By Dicta Asiimwe
Dicta Asiimwe spoke to Dan Fred Kidega, the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) speaker about his plans to tackle the challenges at the regional body.
What is your plan for EALA?
The first and most important thing is to unite the assembly. You see, what transpired in the last one year caused division in the assembly.
Do you have plans to amend the rules of procedure to protect your job as Speaker?
No, because the removal of Hon. Margaret Zziwa was not a loophole in the rules of the House. I think the rules made it very difficult for the members to get rid of her. That is why the process took a whole year. But the assembly amended the rules of procedure; a process that started way before Hon. Zziwa became speaker.
The treaty states that a speaker shall be removed for inability to perform the functions of his or her office, due to infirmity of mind or body or for misconduct. Do your rules meet that standard?
Yes. The rules of procedure and the treaty are in tandem on how the speaker can be impeached. What is lacking in our rules is the administrative aspect. But we are rectifying that through the EALA Administrative Act; that is why we needed the amendments.
One of the things that came out prominently during the impeachment process of your predecessor was that members were not attending the sessions. How do you plan to address that?
That has been a challenge because, as you know, our assembly is very small. So one of the things we are revisiting is the issue of quorum. Our rules provide that the quorum is half of the house, and within that half there must be at least three members from each partner state. So when half of the assembly is present but there are just two members from a given partner state, the House cannot proceed and that is a serious challenge. So, quorum should look at all members instead of requiring a certain number from each partner state.
Will that not comprise the consensus requirement that is an important pillar of the treaty?
We are not saying that we can sit when a partner state is absent, but we are trying to strike a balance that can work. Because we have had challenges in the past where you may find that at the beginning, quorum is there, then members from a partner state may move out and a member who remains in the House raises the question of quorum.
Have you heard of members’ practice where they pick per diem in the first week and go back home? Will taking away the consequences of absenteeism legitimise this practice?
There are members who could have done that before, but I can assure you that I will not let that happen. I will make it categorically clear to the members that per diem is facilitation to do work, not an income. So if you are not doing the work, you don’t deserve to have it.
The last time your predecessor tried to stop it, she was accused of treating members like children and it fuelled her impeachment. How differently will you handle it?
I have the grounds against Hon. Margaret Zziwa and there is nothing like that. But yes there is also what we call the decorum of the House, and how members should be treated. So the best thing I will do is to explain to the members in a cordial manner that we are representatives of the people, and we must live to that expectation. It is also a question of work methods. When a member does something that is contrary to the conduct expected of him or her, the best thing is to have a discussion and continuously engage, so that decisions are reached consultatively.
How much work do you have to do in the next two and half years?
We have not done much in the last two and a half years. So we will have to do the work of four years, in the period left. There is a lot of work before the assembly. We have four pending Bills, a number of reports, motions and questions to the council of ministers. We also have a lot of oversight work to do.
What are the pending Bills?
Four bills which include the Electronic Transaction Bill, the East African Cooperative Society Bill, and the Joint Trade Negotiation Repeal Bill as well as the Cross Border Lawyer Practice Bill. The council has very important bills to introduce.
Isn’t that just one Bill, touching one institution? Yet you have lined up in your schedule a Repeal Bill for one the private members bills.
The administration of EALA affects everyone. But to go straight to the trade negotiations act, there were underlying issues which led to the repeal. I do not want to put the cat before the horse but my consultation with the members of the council of ministers suggests that this Bill might be withdrawn. So the point I am driving at is that private members bills carry equal strength as those that come from the council of ministers. The only distinction is that when a private members bill is brought to the House, the consultation process is longer.
You have passed many private members Bills that will not be implemented; the HIV/Aids Prevention Act, the one banning polythene bags, another on joint management of environmental resources and another on elections. The council of ministers is now repealing them, instead. The next session will repeal two, including one on higher education. Shouldn’t this wastage of our money stop?
Some bills were not feasible. The one on joint management of elections, for example, was not possible without a political federation. But to some extent I agree with you on the issue of private members bills. Unlike in the partner states, where there is no stillbirth in legislation, EALA Acts lapse when heads of state refuse to sign them. So it is necessary that there is maximum consultation for private members bills. But these challenges should not force us to abandon this process because parliaments are premised on practices. We practice according to the Westminster model, and we cannot just generate our own method of work. The Westminster model allows for private members bills.
Does this model fit the consultative nature of EAC?
No because integration is a complex project which takes time. But ultimately, we are looking at political federation and the Westminster model will be appropriate.
Who is EALA accountable to?
The big debate has been about the electoral process, as we are elected as per the treaty through the parliaments of partner states. That is an Electoral College system of election, which is a valid and a legitimate method. And therefore we are answerable to the people of East Africa who elect us through their representatives.
In what way can East Africans get accountability from EALA?
You can petition parliament, we have received so many petitions as EALA before.
Does a petition meet the Westminster model standards?
Ok, let me give you another accountability mechanism. Everything that is done in EALA must be laid before the national assemblies. And those things are relayed to the national parliaments. That is a very clear accountability mechanism to our electoral college. We also put in place East African Community affairs committees in all the partner states. EALA members of that partner state must report twice to these committees every financial year.
How many reports have, for example, come to the Uganda parliament?
For us, we don’t know where the process gets clogged. But what we do is to make sure we fulfil our duty. Most importantly, accountability is not about being recalled. Accountability is being checked to make sure you are doing what you have been sent to do.
And when you don’t?
You can be reprimanded.
The committee of the EAC at the national parliament can demand that we go and present to them a report. They have done that before.
Are there times when you EALA members have refused to appear?
No we don’t refuse. At times the committee is sitting at the same time when the assembly is also sitting. So we write back to reschedule like the last financial year, when the committee in Uganda was sitting and gave us their time table to come and appear before it, most of us were in our activities of the assembly. We sent the chapter chairperson to represent us.
I am told you only appear if the invitation suits your interest. Is it true?
We don’t refuse completely but we can’t move as a whole chapter because there will be paralysis at the assembly. But you go and ask the chair how many reports we have presented. In fact a month ago when I met the Speaker (Rebecca Kadaga), I promised her that we shall prepare a report of everything that took place in the last one year and send it. But yes, something that has come out glaringly in the last one year is that the treaty needs to be amended, to provide for the recall of members who are sent to Arusha but do not perform as expected.