By Isaac Mufumba
When I asked the Vice Chairman of Parliaments Budget Committee, Medi Mulumba (NRM Luuka County) about the Parliamentary committee on Government Assurances last week, he had a very low opinion.
That is a dead committee. It has nothing to show for its existence, he said.
This Committee is supposed to scrutinise the assurances, promises and undertakings that ministers and other government agents make in parliament.
It is required to report on progress made in achieving or implementing them and comment on delays of implementation and adequacy and timeliness of actions.
However, the committee has nothing to show for all its years of existence.
But that could change soon. The committee has caused the drafting of a new piece of legislation that seeks to criminalise failure by a Minister to cause the implementation of a government assurance or promise made on the floor of parliament.
Currently, the committee has no teeth to bite. The parliamentary rules of procedure render the committee weak. Resolutions are passed in parliament from time to time.
However, not all resolutions are binding to the Executive. That is why it (committee) is viewed as dormant, say Issa Kikungwe, (DP, Kyadondo South), who is one of the movers of the motion.
Section 14 of The Implementation of Government Assurances Bill, 2008 recommends that such a Minister be charged with neglect of duty under the provisions of the Penal Code.
Section 14 reads that: â€œAny person who contravenes any provision of this Act commits the offence of neglect of duty under section 114 of the Penal Code Act, and is liable to the punishment prescribed thereinâ€.
Section 114 of the Penal Code stipulates that: A person who, being employed in a public body or a company in which the Government has shares, neglects to perform any duty which he or she is required to perform by virtue of such employment, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.
Kikungwe says that the Bill is testimony that the committee is not dead. If it ever died, he says, it has resurrected with a bang.
Currently, the committee has been failing to comment on delays or progress in implementation of assurances because government officials and agents often do not define timeframes within which specific assurances will have been implemented. This makes it difficult for the committee to make comments about the progress of implementation.
Kikungwe says the rules of procedure are vague on the definition, intended effect of the implementation; standards of quality and quantity of work; and parameters for determining whether there was value for money. Those were making the committee and the ministers weak.
The proposed Bill seeks deliberate action to shape the image and operations of the committee to make it more relevant and alive and to make the ministers more action oriented.
Kagoma County MP, Fred Nkayi Mbagadhi (NRM), says that the Bill was initially misunderstood even by himself. NRM MPs and President Yoweri Museveni construed it to be a weapon against them. In the days that followed, Attorney General Khiddu Makubuya declared it unconstitutional.
Behind the scenes movements and lobbying saw Prime Minister Apollo Nsibambi and Minister Adolf Mwesige embrace the Bill and win it some acceptability, but President Museveni was not convinced about the intentions of those who had drafted it.
However, during a September 10, 2009 meeting between President Museveni and the Buganda Parliamentary Caucus, Kikungwe managed to convince the President to consider meeting members of the committee. He says Museveni was won over when they met later.
In a dramatic shift, Museveni reportedly wanted the Bill to be called The Implementation of Government Assurances and Economic Saboteurs Bill. According to Kikungwe, Museveni reasoned that such a Bill would allow him to penalize politicians outside parliament who campaign against some of the governments projects. They finally settled for The Implementation of Government Assurances and Petitions Bill, which is currently being fine-tuned by the Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs.
The President agreed with us that for as long as there is a plan, a budget and money to implement an assurance, those guilty of not implementing will be charged of neglect of duty which is punishable. It attracts a jail term, he says.
The Bill has sparked jitters among the Presidentâ€™s men. Four cabinet Ministers who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter insist that punishment for mistakes for which they take political responsibility should be political and not judicial.
Why should I go to jail simply because the President promised to do something through my portfolio? If I must be punished, the punishment cannot and must not be one that leads to my incarceration, one of the Ministers said.
While Issa Kikungwe says that the Bill will ensure that government is accountable to the parliament and the people that the MPs represent in parliament and to guarantee that government walks its talk, one of the Ministers says that the Bill spells trouble for the country.
Deputy Attorney General and Minister of State for Constitutional Affairs, Fred Ruhindi, declined to comment on the legal implications of the Bill for ministers and the country, simply saying that it is a very long story.