Sunday November 17 2013

Parliament Watch: Tales of lazy legislators and stalled GMO Bill

Parliament Watch: Tales of lazy legislators and stalled GMO Bill

Legislators attend a recent parliamentary session. Speaker Rebecca Kadaga last week ordered all Committees of Parliament (Standing and Sessional) to give accountability to the nation, focusing on what they have accomplished since May 2011. File Photo. 

By Yasiin Mugerwa

It wasn’t just cowardice that sunk the 7th and 8th parliaments. It was the cocktail of the lack of accountability, impenitence in the face of impunity and the cliché: “Do as I say, not as I do” and “Do as I say although I have never done it”. This sounds like hypocrisy.

The “do as I say (not as I do)” boorish response to serious matters of national significance, the not-so-subtle message from Parliament is central to the duplicity in the fight against corruption, particularly in how our lawmakers normally interact with the technocrats. And this is the reason why 9th Parliament, initially seen as a harbinger of hope, is increasingly winking in the dark.

The unscrupulous conduct of some lawmakers in the 9th Parliament tells the story of a cluster of mischievous politicians who have mastered the art of playing to the gallery; to the extent that such people want to be seen demanding for accountability from the civil servants. Unfortunately, whenever they are called to account, like an ostrich, they simply hide their heads in the sand, forgetting that they are imprudently ignoring their problem, while hoping it will magically vanish.

For instance, for the first time in many years, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga last week ordered all Committees of Parliament (Standing and Sessional) to give accountability to the nation, focusing on what they have accomplished since May 2011. However, it’s despicable that most of the committee chairpersons and members were conspicuously absent. They chose to hide from accountability.

The committee chairpersons who tried to give accountability simply told Parliament how they ensured that all committee members get the opportunity to travel, masquerading on benchmarking trips abroad. Travel abroad has become an income-generating activity for “highly indebted” legislators to the extent that their misdemeanour is beginning to be noticed.

For some committees like the one dealing with the health sector, the chairperson, Dr Kenneth Omona, (Kaberamaido) boldly told the House that some of the petitions before the committee were overtaken by events. It’s unfortunate that because of laziness and something else, the appeals from the electorates were ignored with impunity and the petitioners were not even informed.

Other committees such as the one tasked to investigate the ministers on the accusations that they received bribes from foreign oil companies, chaired by Michael Werikhe (Bungokho South), has for the last three years failed to produce a report to Parliament. Again, if this is not laziness, then it must be something else. However, ludicrous as it seems to be, Mr Werikhe told a House of indifferent members what they wanted to hear; that the “draft report” is now ready.

In the face of the stinking backlog in committees, I have come to understand that “saying it” sounds simple to the mind. But to build a strong Parliament that the voters deserve, it takes serious efforts and cooperation in every member in the House. If our MPs do not focus on the bigger picture; like the 7th and 8th Parliament, we may as well forget the value for money and simply curse and groan.

Boring PMQs
A year ago, under the headline: “The battle that could expose the leaking hearts”, I addressed the need to implement Rule 34 of the Parliament Rules of Procedure, which reads in part, “there shall be time designated as Prime Minister’s Time, commencing at 3pm every Wednesday”. After pulling and pushing, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi agreed to take questions from the members. However, for people who have sat in the House of Commons, you will agree with me that our Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ) session was boring, ludicrous and pathetic.

PMQ form a major part of British political culture and, it is among the most watched parliamentary episodes in the country. It is the most entertaining and sparkling scrap of the week in the House of Commons.

I thought the Prime Minister would face a 30-minute grilling from members of Parliament; with the role of chief cross-examiner falling to the Leader of the Opposition. However, this didn’t happen, instead, a host of uninformed members and an ill-prepared Prime Minister simply stood in what turned out to be like tittle-tattle.

The start was boring but there is always room for improvement. With the help of the Speaker, we can improve our PMQs next Wednesday. For instance, in November last year, I wrote here that that PMQ session should begin with a procedural question, asking the Prime Minister to list his or her engagements for the day. The same way it’s done in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister usually gives a standard answer, but may also take this opportunity to offer congratulations or condolences on any recent significant events. The member who asked the procedural question is then allowed to ask a supplementary question if they wish, which can be on any subject.

After the initial question, the floor is given to the Leader of the Opposition, who is allowed to ask the Prime Minister six questions. This part of PMQs is the most eagerly anticipated and has the greatest depth. Following on from this, the leader of the next largest party in the House is allowed to ask two questions. In our case, the chief whips.

When the Prime Minister is away on official business or ill, the deputy Prime Minister and the deputy Leader of Opposition/ the Opposition Chief Whip in our case, take their place. Most importantly, in all this drama, the Speaker’s neutrality is observed amid the merriment from both sides of the house.

The objective of PMQs is for the Opposition to hold the Prime Minister/the government in power to account on the big issues of the day, so let’s not lose the focus.

GMO bill blocked
Parliament last week blocked the second reading of a new Bill whose object includes providing for development and general release of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Uganda. The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012, provides for a regulatory framework to facilitate safe development and application of biotechnology. The Bill brought to Parliament in February by the Technology Committee chairperson, Mr Dennis Obua, faced a united opposition from across the political divide.

The lawmakers, led by the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Mr Nandala Mafabi, demanded that members be given time to consult their constituents on the relevance of the proposed piece of legislation. Realising the House was united against the proposed Bill, the Speaker gave members one month to consult the voters.

While some researchers have backed the Bill, there are fears from sections of the public that introducing genetically modified products may push the cost of seeds up and compromise quality. Those opposed to GMOs also express fears regarding the viability of seeds after the first harvest.

The researchers are of the view that the Bill, if passed into law, shall provide a regulatory framework to facilitate safe development and application of biotechnology.

ymugerwa@ug.nationmedia.com