Saturday June 21 2014

Be respectful enough to stay awake, pay attention

By David F. K. Mpanga

The last couple of weeks saw the delivery of two set piece political speeches that are decreed by the Constitution. The first was the State-of-the-Nation address, which Article 101 of the Constitution provides that the President must deliver to Parliament on the first day of every annual Parliamentary session. The second was the Budget speech, which Article 155 decrees must be prepared and presented to Parliament by or on behalf of the President at least 15 days before the commencement of each financial year.

These are very important speeches not just because they are provided for in the Constitution, but also owing to the fact that they set the policy and fiscal agenda for the following year. In the State-of-the-Nation, the President outlines the achievements of the past year and sets out the Executive’s policy objectives for the coming year. In the Budget, we get accountability for the past year, as well as an estimate of revenues and expenditure for the year ahead.

The speeches are presented to Parliament because that is where our elected representatives sit to deliberate upon and pass legislation on our behalf, as well as to scrutinise and hold the Executive accountable to its promises and standards of good governance. If there are two speeches that all our elected representatives must attend and take copious notes of it is these two speeches.

If there are debates that must be informed by constituents’ views, then I would argue that it is the debates of the two speeches that follow in the new parliamentary session.
Yet if you were a foreigner who landed in Uganda in the last week and attended the two speeches as well as read about them and watched the electronic media coverage of the same, you most likely would not form the impression that anything serious was going on in Parliament that day.

Apart from the changed venue – Parliament Building can no longer comfortably accommodate all of the Members of Parliament – and enhanced security and pomp that accompanies the attendance of the President, nothing portrays the seriousness of the two occasions. Media coverage of the events has become stilted and clichéd and you would be forgiven if you could not tell one year from another. Instead of qualitative analysis, we tend to get the same knee-jerk reactions from the same self-styled experts and no follow through from the year before or any adequate study of underlying trends.

But the one thing that the media has done very well is show us just what our elected representatives get up to on the days that these speeches are delivered. They turn up in good numbers, which is good, and they sleep. Wherever the camera turns, you see nothing but politicians sleeping or struggling to stay awake. When they are awake, the Opposition have started a practice of heckling the President during the address and staging walkouts because of perceived slights contained in the his speech.

A nation can only be as serious as it takes itself. You cannot take hecklers or a sleeping lot seriously. The footage of such a spectacle invites laughter and, eventually contempt. The contempt, in turn breeds, cynicism and resentment, which are inimical to legitimacy of State institutions. Eventually, the State is weakened and collapses easily because its institutions fail to command the natural love and respect of the population. That is why oppressive states make the bringing of a state and its leaders into contempt a criminal offence. Having failed to get natural love and respect of the people, like a jealous husband, they try to forbid the population from laughing at them.

Part of the solution lies in the writing of shorter speeches in more accessible language and delivering them in the morning when members are still fresh. However, MPs must also endeavour to pay respectful attention and to stay awake. twitter @dfkm1970