By Flavia Nassaka
MPs blame the executive for turning parliament’s toughest committee into a toothless interrogator
Keith Muhakanizi, the bullish Secretary to the Treasury has a penchant for easily wriggling himself out of tight situations. But Sept.31 was different. On that day, Muhakanizi was appearing before parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to account for a Shs90 billion farmer’s loan facility. “We refuse to be misled,” said Alice Alaso, the chairperson of PAC as she barreled into him at one point. Alaso’s glare was intense; she could barely control her emotions. “Ministry of Finance officials are hiding the money meant for the poor farmers and giving it to a few selected well-off people.”
Muhakanizi opened his eyes wide, adjusted his rim-less designer glasses and severally wiped his face to stop a patch of perspiration that was forming on his forehead. It took several apologies from Muhakanizi for the relentless fire from the legislators to ebb. For Muhakanizi, the incident is possibly like no other in his life, yet for the PAC officials, it is routine – just another day at the office.
In fact, some top public servants who have in the past appeared before the committee have not been as lucky as Muhakanizi. Some have shed tears, others have stormed out in protest, and have even been humiliated with detention by parliament security.
For grilling public servants in a bid to extract accountability for public funds or staunch abuse of office, the committee has become the most watched entity in parliament. It has also earned the title of a “torture chamber”.
Observers say some of it as an act. It is said PAC leaders aim to present themselves as tough interrogators because of the TV cameras and journalists present. Under the multiparty dispensation, the political opposition leads accountability committees like PAC. However, other parties are also represented. For instance, currently 17 members are from the NRM, 2 independents and 1 member represents the army. The opposition has 8 members.
Before Alaso, the committee was under the stewardship of Terego County legislator Kassiano Wadri and before Wadri, it was Nandala Mafabi, who went on to become the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament partly owing to his performance as a PAC leader.
PAC is rated the most popular and outstanding accountability committee in the 9th parliament at least according to the Parliament Watch Bulletin Mid Term Audit released by the Uganda NGO forum in September last year.
The committee scrutinizes the Auditor General’s (AG) annual reports, does value-for-money audits on government departments and projects and handles other petitions. It is supposed to write recommendations to Parliament for immediate action to be undertaken by the government. But has PAC genuinely earned its no-nonsense reputation?
If you ask Paul Mwiru, who has now served twice as the deputy chairperson of PAC; its members have managed to deliver on their mandate. He speaks of how they pin the corrupt. But he concedes they really have no powers beyond being a barking dog as their role ends at handing over reports for discussion on the floor of parliament.
“Unfortunately,” Mwiru says, “an ordinary Ugandan cannot appreciate what we do because for them; all they want to see is the culprit in prison or the money recovered – which questions we can’t answer as the committee.”
Mwiru explains that 58 entities have been interrogated by PAC, draft reports written, and 12 of the reports adopted by parliament. But, he says, much as they churn out reports, the executive is always slow to act.
Mwiru says the last time PAC got a Treasury Memorandum was in Financial Year 2004/ 2005. A Treasury Memorandum is issued by the Ministry of Finance to show actions taken by the executive on parliamentary work.
He also added that in October 2014, the committee took the drastic step of calling for a meeting with officials from the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to explain why they always shelve cases to do with abuse of public resources but dwell on those that have a political motivation.
Mwiru is also not shy to admit some of the criticism that has been leveled at the current PAC; including that it has worked at a slower pace than the others. Mwiru says that is mainly because the current PAC inherited reports left behind by the previous PAC which held a lot of hearings without writing recommendations.
“It was a lot of work for us because they interrogated everyone but never wrote any reports,” Mwiru said, “So the chairperson and I started with reading, re-drafting all the minutes and drafting reports which took us several months yet the AG didn’t stop churning out more reports. This is how backlog comes up.”
The committee has completed over 50 reports and these are yet to be tabled before parliament for debate. Having completed more than 50% of the work, Mwiru hopes they’ll soon start on the new audits since the AG released the 2014 report on March. 31.
When The Independent spoke to Kassiano Wadri, who was PAC chairperson from July 2011 to February 2014, he declined to answer questions regarding the performance of PAC saying it would be unfair of him to judge his colleagues. He said, however, that his team left most of the reports in draft form because they were always delayed by special audits, which would take a lot of time to be completed than anticipated.
Wadri also pointed out that during his term; six AG’s reports were debated in parliament, which included the controversial financial scam in the office of the prime minister.
Still, some critics say some PAC members come to the committee sessions without adequate preparation, are unfamiliar with the issue at hand, and conduct themselves too slovenly to accomplish tasks.
The Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Oulanyah, says there is a problem with the quality of the legislators and members of PAC are no an exception.
In one incident, the PAC chairperson Alaso also petitioned Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga to replace her committee staff because they were reluctant to draft reports of committee hearings into 40 entities.
Cissy Kagaba of the Anti- Corruption Coalition says that when legislators do not do concrete research on the matters, they at times become personal in the way certain sessions are handled.
With all the clout the committee has, Kagaba feels there is something wrong given that the executive can only intervene when the reports have been debated on the floor of parliament.
She says PAC reports are rarely put on the order paper of Parliament, which has made PAC serve a postmortem service.
The reports end up being inconsequential, she adds, given that they are never adopted by parliament. In the end, she says, the committee becomes toothless as the public fails to see their relevance yet it should be very critical in the fight against corruption.
However Makerere University based professor of Politics, Mwambutsya Ndebesa says the committee should be blamed with reservation as it has shown some level of commitment to work given the circumstances it operates under—a crippled plenary that is deteriorating in quality with some legislators being compromised with perks and caucuses.
“PAC shouldn’t be blamed,” Mwambutsya told The Independent, “It plays its part. You have heard about people who wasted billions of tax payers’ money but are out of prison on bail like Chandi Jamwa. The government is unbothered about this man yet he was implicated.”
Mwabutsya says the role of the committee can be well felt if it was left to independently do its work without having to rely on the AG reports.
Currently, 85% of the work done by PAC is as a result of the auditor general’s reports.
Mwiru does not dismiss the criticism. But he says MPs have a lot of work and some end up not doing research on the issues to be discussed. He says the PAC leadership has learnt about this but the committee has no resources to conduct trainings for the new members as over 70 percent of the expenditure goes to members and travel allowances.
“We had even proposed that we get research assistants attached to each member but funding is still a problem,” he added.
Unfortunately, the funding problem may not be about to end. Recently, donors have withdrawn support to three parliamentary accountability committees; PAC, the Committee on Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (COSASE), and the Local Government Accounts Committee. The money had been to help them get rid of the backlog.
This story was accomplished with support from the African Center for Media Excellence (ACME).