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Does Parliament still matter?

By Agather Atuhaire and Jacky Kemigisa

How Museveni’s government has ignored it

A debate about why President Yoweri Museveni’s government does not implement parliament resolutions is gaining traction as observers take stock just months towards the end of its 5-year term.  The debate comes at a time when the 386-member House is seen as a pale shadow of what it was in its heyday—between 2011 and 2012. Back then it gave President Yoweri Museveni sleepless nights. It caused him to appear before it, summon its head severally, cause arrests of some of its members, and attempt to have dismissed from parliament some of its most outspoken, in a ceaseless campaign to cut it to size.

The odds were always in Museveni’s favour as his ruling party; the NRM, controls 262 MPs of the 388 and the Speaker of Parliament is an NRM party Vice President and the Deputy Speaker a member. Opposition parties have only 63 members and 43 independents.  But many early admirers are disappointed that the 9th Parliament is closing on a low without major achievements.

Parliament has passed over  50 laws, but the criticism is over how it has allowed the executive to disregard its resolutions.

When asked to comment on the executive’s disregard for parliamentary resolutions, Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah said there is need to understand the import of the resolutions. He categorise them as resolutions directed by the constitution, financial resolutions, and resolutions “in the wisdom of parliament”.

He told The Independent that while the resolutions directed by the constitution and the financial resolutions are mandatory for the executive to act on them, the resolutions within the wisdom of parliament are simply advisory and the executive can choose to implement them or not.

Oulanyah’s explanation, however, does not quash the spreading belief that the trend by Museveni’s government to ignore parliament resolutions is not good for democracy. Many commentators say it undermines the principal of separation of powers and the constitution.

“The scenario is bad,” renowned lawyer Dan Wandera Ogalo says, “since parliament can’t keep the executive in check. And by disregarding parliament, the executive is disregarding the people that parliament represents.”

Legislator Merdard Segona is also concerned with the resources that are wasted on doing the work that is never recognised.

“We do this work with tax payers’ money,” he said “if government doesn’t want to recognise that work, it should do away with parliament.”

Parliament gobbles over Shs300 billion in tax payer’s money every year and cannot point to many achievements. It is frustrating, not because it has not worked, but largely because most of its work has been ignored.  Wandera and Segona have a lot of examples of ignored work to point at.

Disregarded resolutions

The first victim was the resolutions reached at the oil debate of October 10 and 11, 2012. The resolutions included declaring a moratorium on executing oil contracts and transactions pending the passage of the necessary laws, the stepping aside of ministers accused of taking bribes from oil companies pending investigations by the appropriate agencies, setting up an ad hoc committee, ensuring that the government joins the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), and that government withholds the consent of the transaction between Irish oil explorer Tullow Oil, and its partners Total of France and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Cooperation (CNOOC).

Of all these resolutions, only one was implemented; the setting up of the Ad hoc Committee, and only because it was parliament to implement it.

Months after the resolutions were declared, government in February 2012, authorised Tullow’s farm down to Total and CNOOC, in total disregard of parliament position.

The implicated officials; then-Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa, and then-Internal Affairs minister Hilary Onek never stepped aside or left office. As a result, the same officials may have undermined the work of the Ad hoc Committee.  And after spending billions investigating, the recommendations of the committee were also ignored.

Next in line was the Ad hoc Committee that was set up in 2011 to investigate the electricity sector. The report recommended among others; the termination of the contracts of power generating Company Eskom and distributor Umeme, the interdiction of the Ministry of Energy Permanent Secretary, Kabagambe Kaliisa, and the interdiction of the Managing Director of Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Limited, Erias Kiyemba. Umeme and Eskom are still transacting and Kiyemba and Kaliisa are still working.

The critics add the saga of former Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, Pius Bigiramana. A report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had called for his interdiction over the loss of Shs50 billion that was meant for the Peace Recovery and Development Plan project in Northern Uganda. Bigirimana was instead transferred to the Ministry of Gender.

The critics point out that the last time a report of parliament had an impact was in 2011 when then-Minister for Gender Syda Bbumba and then-Mminister in charge of General Duties Khiddu Makubuya resigned after PAC implicated them in a Shs162 billion dubious compensation to Haba Group of Companies of the NRM insider Hassan Basajjabalaba.

However, the same report had recommended that Bank of Uganda Governor Tumusiime Mutebile be interdicted. President Museveni refused to act and critics concluded that Bbumba and Makubuya were allowed to go because in Museveni’s political calculations, the two were dispensable.

Parliament recommendations have now become so base that one top official at the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), which was under investigation by parliament, was overheard saying  “it doesn’t matter what parliament decides since its recommendations are never taken seriously”.

This was during the debate of a select committee investigating the Fund and Parliament had just unanimously agreed with the recommendations of the committee to hold the Fund’s Managing Director Richard Byarugaba and Board Chairman Ivan Kyayonka accountable for what they called irregularities at the fund. These included buying shares in power distributing company Umeme without consulting the Solicitor General. Like Mutebile, Kaliisa and Kiyemba, Byarugaba and Kyayonka remain untouched.

Like Deputy Speaker Oulanyah, renowned lawyer and former outspoken Oyam North MP Ben Wacha, also says most of parliament’s resolutions are advisory resolutions are tricky to enforce since they are not backed by any law.

But even the Financial Resolutions which require the government to table mandatory reports called Treasury Memoranda have been ignored.  Treasury Memoranda detail what action has been taken on the recommendations of parliament arising from the Auditor General’s reports. Although the Treasury Memoranda are required to be tabled every year, a memorandum was last tabled in 2011.

