DECLARE YOUR ASSETS AND MAKE THE DETAILS PUBLIC-USA AMBASSADOR
…citizens must play a key role in fighting corruption by demanding that your government act to enforce transparency and accountability..
NOVEMBER 20, 2023
Remarks by U.S. Ambassador to Zambia Michael C. Gonzales
Transparency International Zambia 2023 Anti-Corruption Conference, Livingstone, Zambia, November 20, 2023
(As prepared for delivery)
Good morning distinguished colleagues, ladies, and gentlemen. And please allow me to say, all protocols observed. It is an honor to be here today among so many professionals with the shared goal and challenge of combating corruption.
Corruption affects all levels of society and all nations. It erodes public trust in government and democratic institutions, deepens poverty and inequality, threatens public security, and stifles opportunity and democratic and economic growth. It affects people in virtually every aspect of their daily lives, draining vital resources.
Indeed, corruption is a global challenge that all governments face and there is no one way to tackle it. The United States is not immune. But the fundamental truth is that no organization or government can fight corruption without three key things: transparency, accountability, and political will. This is what I would like to focus on today.
When we speak about transparency and accountability, we must first understand the tools available to prevent conflicts of interest, corruption, and build public trust for and the integrity of government officials. One such tool is asset declaration, the topic I was specifically asked to speak about.
Currently, the Parliamentary and Ministerial Code of Conduct in Zambia requires Members of Parliament, the President, Vice President, cabinet and provincial ministers, and the Speaker of the National Assembly to declare their income and assets. This is a good start, recognizing the important role leaders play in setting the tone for accountable governance. But I would argue, this is not sufficient. I would argue that, to be effective, we must expand these requirements to include permanent secretaries, directors general, and all controlling officers and employees managing, responsible for, or involved in public procurement and contracts. Such an expansion would strengthen the public trust in government, particularly if these declarations included the income and assets of spouses and children – as we do with public disclosures in the United States – since we know their names are often used to hide illicit assets.
Let’s remember that the purpose of asset declarations is to prevent corruption by public officials and make it easier to hold those who do engage in public corruption to account. Asset declaration requirements are more effective if they are enshrined in law, and if officials completing these declarations sign them as sworn statements they can be used, if needed, in any legal proceedings. It is also necessary to have accountability officers review the annual declarations and compare them to previous years’ submissions to identify and seek explanations for changes. I would argue the declarations should be electronic to facilitate and automate the content analysis of these declarations and prevent collusion among filers and reviewers. I would go one step further in requiring that asset declarations be made available to the public to allow independent civil society to flag issues or conduct targeted audits or investigations. So, I call on the Zambian government to finalize and adopt new comprehensive asset declaration legislation within the next year.
While it’s important to require asset declarations, compliance and accountability are key. A March 2022 civil society review of the Asset Declaration Register at the Supreme Court found that only seven of Zambia’s 25 cabinet ministers and two of the 10 provincial ministers had declared their assets. This is only a 28 percent and 20 percent compliance rate, respectively. Where are the penalties for non-compliance by these high-level officials and who holds them accountable? It is inexcusable that those who are required to make such declarations have not done so. This government has gone to great pains to emphasize its focus on enforcement of the rule of law. But, again, leadership is not about only doing the bare minimum that is absolutely required by law, but to going beyond and doing what is right and needed to lead and shape reforms. So, wouldn’t it be powerful if President Hichilema, every sitting minister, and every permanent secretary proactively declared their assets now and did so annually for the remainder of their times in public service? Leadership is demonstrated through actions, not just words, and I urge the Zambian people to demand more from your leaders in terms of transparency and accountability.
USG Disclosure Requirements
In the United States, our government maintains rigorous asset declaration requirements for senior officials and employees working in procurement and with contracts and grants. Let me be clear, we have these safeguards in place because corruption is a human venture that is not limited to only certain countries or environments. I am so passionate about the fight against corruption because I have seen how it has deprived my country and the American people of the benefit of public resources, just like it does Zambia.
As U.S. Ambassador to Zambia, I am not exempt from asset declarations. In fact, every year I am required to file an electronic declaration outlining all my income, property, investment, and retirement assets, as well as those belonging to my spouse and children.
