By Andrew M. Mwenda
How the Legislature has joined the Executive in a spree of anarchical grabbing of public resources in Uganda
It is now coming to two years since parliament in Uganda set up a committee to investigate allegations that ministers Sam Kutesa (Foreign Affairs) and Hillary Onek (then at Energy) took nearly US$30 million in bribes from the Irish oil company, Tullow Oil.
The committee held official hearings, summoned many individuals and its members traveled to Malta, Dubai and London in their investigations. To date it has not tabled the report of its findings. What actually happened?
The failure of the committee to produce a report and the silence of the Ugandan elites (in political parties, civic associations, mass media etc.) is a sign of the level of democratic incapacity that exits in our country.
MPs are supposed to pursue their work diligently to its logical conclusion. Assuming the executive, as it often does in Uganda, bribed and or intimidated MPs from doing so, one would expect civic associations to press parliament to live up to its obligation to the public. If these also failed, the media would keep the issue in the public debate and thereby force MPs to act. It has not.
I have been reliably informed that the committee actually found out that the allegations of bribery were hot air. At a selfish level, it vindicates me as I had investigated them, found them empty and shelved them. So the committee wrote a report, which they have never tabled before parliament because they have nothing to justify the money spent.
Indeed, it surprises me that the biggest beneficiaries of these findings, Kutesa and Onek, have never insisted that a report convicting or exonerating them be published. This is an aspect of Uganda’s corruption investigations that has always intrigued me.
In 1966, Milton Obote, then Prime Minister, was accused of sending Ugandan troops into Congo where they looted gold. Obote was accused of sharing the loot with then deputy army commander, Col. Idi Amin, and the ministers of defense and information, Felix Onama and Adoko Nekyon respectively.
Obote then appointed a commission of inquiry chaired by the president of the East African Court of Appeal and composed of two other senior judges one from the Tanzanian High Court and the other from the High Court of Kenya.
The report and its findings exonerating all the accused was finished that same year but Obote never published it. I have the full proceedings of the commission’s work and the report. Why didn’t the public then demand the publication of a report that actually led to the abolition of the 1962 constitution and later the abolition of kingdoms?
The circumstances of the February 24, 1966 allegations against Obote, Amin, Nekyon and Onama are similar to those of October 14, 2011 against Kutesa and Onek. Wild allegations were made on the floor of parliament, documents adduced, and resolutions passed.
It seems to me that members of the committee wanted an opportunity to travel abroad, earn per diem and do some shopping at public expense. The allegations in parliament only provided an opportunity for our MPs to use public funds for purposes that were purely private.
Indeed, using every excuse to cause government to spend on their travel has become a major hallmark of the behavior of MPs in Uganda.
It is possible that they are picking the signal from President Yoweri Museveni whose internal and international travel per year costs the taxpayer tens of millions of dollars. These days before any Bill or loan is passed by parliament, MPs literally hold government (or the respective ministry in this case) at ransom.
They demand for “study tours” to countries that have a similar legislation “to study the experience” and report back to the house. They also insist on holding workshops and seminars inside and outside Uganda as part of the process – all paid for by the ministry responsible.
Although our MPs are the biggest noisemakers in regard to corruption by civil servants, they have also become the biggest victims of recent crack down on official graft. My sources say that after the scandals in the Office of the Prime Minister, in the ministry of Public Service and in Health were exposed last year and people sent to jail and others had their properties confiscated, the thieves in government are scared.
Although they still want to steal more, accounting officers and their allies in government need more creative ways to execute their plans as an increasing tendency of exposure is making them nervous.
Without cash, civil servants cannot bribe MPs on the many accountability committees. So today, MPs are broke because their principle source of cash (extortion money from accounting officers who were bribing them) is not forthcoming. We are therefore likely to see increased criticism of government by both opposition and ruling party MPs in order to induce the President to buy them off.
So dire is the situation of many MPs that reports claim that some are given international travel allowances on many fictitious travels they plan that they just take per diem and go home i.e. they don’t even travel.
I have seen a letter from the ministry of Finance to the clerk of parliament and to all ministries saying that MPs who travel abroad at public expense should write reports of their findings, showing what they did and how it benefited the country.
Actually MPs are not supposed to rely on ministries for their travel. That is a function of the Parliamentary Commission. But because they play the oversight function over corrupt accounting officers, MPs know that they can bulldoze permanent secretaries to finance their international trips.
The speaker of parliament has been unable to exercise effective restraint on the behavior of MPs largely because they can threaten to recall her from office.
The power of the President to bribe and/or bulldoze his way through Uganda’s democratic institutions has grown hand in hand with the propensity of MPs to extort money from corrupt civil servants in exchange for turning a blind eye to theft.
The very institutions created to provide a check on executive abuse of public funds has joined in this anarchical grabbing of public resources. Thus factions (call them clans) have assembled around public resources. What we are seeing in public office in Uganda is largely, not entirely, the entrenchment of politics by theft where loot is the totem.