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Worst Parliament ever

By Flavia Nassaka

After an impressive start in 2011, the 9th parliament risks ending badly in 2016

Legislators are away in the constituencies campaigning in elections that have been set for February 18, 2016. Many of the MPs will not be in parliament when the new one is inaugurated in May 2016. Therefore, now appears to be a good time to examine whether the outgoing 9th parliament has lived up to the expectations of voters.

Job Kijja of the NGO Forum, a consortium of civil society organisations, told The Independent that in 2010 ahead of the 2011 elections, over 400 aspirants for parliament from different political parties signed leaders’ commitment forms, committing to implement the demands as well as deliver as per citizens’ expectations in the Citizens Manifesto. Some of these were elected to the 9th parliament. “Even though such commitments were made, the last four years have seen a large discrepancy between acclaimed actions, actual results and citizens’ satisfaction.”

To him, parliament’s main challenge, like in the other public obligations, has been with the management and implementation of the amended bills and planned activities.

The Parliament Watch Bulletin Midterm audit report published by the Uganda Governance Monitoring Group (UGMP) last year noted that several MPs demonstrated ignorance and either made meaningless contributions or desisted from participating in debate in parliament.  It also noted that the levels of absenteeism by legislators were high, leading to parliament lagging behind on its targets.

A good start

In the early days of the 9th parliament, the media was awash with stories about the good performance of the August House. In the first session alone, the 9th parliament was able to pass up to 11 bills and adopted 23 bills that were not concluded by the 8th parliament.  Some of the controversial bills passed include the Petroleum Exploration, Development and Production Act 2013, The Petroleum Refining, Gas processing and Conversion, Transportation and Storage Act 2013, Anti -Money Laundering Act 2013, Registration of Persons Act 2015, Public Order Management Act 2013, The Public Finance Management Act 2015, Anti-Pornography Act 2014, HIV Prevention and Control Act 2014 and the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 which has since been annulled by court.

In addition to the bills, the legislators put the executive, including President Yoweri Museveni, on spot when discussing the controversial death of Cerinah Nebanda, a young outspoken Woman MP for Butaleja District who was alleged to have died of poisoning.  When allegations that some cabinet ministers had taken bribes from oil companies emerged, they became another point of heated debate. Then-prime minister John Patrick Amama Mbabazi was put on spot. There was also the late Aronda Nyakairima appointment saga where MPs attempted to block the serving soldier from taking public office without quitting the army and the dubious compensation of $65 million to Hassan Basajjabalaba who was the head of the NRM Entrepreneurs’ League and very close to President Museveni.    Amidst all this parliament show of force, the MPs censured minister for Presidency Kabakumba Matsiko for misappropriation of equipment belonging to the national broadcaster, the Uganda Broadcasting Service (UBC) and then-Finance Minister , Syda Bbumba and Kiddu Makubuya, then- Minister for General Duties in the office of the prime minister were asked to resign in 2012 after a parliamentary investigation found that they engaged in an over Shs169 billion corruption scandal involving Basajjabalaba who had won tenders to develop different areas in Kampala. According to the Parliament Watch Bulletin report, a citizen –assessment of the first year of the 9th parliament by UGMP, parliament was rated high in terms of legislation and oversight. It scored 60%.  The MPs also performed relatively well in the second session when they forced government to make considerable adjustments to the budgets of the critical sectors of education, agriculture and health.

Such pressure which the 9th parliament initially exerted on civil servants and executives found them always clashing with government. This gave the legislators clout among the voters. But it was not for long.

Soon after censuring ministers over allegations of corruption, the legislators themselves started pointing fingers at each other. Some MPs were accused of asking for bribes from those they were investigating. In return, they promised them softer handling in committees.

Disappointed voters

Sarah Bulya, a secondary school teacher in Kampala, recalls how excited she was when voting in 2011. Her main hope was that the 9th parliament would finally pass the Marriage and Divorce Bill. She says it is a pity, the term of the MP she elected is ending with the bill still gathering dust on the shelves of parliament.

Bulya says the parliament that was quite promising at the beginning floundered along the way. “It lost it all when it was reduced to a National Resistance Movement (NRM) party caucus taking advantage of the numbers they have in parliament,” she says.

Eunice Musiime, the Executive Director at AkinaMaamawa Africa, a women’s NGO, also says the making parliamentary decisions in party caucuses affected parliament’s ability to carry out its oversight role and passing of laws.  “Caucusing has not only crippled objective debate but also as a result led to bad laws sailing through parliament,” says Musiime who previously headed the NGO forum, a consortium of civil society organisations and is very knowledgeable on the issues. Musiime says unlike the previous parliaments, the 9th parliament has had a bigger budget and many committees. But even with both the human and other resources at their disposal, they spend most of time discussing random matters they deemed important even when they were not on the Order Paper. She says they forfeited working on their cardinal roles of passing bills and doing committee work.

