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Reform vetting of appointees

By Joseph Bossa

Does it serve the purpose if the nominees are not attached to a specific position?

The constitution requires that certain personnel appointments made by the President must be approved by Parliament. The purpose of the provision is to ensure that a person seeking to serve in a certain position has the necessary education, work experience, competence, temperament, vision-that word again- and integrity. This is what the relevant sub-committee of the United States Congress aims at in vetting senior presidential appointees. That is what I believe the framers of our constitution also had in mind.

The question is whether the procedures and practices our Parliament has adopted in carrying out the constitutional duty are suited to achieving the intentions of the constitution.

When the President appoints ministers, either after a general election or a cabinet reshuffle, he sends a list to Parliament for approval without specifying which ministry each appointee is intended to be assigned. Yet in the USA, where the practice of parliamentary approval was borrowed from, a ministry is specified and the line sub-committee of the Congress examines the candidate for suitability to serve in that particular ministry or portfolio.

For example in 1980s, a nominee to serve as Under Secretary for Africa was asked to name the capital of Namibia. He did not know it. He was not confirmed, probably for other reasons as well. In Uganda a lady was denied Parliamentary confirmation to a position she qualified for merely because her husband was serving in another senior position in government. The contrast between the two cases is stark. In USA, Parliament looks for the nominee’s expertise. In Uganda it is a hit and miss affair.

With regard to ministerial appointments, if Parliament were to inquire whether a nominee were suitable  to be a  minister for the particular ministry, in case of a reshuffle, the process would start afresh for those sent to new ministries.

Being fit to be a minister is, in any view, a low mark test. Virtually anyone who can get himself elected to Parliament can pass it.

It is also worth-noting that the interviewing of the candidates by the Parliamentary Appointments Committee is held in camera.

Why not hold public hearings and allow anybody with a valid reason why a candidate should not be confirmed to be invited to state it under oath? This would help bring out information which might otherwise never come to light; for example, there could be possible conflict of interest if the nominee for the forest ministry happens to own a timber milling company. In some past instances the public knew about the vetting after the process was completed.

We must admit, however, that the American and Ugandan systems are quite different. In America the federal ministers are more technical than political and, therefore, their technical competencies are more important than their political clout. Indeed, according to their understanding of the concept of the doctrine of separation of powers, a minister in USA must not be a member of the legislature. In Uganda, apart from a few cases, the majority of ministers are also members of Parliament. This difference may well make parliamentary vetting of ministerial appointments less meaningful in Uganda than in the USA. We may also begin to ask whether or not the time has come to go the American way.

Joseph Bossa is the vice president of the Uganda Peoples Congress party

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