Asset disclosures for U.S. officials are publicly available. If you are curious – feel free to Google me and you will be able to find mine. That is accountability in action! But, I don’t only have to declare my assets and income because I’m the Ambassador. Every U.S. government employee – senior or junior – responsible for procurements or overseeing public contracts must declare their assets every year. These are scrutinized by our lawyers for compliance. This systemic approach makes all of us accountable for appropriate use of public funds.
As an example of this commitment to transparency, last year I got an e-mail from Washington notifying me that the U.S. government handed over more than 1,000 disclosure statements – including my own – to the Wall Street Journal following that newspaper’s request through our Freedom of Information Act, something akin to the Zambian draft Access to Information bill.
This exercise should not be something to shy away from or avoid – but to embrace. I commend Vice Present Nalumango, National Assembly Speaker Mutti, and those other officials who have made their declarations. Let’s press for full compliance now.
Another key tool available is beneficial ownership declarations. Declarations of assets require officials to disclose all sources of income, including benefits that they receive from a private business or company. We all know that those in prominent influential positions play a key role in creating and exploiting corruption vulnerabilities in the economy. The low compliance of beneficial ownership helps them to hide those companies which they may own which are bidding on government contracts…talk about a conflict of interest. When they win those contracts, the public is absolutely right in asking whether it was because their company provides the best value for money for the Zambian people, or whether it’s just their time to eat. So, when someone – say, the Information Minister’s husband – when their company continues to be awarded massive public contracts – say, for provision of fertilizer under FISP – not only is the public right in asking questions, but, transparent public tenders, declarations of beneficial ownership of companies, and asset declarations of public officials all play key roles in providing public confidence that the taxpayers got value. These tools provide credibility that the public servant is fully serving the people. And, these tools help us highlight if or when the government officials is a crook and to hold them accountable.
Ensuring transparency in beneficial ownership is, therefore, a critical component to making asset declaration efforts real. Currently, compliance with beneficial ownership requirements among registered companies in Zambia stands at about 15 percent, so there is much work to be done. Again, I ask, where is the accountability? How much was PACRA budgeted in order to maintain this registry or is it just a charade?
Transparent public procurement processes, combined with establishing electronic linkages between asset declarations and beneficial ownership would clarify who benefits from public procurement contracts and confirm whether they disclosed these assets in their declarations. This strengthens the integrity of the public procurement process and builds citizen trust that government is using public money for their intended purpose and not for personal gain.
Media Role/Access to Information (ATI)
Media and civil society also play a critical role in promoting transparency, as evidenced by the presence today of so many interested activists at this conference. However, to be effective in their fight against corruption and to build public trust in government, information must be made available. I commend the government for moving the Access to Information Bill to Parliament; that is a notable reform towards greater public accountability. But, a law with the right title and bad content that simply provides a veneer of benefit while further entrenching government’s ability to withhold information is a failure and should be an offense to the public. I am concerned that several recent edits to the Access to Information bill that were made before being tabled to Parliament remove key provisions that are vital to the legislation being a meaningful tool for accountable and democratic governance. If passed and implemented, a solid Access to Information law will promote transparency and public accountability by allowing civil society and media to scrutinize information and ask the hard questions.
Civil society and media should not be considered adversarial “watchdogs” keeping government in check, but a critical “guard dog” supporting and enabling government to deliver on its anti-corruption commitments while being vehicles for informing the public of that work.
Passage of quality Access to Information legislation is a critical step to empower media and civil society to leverage the transparency ATI will mandate to analyze government actions and identify corruption.
I urge Members of Parliament to carefully review the bill, along with civil society and public comment, and strongly consider the benefits this increased transparency will have on public trust and government efforts to stamp out corruption. I hope MPs carefully consider comments from the public and civil society, especially on the need for proactive disclosure to ensure that information is publicly available, a supremacy clause within the ATI given the probability of inconsistency with other acts, immunity for information officers who disclose information in good faith, as well an empowered commission as an arbiter of disputes regarding compliance whose decisions are binding.
