Tuesday July 22 2014

Uganda’s Parliament: Offspring of a snake is always a snake

By Nicholas Sengoba

There is a raging debate about how members of the 9th Parliament have let Uganda down. That the quality of debate in Parliament is so low mainly because of the poor quality of the more than 380 Members of Parliament (MPs), many of whom do not or cannot research.

So what did we expect? There is a great Kiswahili saying that goes: “Mutoto wa nyoka ni nyoka” (the offspring of a snake is always a snake.) In English, it is what you sow is what you reap. The lamentations of how lousy this Parliament has become says something about our opportunism and lack of seriousness as a people. We expect a snake to give birth to a cow or plant potatoes and wait to harvest coffee.

President Museveni has always advised ‘his’ voters not to vote for MPs who will give him headache but ‘send him’ those who sleep through debates and wake up to vote for what is ‘right’. And this Parliament has many of those. The other category includes the ones who buy their way. They mortgage their property then proceed to buy the voter alcohol, soap and other petty things in exchange for their vote. Then there is the group that cheats its way using security operatives and other crooked means to get to Parliament.

At every one stage, Ugandans play a part in encouraging these people go get to Parliament. The one who takes the President seriously or the one who accepts a morsel are obvious culprits on whom we should not waste much time. We should interest ourselves in the apolitical group. The ones who claim they do not like politics and want to stay away from that ‘dirty game’. These are usually the urban types; the pretentious middle class who leave matters in the hands of peasants and other unscrupulous people while they listen to jazz music. The entire electoral process is then inundated by peasants, cheats and rent seekers as we wait for quality debates and serious parliamentary output.

The Executive, with full knowledge of who goes and how they make it to Parliament, then makes its move. It approaches the House with disdain and despises MPs. It is difficult to count the number of times State House has asked Parliament to ‘approve’ supplementary budgets of money already spent without approval of Parliament. Or the number of times the Bank of Uganda has paid out huge sums of taxpayers’ money from the Consolidated Fund without going through Parliament.

We also have uncountable experiences of the Executive or those with ‘orders from above’, disregarding parliamentary directives or resolutions. We finally fail to have the understanding that Parliament is very serious and sacred place to legislate the laws of the land. It takes on the picture of a group of unserious people occasionally chest-thumping and dramatising matters with no consequence.

The Executive then skews the way many view MPs by claiming that their roads and bridges are in poor condition because the MP is bad yet that is the responsibility of the government which collects taxpayers money. The MPs are then under pressure to deliver roads, pay school fees, wedding and funeral expenses from their pockets.

So what will research add to this arrangement apart from sweet quotations from Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Martin Luther King Jr. many of which do not build roads and pay school fees for voters?
What we have ended up with is a process that happens in a business cycle. The politician who mortgages his property spends the five years in the House trying to recover his deposit and making a profit on top of it, which is only fair.

If that means taking money from the Executive to amend the Constitution to lift term limits, it happens. If it requires feeding off utility companies to defend their unfavourable deal in the House, so be it. If the heat is unbearable and the MP has to spend three quarters of his time hiding from money lenders hovering around Parliament, then absenteeism is normal.

Let us suffer fools gladly, and then we shall know that we have arrived.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. nicholassengoba@yahoo.com