Makerere students looting chicken drumsticks are learning from MPs
Posted Thursday, February 21 2013 at 02:00
It is we who elect these ‘honourable’ members; in a way they represent the sum-total of our hopes and aspirations. Like them, we are more interested in discussing poison plots than public-private partnership policies.
Imagine, for a moment, that you have a job in which you work for nine months a year, tops, and get medical insurance, $50,000 to buy a new car, business class flights all over the world at the drop of a hat, and an annual salary of at least $60,000.
Now imagine, also, that the job does not require you to carry out open-heart surgery, drill a mine, develop algorithms or fight through enemy lines. In fact, imagine that the job does not require much in the way of qualifications; an A-level certificate, a silver tongue, and enough gullible peasants will do.
And if the job itself often involves just sitting around and dozing off your hearty lunch, or shooting off your mouth and wagging a finger here and there, I would imagine it is one you would love to do, right?
As it turns out, there is actually such a job. It is called being a Member of Parliament in the Republic of Uganda. It also comes with the venerable – if loosely used – title of “honourable”.
On Wednesday the Daily Monitor published a front-page photograph showing a near-empty chamber of Parliament. It almost brought tears to the eye.
The photo shows 29 people in the chamber, including the Speaker and parliamentary officials, during a Plenary session. Yet there are 375 MPs in the House.
Here is what happened: Some 248 MPs did turn up at Parliament on the day and signed the attendance sheet. Then about 200 of them disappeared into their offices or into the dark streets of Kampala.
This is no isolated incident but is, in fact, the way many (but certainly not all!) MPs operate. Some, like the army representatives, never turn up at all, unless there is a controversial matter on which every vote is expected to count.
Part of the problem is the lack of transparency about the conduct of individual MPs in the House: how many meetings and plenary sessions they attend; how many times they contribute to the debate; which foreign trips they make and how they vote on each matter.
An attempt to compile and rank these metrics by former MP and spymaster David Pulkol appears to have died from political asphyxiation. That, though, is a relatively simple problem to cure. What is much harder to deal with is the quality of the debate in the House whenever it happens. The commercialisation and dumbing down of politics has led to the election of the rich and the wisecracks to Parliament at the expense of those with working experience and a nuanced view of the world.
Nothing stops a village from sending a Senior Six student to represent them in Parliament, but one dreads to imagine what kind of village (or, worse, what the alternatives were), let alone the sum of the knowledge that the representative brings to the debate.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the most animated and vocal debates are those concerning simple and primeval issues like bribery allegations, poison plots and conspiracy theories. On the surface it gives an illusion of power and accountability; in reality it is often a drama acted out to the gallery of electing peasants, with little real outcome, save for giving democracy a bad name.
It is easy to point fingers at the MPs or shake our heads at the mediocrity of their (well-paid) methods but to do so is to reflect on our own selves.
It is we who elect these ‘honourable’ members; in a way they represent the sum-total of our hopes and aspirations. Like them, we are more interested in discussing poison plots than public-private partnership policies. Do we, perhaps, expect too much of ourselves or have all the decent people given way to the desperate?
Students at Makerere went on strike over deadlines for tuition payment. They ended up rioting and looting roadside shops and stalls. There was a time Makerere’s student protests were about colonial policies or against militarism and the abuse of the rule of law, such as during the days of Idi Amin. There was a culture of fierce intellectualism among the students that fed ideas and people into the national political arena.
Now student protests have become a cover for criminal activity but it is still being fed – in people and ideas – into the national political arena. The transformation – from student leaders holding intellectual arguments to looting thugs holding chicken drumsticks – is reflected all the way to Parliament and beyond; both loot from citizens.