Accountability and Enforcement
In addition to transparency – particularly in public procurements – and asset declarations by public officials, increased accountability is essential to effectively combat corruption.
There must be consequences for individuals who abuse their public positions for personal gain. They must lose their jobs, their assets, and/or their freedom. The costs of corruption must exceed the financial gain if we are going to stem corrupt practices. Remember when I mentioned that I must file disclosures every year? The consequence for even filing my disclosure late is $200 (4,000 kwacha). Penalties for failing to file, or for filing false claims include fines of up to $70,000 (1.4 million kwacha) in addition to potential criminal charges.
I commend the ACC for its notable increase in corruption-related investigations and prosecutions. I would argue though that the government’s proposed five percent budget increase for the ACC is insufficient to provide the resources and additional staff the ACC needs to effectively investigate corruption. How can we justify the Anti-Corruption Commission having fewer than 300 employees country-wide to investigate and prosecute corruption cases as well as conduct the necessary oversight and scrutiny of these declarations to prevent the perpetuation of corrupt practices?
Investigating and arresting former officials is appropriate and expected when there is convincing evidence. And over the past decade during which corruption was effectively industrialized by senior officials in government, there is a deep, deep pool of former officials to be held accountable. Because, let’s be honest, when you go into public office having a modest house in a compound, and you leave office with $400,000 in cash laying around the house that you need to pass it to your niece for safe keeping, it calls into question where that money came from, because it wasn’t just your government salary! And if it came from corrupt practices or abuse of office, there must be accountability.
But it’s important there be comparable attention and investigations to ensure accountable government among current administration officials and political leaders as well. We are still waiting to see convictions of current administration officials for corruption. When the PS repeatedly cancels and re-issues the high-value procurement, selecting a limited cohort of allowed bidders, it’s a problem. When a minister’s son or nephew routinely pressures companies in his father’s or uncle’s sector to give them money to secure licenses or concessions, it’s a problem. Let us demonstrate that indeed there are no sacred cows and that no one is above the law. But we all know that despite the lovely words, the Zambian people are only going to believe it when accountability is held, when corrupt officials lose their jobs, their assets, and their freedom.
While it takes time for investigations to accumulate sufficient evidence to prosecute, I urge the government to demonstrate its political will by empowering its anti-corruption, law enforcement, and prosecutorial bodies to ensure accountability and justice are not only retrospective but introspective and that they are not just words but actions. ACC is not going to do it with a small and under-resourced staff. So, funding and equipping Zambia’s accountability institutions now – while Parliament is still deliberating on the national budget – is absolutely vital to delivering the action that builds a stronger government, strengthens citizen trust, and enhances credibility of leadership.
Why this Matters?
The reforms I suggested today are tried and true steps implemented by governments around the world to promote transparency and accountability and reduce corruption that robs from citizens.
And that brings me to the question why should we care? Why should Zambians care? By promoting transparency and accountability in public procurement, the government can prevent the introduction of expired medicines that can harm and kill Zambians; prevent the construction of shoddy and unsafe roads that put drivers at risk; and avoid public infrastructure debts that Zambian children and grandchildren will be forced to pay.
The ACC estimates that between 2005 and 2018, Zambia lost $34 billion through mis-invoicing, especially in the mining sector. That’s 680 billion kwacha. That means that in the past 15 years, a full one-and-a-half years’ worth of the entire country’s productivity went into the pockets of corrupt officials and businessmen! How many schools and hospitals could that have been built with those funds? How many new jobs and investments in agriculture could have been supported? What would the price of mealie meal be today if even a fraction of that $34 billion was invested in productive agriculture? Zambia would have zero debt today! Transparency and accountability build public trust in government by ensuring precious financial resources are used as intended.
I encourage the government to follow through on its commitments to implement the institutional reforms that will bring the transparency and accountability that is required to successfully combat corruption.
Regardless of your position, every one of you here today has a key role to play in fighting corruption.
The Zambian people – you, yourselves – can play a key role fighting corruption by demanding that your government act to enforce transparency and accountability.
I wish you all the best of success with this important conference. Thank you.