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Do we still need youth,workers and army MPs?

By Gaaki Kigambo

They have forgotten the people they came to represent and they are no longer championing their interests, rights and freedoms; they are not protecting them and therefore they have become of no consequence (other than) to colour the house

As the African Leadership Institute (AFLI) plans to roll out workshops in up to 160 selected constituencies across the country to further disseminate the Parliamentary Scorecard, one of the areas set to come under increasing scrutiny is the relevance of the continued representation of special interests groups in Parliament.

There are five such groups currently represented; Women, Youth, Workers, Persons with Disabilities, and the Army.  Two of these groups have already tasted some scrutiny. The Inter-Party Coalition (IPC), which brings together opposition political parties, has demanded Parliament abolishes army representation in the House to make it non-partisan and subordinate to civilian authority.

In its last issue, The Independent highlighted how women representatives, who occupy 101 out of 333 seats in Parliament, had not only performed worse than men but also how there was no evidence to show that they were pushing through issues unique to women. Critics of women representatives have been quick to point out the Domestic Relations Bill which continues to gather dust on parliamentary shelves.Â

The scorecard is by far the most comprehensive tool that exists to assess the performance of members of Parliament. This year’s is the second AFLI has published and it generally indicts the majority MPs for dismal performance. The MPs of both the ruling NRM and opposition parties have in turn unanimously expressed strong disagreement with it, disproving the criteria it uses to assess their performance in the House. Â

David Pulkol, the managing director of AFLI, says the relevance of these special interests groups is a debate the country must engage itself in. He adds to this ministers who double as MPs but are always absent in Parliament making the front bench perpetually empty. “Should ministers still be drawn from Parliament or should they be drawn outside Parliament so that if you are appointed minister then maybe you resign your seat so that someone else comes and represents the people in Parliament and you concentrate on ministerial duties?”

The constitution in Article 78 (2) stipulates that ten years after the commencement of the constitution and every five years after that, Parliament shall review the representation of these groups “for the purposes of retaining, increasing or abolishing any such representation and any other matter incidental to it.” While the constitution doesn’t state the criteria under which this review shall be done, in January 2006 Parliament voted to retain special interest groups’ representatives in the house. This vote had previously failed to pass three times because parliament couldn’t raise the required two-thirds majority, or 196 MPs, until the MPs passed the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2006, which scrapped the requirement for two-thirds of MPs in favour of a simple majority.

Special interest groups have representation in parliament on the assumption that they face unique problems which other ‘mainstream’ MPs might not be as much interested in pursuing. In a way then, they hold seats in Parliament primarily to promote and argue the interests of their groups. Regardless of changing the rules of procedure, their dismal performance in pushing these interests is returning the spotlight on them.  Take the army for instance. All but three representatives scored Grade F in their plenary and committee performance. Even of the three, Chief of Defence Forces Gen. Aronda Nyakairima not only missed all plenary sessions, he scored Grade E in committee performance. His colleague Kyomugisha Grace Kashaija Ikiriza scored a similar grade in a similar assessment. The army has up to four of the worst performing MPs in the house.

Workers’ representatives largely wallow in Grade E, just one score away from where the army representatives are, even if one of them, Ssentongo Nabulya Theopista, has an odd Grade A in committee performance. The representatives of youth and persons with disabilities fair better in comparison with the army and workers representatives but even then they are largely Grade D and Grade C performers respectively.

Interestingly, none of the special representatives asked a single question in all the 80 sittings in the 2007-08 sessions. None made even five statements. According to the rules of procedure, members of Parliament can make statements regarding any issue of urgent public importance or any matter of importance to their constituency. Of all the committee reports presented in Parliament over the 2007-08 period, not a single one was presented by a representative of the special interest groups. At least 29 bills were initiated and concluded during the 2007-08 session, and none was presented by a representative of a special interest group. What’s more, none of them raised more than four points of order, or had the same number brought against them.Â

Just like women representatives, none of these other representatives have any tangible results to show about an issue unique to their groups that they have pushed through Parliament. The effect of their presence now compared to when they were not in Parliament is the same.

These legislators, says Pulkol, have not even utilised the Question Period every Thursday to be heard to be championing the interests, rights and freedoms of their different sections of society that they represent. “You mean they [special interest groups’ representatives] couldn’t even for a whole year get anything about their interest groups to pause to any single minister and seek answers?

None of these MPs even moved a petition, which is another golden opportunity to put one’s voice out on an issue. “A petition is in the words of your own constituency, you are not supposed to alter anything, you just come and read it as it is. You mean these interest groups cannot even organise their constituencies to petition Parliament on any single thing? You can understand if they don’t move any bill, didn’t alter anything in the budget but sincerely a petition? How about a motion? How about a Private Members Bill? These are tools that are available to MPs to champion the interests and rights of their own people,” noted Pulkol.

“What is in this Parliament that makes a youth MP [for instance] fail to perform as good as other MPs?…What is the thing that is preventing MPs of interest groups from being among the top ten performers on any measure?…Is it that they just get into the comfort zone  and forget the constituencies they came to represent? Is it that they are busy fixing their own things they have got a God-given chance and therefore they are eternally grateful and they are just mesmerised and become spectators?”

While Wafula Oguttu, the spokesperson for the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), says representatives of persons with disabilities have played some role advocating against marginalisation of people with disabilities, special representatives are good votes for the incumbent. Indeed, President Yoweri Museveni is on record for saying he did not care if MPs slept in Parliament for as long as they woke up at the right time to vote – for government’s position. As a result, special interest groups are largely a showcase that Uganda’s Parliament is so diverse and so all-inclusive but the outcomes of that Parliament in terms of legislation, budget allocation, policies, and protection of all segments of society are anything but all-inclusive. Â

“The challenge here is that when the interests of those in the executive move on the same axis with the interests of the MPs then the ordinary citizen will lose out and that really is the scenario which has occurred with some of these MPs. They have forgotten the people they came to represent and they are no longer championing their interests, rights and freedoms, they are not protecting them and therefore they have become of no consequence [other than] to colour the house, remarked Pulkol.

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