As their term ends, many committees; especially the three accountability ones of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Commissions Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (COSASE) and Local Government Accounts committee, are chocking on backlog.

Some members of the public have also taken to protesting against the performance of parliament. When a group of youth activists – the Jobless Brotherhood, felt dissatisfied with government, they resorted to dropping piglets at parliament in protest.

Although the piglets were initially doused in the yellow colour of the ruling party, in the last protest, they bore motley hues to represent the multicolor political composition of parliament. The piglets also bore a note with a message to the leadership that they would initiate a period of civil disobedience in response to the failure of parliamentarians to pass electoral reforms.

David Pulkol, a former MP turned political commentator is equally unimpressed.

“People who elected the 9th parliament hoped it would improve on people’s rights and freedoms. Unfortunately that has not happened. Instead they are accused of asking for bribes,” he says.

He adds that MPs have gone ahead to pass anti-people laws like the Public Order Management Act whose passage and intentions are currently being challenged in the Constitutional Court on whether it respects integrity and human rights. That is a view many people have expressed.

So when on July 27, Gen. Moses Ali, the Third Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Leader of Government Business in parliament presented to the House the legislative programme for the parliament’s last session  for financial year 2015/2016, expectation were low. In the programme, Ali presented 26 bills, two regulations, three motions, and two policies.

In the end, only the Constitution Amendment Bill 2015 and the bills for the amendment of electoral laws – Presidential Elections Amendment Bill, Parliamentary Elections Amendment Bill, and Electoral Commission Amendment Bill have been passed so far.  But even the passing of these few bills was always postponed because of lack of quorum.

In this, the 9th parliament was following the norm.  Such lackluster performances have come to define the 4th and 5th sessions of parliament. The Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, who is one of the longest serving MPs puts it down to the legislators tendency to focus less on doing parliamentary work and more on how to get back to parliament in the last two sessions.

But Musiime blames it on the caucusing. MPs were exposed in August during the passing of what came to be known as the Electoral Reforms Bill. The MPs overwhelmingly voted in favour without respecting any input from those who opposed it.

To many, some of the proposals to the Parliamentary and Legal Affairs Committee by the opposition were legitimate.  They included a proposal to overhaul the current Electoral Commission and also safeguard the election from influence by the ruling government.  So how does the 9th parliament compare with previous ones in performance?

Worst performance ever

Parliamentary Commission statistics show that 93 bills were passed by the 8th parliament, 105 by the 7th and the 9th parliament which is currently in its 5th session had passed 57 bills by the end of the Forth session. Up to 25 of these were passed in the 4th session alone, possibly in a fit to catch-up on lost business.

To Sabiiti Makara, a political science professor at Makerere University, parliament was last assertive during the “No-party days” – from 1996 to 2005. After that, with the inception of multiparty politics, parliament started getting a negative image, Makara says.

“Parliament has been sinking. The 8th parliament just watched as officials engaged in dubious procurement deals ahead of the CHOGM summit in 2007. And when NRM started enforcing discipline in the 9th parliament by expelling those who criticized the ills of government, members stopped talking,” he says. According to him, the executive seems to have taken over parliament.

“The executive has a stronger hand in parliamentary affairs than parliament itself,” he says.

But Kampala City Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago who was a member of the 8th parliament sees no major differences between the two parliaments.

“During the first and second years of the 9th August House Speaker Kadaga tried to exert her authority and the independence of parliament unlike her predecessor Edward Ssekandi who succumbed to the towering executive. But she has since dwindled and today there is no difference between it and the 8th August House”

But Lands Minister Daudi Migereko, who is also the MP for Butembe County in Jinja district, says parliament is too big for meaningful business to be conducted.

The 9th parliament has had 386 members up from 333 that constituted the eighth parliament. Of the 386, 120 were new legislators who defeated the incumbents or won vacant seats after their occupants retired.

Migereko who has been in parliament since 1996  says even when one has done research they cannot present an intelligent contribution because of the time constraint a thing he says has greatly reduced the quality of debate in the house making the 9th parliament a poor performer.

“The big size of parliament today compared to the 6th, 7th and 8th parliament is enough to tell it all. While in the 6th parliament we were given 45 minutes to present, in the 9th parliament one is given between 3-5 minutes only” he says.

Unfortunately, with the recently created constituencies, the number of MPs in the next parliament will increase from 386 to 425. Makara predicts the next parliament will be worse, not least because it will have more youthful MPs, who to him are “terrible opportunists who will do anything for money”.

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