Tuesday, October 27, 2020

What good does it serve to relocate FIA to the Office of the President?

The recent amendment of the Financial Intelligence Agency (FIA) Act by Parliament which has resulted in the agency’s imminent relocation from the Finance Ministry to the Office of the President has once more re- ignited the debate on the true independence of our oversight institutions.

Not so many years ago we saw such moves being done when other key oversight public institutions such as Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC), Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) and the Public Enterprises Evaluation and Privatisation Agency (PEEPA) were also moved under the wings of the Presidency.

The question that comes to mind though is why the powers that be found it necessary to relocate FIA to the Office of the President. What good does the move serve the nation? Would it be far-fetched to assume that the relocation of FIA, just like it happened with other institutions is intended to compromise its independence?

The FIA ACT amendment has not only resulted in physical movement of FIA but will also see changes in terms of the appointing authority of the agency’s director general. Going forward the leader of FIA will now be appointed by the President not the minister as it happened with the incumbent and founding director Dr Abraham Sithebe.

It is worth noting that in the past administration the secrecy under which some of the key appointments were made resulted in perception that the appointees have been placed to serve the interest of the appointing authorities as compared to that of the public. This is why we get worried that the recent relocation of FIA to the presidency could be signalling the intentions by the new appointing authorities to have the agency under its wings and control its operations. In our view, this agency, under normal circumstances should not just report directly to Parliament but should also have its director scrutinised and appointed by legislatures. This will help boast public confidence not just on the appointee but also on the works done by the agency in the future. After-all FIA just like other key institutions have been created through ACTs of Parliament and as such it makes more sense to have them accounting to Parliament not the executive arm of the government. It is unfortunate that our executive has elected and seems to be obsessed with maintaining a tight grip on public oversight institutions.

In our view, and by their nature, oversight institutions such as FIA should be able to provide the necessary checks and balances on the executive arm of government. How then do we expect it to play that role given its line of reporting as well as the person who has been given the powers to appoint its director?

The main concern is that this relocation leaves these vital institutions vulnerable to corruption because of potential political interference by the appointing authority being the President.

It is worrying that even at time when we thought everyone has learnt a lesson from the relocation of DCEC, DISS and PEEPA to OP we still have people who sees nothing wrong with relocating yet another important oversight institution to that office.

Given previous media and newspapers reports as well as some court cases, we should be in better position to atleast agree that the executive is compromising the independence of these vital national public institutions. It therefore defies logic to sweep an important agency such as FIA under the wings of the Presidency. As we have maintained before, oversight institutions are not established at the behest of the president or the executive. They are established to serve the public and no else.

At the same time, while it is important that these institutions are subjected to some sort of control, it is only fair that such control does not compromise their independence. Lack of independence will only render these institutions toothless and useless and that will not in any way serve the interest of the public.

From where we stand, this is the period in our life time where as a nation we should shun any development that represses democracy. When the executive takes decisions that smack of interference with the independence of these institutions, we must be concerned because such has potential to undermine democracy. That is exactly why we are concerned with the imminent relocation of FIA from its erstwhile ministry to OP without any valid reasons put forth.

The #Bottomline is that until a point where the powers that be finds it fit to spell out publicly the reasons that informed the decision to relocate FIA and possibly other institutions to the Office of the President, we will join the nation in reading malice in the development. If not broken, why fix it?

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