Before they get down to the task of making laws, representing constituents, and overseeing the functioning of the Executive, members of the new Parliament, the Ninth, spent this week in induction. Scholars, technocrats, former MPs all addressed them.
Separation of powers was a key point that the speakers made. That suggests a strong feeling that the Eighth Parliament did not acquit itself well on that front. Some speakers said if Parliament cannot rein in the Executive, Uganda could as well do without MPs. The NRM Caucus, which is made up of ruling party MPs, whose majority in Parliament is overwhelming, is central to redeeming the image of the institution.
The 7thParliament operated under the no-party Movement system although those who supported and those who opposed President Museveni and his government openly identified themselves. It was a multiparty Parliament in all but name. It is also the Parliament that forever defaced its image when most of its members ‘ate’ a bribe of Shs5 million each to remove presidential term limits.
The Eighth operated under an obvious multiparty system, but continued from where the Seventh left off. Despite heavy protests from the few opposition members, the 8th Parliament voted to exonerate ministers named in corruption scandals. It voted for everything President Museveni wanted – whether it was a large supplementary budget in the middle of the general election campaign, retroactively endorsing the raid on forex reserves to buy Sukhoi jets, or passing the Bill on cultural and traditional leaders. The votes were secured in late night meetings of the NRM Caucus where Mr Museveni browbeat members.
Parties are free to caucus. What is strange about the NRM parliamentary group is its members’ utter unwillingness to push back at Mr Museveni. He summons them and they go running only to get lectured and ordered about.
Parliamentary committees investigate corruption cases against ministers, and the President flatly declares that there is no evidence, that his ministers are being targeted for selfish political ends. And the Caucus MPs lap that up and go and vote to clear the ministers as in the Temangalo and Chogm cases.
The ruling party MPs are so spineless they cannot tell Mr Museveni that he has no business speaking to the motives of those who are accusing his ministers of corruption. They cannot tell him to back off and let the CID and the DPP or the IGG do their investigative work. That he has no competence to assess the quality of the evidence. That all he should do is ask his ministers to step aside until the investigative agencies have done their work and either cleared or prosecuted them. That he should focus on political, not criminal responsibility.
The new NRM Caucus in the new Parliament must take seriously the question of separation of powers. They must not indulge Mr Museveni’s appetite to further dilute the Constitution by denying bail to certain types of offenders, including so-called economic saboteurs (meaning political protesters).
Surely, amongst the hundreds of NRM MPs, there must be a number – beyond Ssekikubo and couple of others – who are ready and willing to do something big for Uganda. They should step forward. Small-mindedness to save a parliamentary career is not worth a mega screw-up of the Constitution.
If the Caucus must defend thieving ministers, let’s say for argument’s sake, it should surely also do a little more on “non-controversial issues”, which could win opposition support, such as demanding and suggesting ways through which the government could improve the quality of UPE and USE. Such a cause would burnish the public image of the Caucus.
A report released by the Uwezo East African regional initiative found, amongst other things, that 98 per cent of children among all P3 pupils sampled could not read and understand a story text of P2 level difficulty, and 80 per cent could not solve at least two numerical written division sums of P2 level difficulty correctly.
Asked on a radio talk show mid-week what the NRM Caucus did during the 8th Parliament to defend itself against Executive assault, which is by extension an attack on all of Parliament, new Caucus deputy chairman David Bahati said they slashed $50 million from a loan to the Public Service Ministry, and also demanded and got improvements to the Naads programme.
There is nothing new or controversial about MPs slashing the size of a loan or rejecting the loan altogether. As for Naads, the improvements seem to not have amounted to much. On his campaign trail, Mr Museveni received constant complaints from the people about the failings of Naads.
One way of keeping pressure on the Caucus is to conduct an induction-like event annually, at the start of every session. This would allow some, if not all, former speakers at the induction a chance to return and assess whether the MPs are on course in doing their job.
Mr Tabaire is a media trainer and consultant with the African Centre for Media Excellence