
Some MPs are regularly seen operating their mobile phones, reading newspapers or wandering around the parliament cafeteria while business is underway in the chamber.
The perks of backbenchers are tempting for anyone, their municipal bills are catered for and they also receive allowances for transport, housing and telephone. Their earnings are not affected by their attendance or participation in the chamber.
Katjavivi said “no parliament in the world has 100 percent active participation from parliamentarians.”
“You should not expect all parliamentarians to be active. They come from different backgrounds so we should give them a chance to come out,” said the speaker.
He said the role of backbenchers is to deal with issues on committee level and dialogue in the chamber.
“So you might find those who are not active in parliament but are active in the committees.
And then you have those who are not so active on committee level but are active in parliament. But you have some who are just not active at all.
Ultimately, we must understand that capacity building is an ongoing practice,” he stressed. “We have set up a forum that allows us to engage one on one with the backbenchers to build capacity.
We want to help build confidence by going through some of the bills to be tabled which will allow them to participate affectively. I’m confident that given the time, they will come around,” he said.
A few weeks ago The Patriot revealed the truancy trends of lawmakers whereby some lawmakers failed to attend half of the 75 sittings in 2017 and the fact that during that period there was never a full attendance.
This is despite the continued ambitions of the legislature to construct a new parliament building and a parliament village to provide accommodation for lawmakers.
During a 2015 debate in parliament, the country’s political elite wanted government to provide them with accommodation on grounds the rent they pay is too exorbitant.
MPs made the proposal during the debate on the vote of the Ministry of Works and Transport during the budget debate. They called for the establishment of a ‘parliament village’ which will cater for MPs’ housing needs during their five-year parliamentary tenure.
The demand by MPs angered thousands of home seekers who have endured years of pleading with lawmakers to formulate laws that will regulate the price of rent, especially in Windhoek, but those pleas just fell on deaf ears.
Rental prices continue to affect many Windhoek residents and because of a lack of affordable houses, many potential homeowners are condemned to being tenants.
At the opening of the seventh session of parliament this week, The Patriot spoke to some of the backbenchers who are yet to prove their worth in the chambers this year. Swapo’s Johanna Kandjimi said she will be attending parliament sessions without a miss.
“I will be attending the parliament every session and not miss without an apology. I have to work hard, listen and contribute. I will be submitting my motion to parliament on gender violence because this social evil is going out of hand,” she said.
Her colleague Faustina Caley, who is the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on ICT and Innovation, sounded rather optimistic for the year ahead.
She said her contribution to parliament this year would be to focus on the need to develop skills for the young who are the ‘worth of the country. “I have a soft heart for young people.
So anything that pertains to young people and women will be my focus in terms of participation. I am also looking forward to the land bill,” she said.
Former Windhoek Mayor Agnes Kafula shared the same sentiments with Caley and Kandjimi saying her eyes will be set on addressing issues related to youth unemployment.
“I want to address this issue because if we do not solve this, we will have a future generation with young people who cannot take this country anywhere.
So I am excited and look forward as there are so many issues that I would like to bring forward to the benefit of the country,” said Kafula.
Whether the above political promises were said under the hype of the opening, the public awaits to reap the benefits from those they have voted into power.