Why Speakers of African parliaments are seeking debt cancellation

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Speaker House of Reps, Femi Gbajabiamila

SPEAKERS of some African Parliaments, led by the Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila say there is an urgent need to push for debt cancellation for the continent from multilateral and bilateral partners.

In virtual meeting of the Speakers seeking to establish the Conference of African Speakers and Heads of Parliament (CoSAP),

Gbajabiamila noted that the body would facilitate increased collaboration among Speakers, Heads of Parliament and National Assemblies across Africa.

The Speakers will also seek to advance an African development agenda within and outside the continent in conjunction with the executive arms of government and African regional institutions.

In attendance at the inaugural virtual meeting were Hon. Tagesse Chafo, Speaker, House of Peoples Representatives, Ethiopia,Mr Aaron Oquaye, Speaker of Parliament, Ghana, Mr Justin Muturi, Speaker, National Assembly, Republic of Kenya, Mr Donatille Mukabalisa, Speaker, Chamber of Deputies, Rwanda and President Moustapha Niasse, AFP, President, National Assembly, Senegal.

Gbajabiamila noted that development in the continent has become stunted due to the heavy burden of the debts.

He, like most of the heads of parliament said that the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) had compounded the issue for the continent, considering the socio-political and economic consequences of the disease.

Gbajabiamila said: “We all agreed that Africa’s debt burden had become an existential threat to our societies, our economies and the future and we need to do something about this and treat it as a continent-wide priority.

“It is safe to say that the burden of debt servicing, vis-à-vis spending on education and health care for example, is a threat to our continent’s stability and development, especially in the era of COVID-19.

“When we find ourselves having to make policy choices between paying debts or saving lives, we know something is not morally right.

“As democratically elected representatives of our people, we cannot be silent, we must speak up and we must act. And the time to act is now.”

In asking for debt forgiveness, it perhaps pertinent to reflect on the processes that led to Africa’s heavy indebtedness in the first place and the role parliamentarians could play to address it.

This is the challenge before the speakers and heads of parliaments. What are the assurances parliamentarians give borrowers if their debts were cancelled and what do African countries do with the  freed-up resources? Do they invest such in social and economic development of citizens or do they deploy the resources to service bogus government structure?

Gbajabiamila had raised the point that, if parliamentarians wamt debt cancellation, then they “must be able to build the confidence of the borrowers that the cancellation will indeed save lives and livelihoods across the continent.“

The Pan-African Speaker’s Conference, supports the collective efforts needed to tackle challenges facing the continent.

The motive of the initiative is that each year they identify a theme, an issue or challenge that is pan-African in scope and meet to deliberate on how to work together across parliaments in Africa to tackle these issues and challenges.

The House of Reps Speaker and charged others that: “As heads of our respective parliamentary entities, it will also be a good platform to share experiences and expertise in different aspects of our legislative duties pertinent to the growth, development and sustenance of our economies and our societies; and on ways to enhance the capacity and impact of our parliaments on our democracies and the lives of the peoples we all represent.”

The Speaker House of Peoples Representatives, Ethiopia, Mr Tagesse Chafo, said that though almost every government on the continent had been trying to seek debt forgiveness, this should not, however, stop the parliaments from contributing to the efforts through a platform such as this.

“As representatives of our people, we are to come together, advise and campaign about the issue, we don’t have to keep quiet because debt cancellation would be good for the resuscitation of our economies that have been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Speaker of Parliament, Ghana, Mr Aaron Oquaye, said that the debt burden was essentially a common challenge on the continent, as most African countries had to depend on foreign loans to execute their national budgets.

He noted that the Speaker’s group, in its efforts to push for debt cancellation must be able to convince the creditors about accountability if they hoped to succeed.

“Donor agencies are interested in accountability because they are confounded about the issue of corruption, and we must be able to give the assurance and that is why the speakers Conference is critical.”

Speaker, National Assembly, Republic of Kenya, Mr Justin Bedan Muturi, added that the pandemic had undermined the economies of most African countries because conditions attached to most of the loans had been eroded by the consequences of the pandemic.

Speaker, Chamber of Deputies, Rwanda, Mrs Donatille Mukabalisa, noted that already African countries were heavily burdened by loans even before the pandemic. She added that the group must be clear about the kind of debt it was seeking to address and from which partners.

While President Moustapha Niasse, AFP, President, National Assembly, Senegal, suggested that opinions of members of the forum must be sought on how to solve the issues between suspension or cancellation of debt.

“We must be convinced that we have a job to do at the level of parliament,” he added.

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