Recently, when Speaker Rebecca Kadaga threatened that Parliament would not pass the budget if the memoranda are not tabled; Finance Minister Matia Kasaija on April 1 accompanied the Budget Framework Paper with only a memorandum on the Local Government’s Accounts committee reports. A reliable source told the Independent that the memorandum does not even address all the districts.

The memoranda are required on the recommendations of all the committees that handle the Auditor General’s reports. These include the Public Accounts Committee, the Local Government Accounts Committee and the Committee on Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (COSASE).

These parliamentary committees spend time and resources travelling in and outside the country to do their work. Even when the committees are sitting at parliament, each MP on each committee gets Shs50, 000 as sitting allowance every time a committee sits. The chairpersons get Shs60, 000 while their deputies get Shs55, 000. This might appear little money but cumulatively it is big. When doing the work in the field, parliament foots each member’s transport and accommodation costs plus allowances. Unfortunately, despite all this spend, parliament reports just end up gathering dust.

Blame games

As criticism mounts, establishing culpability has turned into a blame game with the Ministry of Finance saying Parliament has not given it the reports on which action needs to be taken. Lawrence Ssemakula, the Accountant General told The Observer  last year that government can only take appropriate action on the auditor general’s findings after they have been thoroughly scrutinised and approved by parliament which he says parliament has not done.

Attorney General Fred Ruhindi meanwhile admits the executive should give Parliament feedback on all its reports and recommendations whether mandatory or not.

“The urge to do it is a necessity,” says Ruhindi, “It is simply good practice that government reports to the house and tells them the recommendations that have been implemented, those that haven’t and why, even if there is no compulsion.”

But Ogalo puts the blame for the executive’s impunity on parliament. He says parliament has not put in place mechanisms to ensure they get feedback.

“What serious parliaments do,” Ogalo says, “is put mechanisms in the rules of procedure to ensure that the executive observes their recommendations.”

Ben Wacha also says how the executive responds to parliament depends a lot on how the executive views that parliament. Wacha recalls how the 6th parliament kept the executive on its toes. It censured ministers and forced others to resign.

Wacha said: “Government sits back and asks itself; what will parliament do if we don’t implement this recommendation?”

Wacha told The Independent that the executive can never respect a weak parliament because it knows it cannot punish it.

“But there are a lot of things an effective parliament can do,” Wacha says, “Parliament can refuse to approve a budget of a certain department or even censure the concerned minister.”

As the debate goes on, reference is made to the clout of the Kenyan parliament when dealing with the executive. Commentators recalled a time when then Prime Minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga told Parliament that “Parliament cannot compel the Executive to do a, b, c, d… Parliament can make recommendations”. He was beaten into line when MPs threatened to block the budget of the concerned departments.

That face off came after Kenyan MPs had also had their share of the executive’s contempt. They had made many recommendations that the executive kept disregarding. These included the nullification of the Managing Director of the Kenya Airports Authority, indictment of Minister Musalia Mudavadi, and the expulsion of Mumias Sugar by the Capital Markets Authority.

To address the Uganda situation, Ogalo wants MPs to discuss the possible reasons why the executive is ignoring their reports and forge a way forward.

“A serious parliament would institute a subcommittee which would sit with the cabinet to discuss these matters and reach some sort of agreement,” Ogalo says.

Wacha says Speaker Rebecca Kadaga can also intervene and demand that the executive acts on Parliament’s recommendations by refusing to handle government’s business.

Busiro East MP Segona agrees with his fellow lawyers.

“Those that are blaming us are right,” he told The Independent, “we have failed to put our foot down. We should assert our position and know the power we have as parliament.”

Segona says, in other countries, the issue of ignoring parliament’s recommendations is grave enough to warrant a President’s impeachment.

“But here business continues as usual,” he laments “if we decided as parliament to block the budget, what would happen?”

But Segona is the first to acknowledge why that is impossible given that most of his colleagues, he says, look up to President Museveni for survival. President Museveni last year spent over Shs40 billion to save MPs from debts.

“Unfortunately,” Segona says, “not even up to a quarter of us can assert ourselves to demand the respect that Parliament as an institution deserves.”

Poor quality resolutions

Ogalo also says that the quality of the MPs work is poor.

“It leaves a lot to be desired as most of their recommendations are misguided and not thought through,” he says.

For example, many critics have rubbished the parliament’s reports on the electricity sector, oil, and even the one on NSSF.

But other MPs say it is unfair to blame them for the way the executive disregards parliament.  Opposition Chief Whip Atim Cecilia Ogwal says parliament’s recommendations are ignored because the NRM government simply does not respect the principle of separation of powers.

“The NRM regime has been trying to swallow up the powers of not only parliament but also the judiciary,” she says.

She adds that the NRM caucus has frustrated key decisions of parliament which it takes on behalf of the people it represents.

“When we do the work that the executive doesn’t act upon,” Ogwal adds, “we are the ones looked at as inefficient by the people who entrusted us with the duty to represent them.”

She said that pointing at the quality of reports and debates as a justification for the executive’s unresponsiveness, is just an excuse.

“You can’t say that about all the committees of parliament,” Ogwal says, “It can’t be that all the reports of all the committees are of poor quality.”

Ogwal also adds that even if all the resolutions were binding, the government would still ignore them because it is more interested in advancing personal interests than addressing the issues affecting its people.

“Even if we amended the constitution to introduce a clause that compels the executive to implement Parliament’s resolutions it wouldn’t respect it,” Ogwal says. Segona also says it’s not about the recommendations being mandatory or advisory.  “A civilised government ought to observe any recommendation that is aimed at advancing the country.”

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