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Reformer at parliament

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

Speaker Kadaga confronts great expectations with an array of reform proposals, but sceptics linger

Rebecca Kadaga has as much to smile about as she has to worry about. She is the only woman in Uganda to have had an uninterrupted stint in parliament for the last 25 years and when she was voted Speaker this May, no one would say with justification that it was only about affirmative action. Parliamentarians from across the political divide saw her as the best bet from within the NRM to restore independence to an institution that had been grossly reviled for selling out to the executive.

Yet the Speaker, also woman MP for Kamuli district, has reason to worry. So intense is the weight of expectations around her neck that when she prevaricated about calling a special sitting of the House after being petitioned by over one-third of the MPs, she was immediately accused of having shed the promising glimmers of independence she had shown over the opening four months of her tenure. On the other hand, some of Kadaga’s fellow NRM MPs had been the first to criticise her for “showing too much independence”. She has a delicate balancing act to carry out.

But she isn’t down. Kadaga says she had no intention of going against Article 95(5) of the Constitution, that requires the Speaker to recall parliament for a special sitting on being petitioned by two-thirds of the MPs, but maintains that the clause needs enabling legislation. “Some people are reading it direct from the constitution and want it implemented as such,” she says. She would rather that the need for recalling the House is qualified, so that MPs don’t abuse the clause by recalling the House over flimsy issues. According to her, there was nothing urgent about what the petitioners wanted discussed that couldn’t be discussed when the House reconvenes on Oct. 25.

To avoid a replay of the incident at the end of the last parliament when over 70 MPs lost their seats when they were nominated to defend their seats without first resigning, having switched party allegiances, Kadaga says she has instructed the Clerk to Parliament to look at “all the areas in the constitution that affect parliament but have not been enacted into legislation” for her to take action.

But the delicate nature of Kadaga’s job isn’t only technical. Even with the furore surrounding the recalling of the special sitting on Oct. 10 cast aside, observers say her job was almost always bound to be difficult. Having taken office during troubled political and economic times, observers say that Kadaga was bound to find herself in complicated situations every time a cornered executive appeals to her to bail it out in parliament. In fact, the accusations about her loss of independence were fuelled by a report in the Daily Monitor newspaper that President Yoweri Museveni had asked Kadaga not to recall parliament over disagreements with the MPs about the management of the oil sector.

Matters only get complicated by the fact that Kadaga took office at a time when an increasing number of NRM MPs appear unenthusiastic to toe the party line and have challenged their party in and out of parliament. In fact, one of the lead petitioners for Kadaga to recall parliament, Lwemiyaga county’s Theodore Sekikubo, is a member of the NRM.

When Kadaga issued guidelines on Oct. 7 for the special session of parliament of Oct. 10, requiring the MPs to read the oil production agreements from within the precincts of parliament without writing down anything and warning of punitive action against those who would break the rules, observers were quick to point out that many MPs probably lacked the expertise required to analyse the documents.

On Sekikubo’s part, although he said he had reservations about the Speaker’s guidelines, he didn’t want to dwell on the matter in a telephone interview with The Independent, only saying, “I will have my day to face the Speaker” (on tabling the motion on Oct. 10). He said, that after all, the petitioner’s concern was more than the agreements, covering the streamlining of the entire oil sector.

Great expectations

When leaders of civil society organisations (CSOs) from 15 organisations met Kadaga at parliament on Oct. 6, they provided an idea of how enormous and diverse the public expectations of her are. One of their principal concerns, as relayed by Arthur Larok of the Uganda National NGO Forum, is to help “get the people’s views into parliament”.

In the lead up to the last election, the CSOs, working through the Uganda Governance Monitoring Platform (UGMP), gathered views from across the country that they compiled into what they called the Citizens Manifesto. These are the views they hope Kadaga will ensure that they get onto the floor of parliament.

The CSOs proposed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with parliament aimed at facilitating the exchange of information with the legislators on activities concerning good governance and foster understanding among the parties.

The MoU, which the Kadaga says could be signed by the end of this month, was on the agenda for the Parliament Commission sitting on Oct. 11.

Women want their day in the sun

Kadaga, herself in parliament on an affirmative ticket for women, is under pressure to deliver on women’s demands. On Aug. 26, women activists used the occasion of the Forum for Women in Development’s annual general meeting to ask Kadaga to revisit the Marriage and Divorce Bill of 2009. The law, meant to ensure equity and fairness in marriage and regulate separation and divorce, is seen by women activists to have the best chance of passing through parliament under the stewardship of a woman.

During her meeting with leaders of the civil society, Kadaga was variously reminded about her obligation to women. “What are you doing to ensure there are more women committee chairpersons?” inquired Ruth Ojiambo of Isis Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE).

Stirred, Kadaga replied, “I had a heated argument with my party on the floor of the House (when the names of committee chairpersons and deputy chairpersons were presented), asking them where is the other half of society (the women)?”

Kadaga said she has instructed the Rules Committee to ensure a fifty-fifty split of representation of both sexes with regard to committee leadership when the committee leadership is renewed after two years.

Other reforms

During her campaigns to become Speaker, Kadaga made a pledge that would have people believe was laced with her frustrations during the ten years she was Edward Ssekandi’s deputy. She promised to draw up a clear schedule indicating when she and her deputy would preside over the House.

The first session of the 9th Parliament has already seen Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah preside over the House for an extended period during the debate on the budget, indicating that Kadaga is living by her word. And she seems keen to continue the reforms.

Convinced of the need to improve the way parliament works, Kadaga has made further instructions to the Rules Committee. She says she has instructed that the legal and parliamentary affairs committee be decongested by creating a committee on human rights and governance in order to pay closer attention to these important issues.

The Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs oversees the activities and programmes of the ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, the Judiciary, the Parliamentary Commission, the Uganda Law Reform Commission, the Electoral Commission, the Uganda Human Rights Commission, the Judicial Service Commission, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, the Law Development Centre and the Inspectorate of Government. Kadaga feels this is too big a mandate for one committee to handle, leading to critical issues of governance and human rights to remain unattended to.

Not finished, Kadaga says whereas the region is “progressing” towards a federation, “Ugandans know very little about the East African Community”. She says parliament can make a contribution in this direction, for which reason she is creating a committee on East African affairs.

The other committee that is about to see the light of day, says Kadaga, is the one to oversee the implementation and monitoring of government projects. Kadaga says that the poor implementation and monitoring of government programmes and projects has a lot to do with the dire state of social services in the country.

On her recent upcountry tours she said, she concluded that “If we do nothing else, let’s sort out health in this country”. To achieve this goal, she argues that a new committee on implementation and monitoring of government projects will go a long way to helping out those on Government Assurances and Social Services.

Her move to set up these three committees was well received by civil society leaders, who saw in the move an opportunity to make parliament more effective. But some MPs have reservations. Many of them don’t want to appear to be at loggerheads with the Speaker too early in their term and they prefer to speak off the record. But they are sceptical that creating more committees may have serious budget implications. They argue that it would be better to work on making the existing committees more effective.

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