The Independent interviews former Mbarara Municipality MP, Winnie Byanyima
You are the director of UNDP in New York. Donâ€™t you think you left a gap in the opposition politics in Uganda?
Not at all! I think that my exit from national politics here gives opportunity for young (not in terms of age but newer) group of politicians to take centre stage and bring more dynamism in the struggle here for democracy and development.
The 6th Parliament, where you were extremely influential, held government to account, we havenâ€™t heard any major initiative from the 8th Parliament. So what makes you think that Parliament today has new and strong leaders comparable to the time you were there?
It is not for me to judge this current Parliament, but I can say that yes in the 6th Parliament we had a very strong governance agenda. And this was not very surprising because we were the first Parliament after the new constitution. So we had a very specific mandate; that of putting into operation the new constitution, bringing in constitutional order. We tried our best, it wasnâ€™t always easy, but yes we made some gains. It is now the responsibility of those that have come after us to consolidate those gains.
But now they seem to have failed to live up to those expectations, which means you perhaps left too early before you had strengthened the foundation.
Many things happened at the same time. Because we were coming to the 10th year, there were also some revisions of the constitution; there was the coming in of the multiparty system. So there were many challenges like you would expect when a set of challenges suddenly arise that the response is not what you would always want. I think Uganda is facing many challenges today both on the democratic and development fronts. So we need politicians on both sides who can see the broader picture, looking at issues both at regional and global context, and who can stand their ground and not succumb to pressure whether from government or the private sector and resist the temptations of bribery which can also be even in parliament.
The 6th parliament was a non-partisan one; today the members of the NRM who would have supported a certain cause now tend to be whipped to adopt the government position. Do you think the introduction of mult-party system has strengthened or weakened parliament?
Interesting question! Was parliament stronger because it was a non-partisan parliament? Is this one weaker because it is a multiparty parliament? It is difficult to say. I would say that the practice of multiparty is still a big challenge for us here in Uganda. We still have to look at how we build our new system. Multiparty systems vary from one country to another. The American one is different from the British and German model and ours is also different from all of those. We need to create an enabling environment where an opposition can play its role effectively; where the government back-benchers can have the space to influence their party in power. To have an environment where the media is open to both the opposition and the government and civil society and where the private sector can influence but not corrupt parliament. All these are challenges that need to be looked at and get addressed. I think that Uganda by postponing the multiparty system did not give itself the opportunity to grow into the system. So in a way I think that we are a younger multiparty system and a more deficient one than others in the region because we have not been practicing it long enough.
So when you look at parliament today and in the 1990s, does it exercise the right oversight at the budget making process and how the budget is used?
The parliament of Uganda has through the constitution and some key legislation, such as the Budget Act got so much more power of oversight over government than any other parliament that I know of on the continent except South Africa. It has more power even than the S. Africa, for example the power that parliament has to authorise loans. The government cannot go and take loans from the World Bank or the IMF or wherever without first seeking the authority of parliament. In the past he government could just go and sign out loans that are going to be paid in the next 50 years, the life time of the next generation without even consulting anywhere. Many parliaments in this region donâ€™t have that power at all. So in terms of the power through law this parliament has got a lot of power. Whether it exercises it or not is another matter.
The same with budget oversight; in the 6th parliament we brought the Private Membersâ€™ Bill to increase the role of parliament in making and overseeing the budget. However for oversight to be effective, you need to have an empowered opposition and an empowered back bench; people who are not playing a role in government, because oversight is about those not in government supervising those in government. So there is need for an opposition that has the freedom to voice and to challenge what the government says. But you must also have those in the government side that are not in Cabinet having some space to critique their own government and cause it to shift its position and mend its ways. These are important ingredients of oversight.
How was the 6th parliament, without an official opposition able to exercise a lot of oversight, even introduced the Private Members Bill? It appears to me that if it was introduced now and it came from the opposition, it would be defeated simply because it came from the other side; that multiparty politics has weakened that oversight function.
Perhaps yes perhaps not, if I look at the 6th parliament and see how we did our work; I can see that as we came toward the end of our five years, there was loss of innocence from the side of the parliament and also the side of the executive. You recall that some of the tough positions we had taken were beginning to be reversed and we were still in the Movement System. For example we took a decision to suspend the SWIPCO contract for earning money where it didnâ€™t provide any service. We suspended SWIPCO, we didnâ€™t see the value. Two years later, another committee takes up with a completely opposite view saying SWIPCO is a great thing for Uganda. It debated and parliament approved it, the same parliament that had rejected it two years before. I saw some of our colleagues shift position. It was the first time that I started to see the corrupt influence of the private sector. As we became more and more tough on government, the executive also now sought ways of having a greater hold on parliament.
Do you think that the process of corruption of parliament even by the private sector was an inevitable product of the amount of power that parliament commanded?
One of the biggest problems of a developing country like Uganda is the weakness of regulation against the forces of mainly the private sector. It was always to be expected that where there is an important decision-making that is going to affect the interest of some entrepreneurs, they would come and use illegal means to get what they want. But the other aspect was also the executive feeling threatened by a very much empowered parliament and also seeking to control it. This was very much through the caucus forcing members to take one position when it was actually supposed to be individuals debating freely.
Do you think Uganda is doing well economically?
Looking at Uganda from a regional context or in the African perspective may be even globally, you may say well it is registering growth. But we have a real problem in using that growth and turn it into a real change in the life of the poor. How to make that growth poverty reducing is the real challenge. I think more could be done in addressing rural poverty especially the regions that are emerging from conflict such as northern Uganda, Kasese and Bundibugyo.
The question to me is that what is that that could be done? Economists believe that what you need for poverty reduction is growth.
No it is not enough. There is enough evidence to show that there can be growth that does not create jobs for young people. You can have growth where the poor remain poor; so you need to create the growth where, for example you make agriculture pay. Support the industries that come out of agriculture so that you ease the pressure over land and get young people on jobs that are not in agriculture.
There is a confrontation between Mengo and the central government. What should government do with squatters or landlords?
I donâ€™t want to get into that actually but I can say that it really very unfortunate that there is this confrontation between central government and Mengo. I only hope it will be resolved one way or another.
When do you plan to leave the UN in the US and return to politics in Uganda â€“ or are you on political holiday or retirement.
I am not on retirement, not at all. You can say that I am in a very long sabbatical right now.
When do you hope to end your sabbatical?
I donâ€™t know but I am at the moment enjoying very much the role I am playing in promoting equitable development in all countries. I am learning a lot. I am making an effort to observe how different countries have put in different strategies to end poverty, to democratise and stabilise their politics. It is a huge opportunity for me so that when I return I hope I will be able to contribute even better than I did before.
In 2006 you returned to participate in the campaigns. Will you return in 2011?
I donâ€™t know where I am going to be at that time, if I will still be within the UN job I am likely not to participate in the elections.
You were in the UN job when you participated last time.
There were different circumstances then. I actually came in because of the arrest of my husband and I was mainly active in fighting for his release and this was my right as a family member. I was less active in campaigning for the party.
Do you feel optimistic about the country?
I am always a very optimistic person, we just need an opportunity to get better organised. People, whether politicians or not need to be more aware about what is happening in the country and beyond, they need to be more assertive, need to voice their concerns through the proper political processes. We are a country that is well endowed in many ways. We only need to manage better.