Has Parliament crossed the Rubicon?

Sunday October 16 2011

By Yasiin Mugerwa

Parliament wakes up. There is no turning back. The Rubicon has been crossed. The Prime Minister, Mr Amama Mbabazi, Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa and Internal Affairs Minister Hilary Onek have been ordered to step aside in public interest.

Of late, the public has been sending cheering messages to Speaker Rebecca Kadaga and the lawmakers for accepting to “ride the tiger”. As one of the dedicated readers of this column put it this week, the public opinion suggests that the once-docile and spineless Parliament has crossed the Rubicon — a point of no return in the fight against corruption.

On whether this Parliament has crossed the Rubicon, I am yet to be swayed to gamble on that, but, if the two-day oil debate is to be imitated in the belt-tightening years ahead; then, it’s obvious that “the die is cast”. The latest developments in Parliament mean that the public interest is slowly but surely winning. This is why, our lawmakers cannot afford to retreat or surrender. Although a handful of cowardly MPs might not be ready to hold onto the tiger’s back, in this new war against corruption, by raising the bar in the oil debate, an irrevocable choice has been made.

After decades of indifference to the fight against corruption, who could not empathise with the wanachi who feel their cries for help have fallen on deaf ears? Corruption is a song these days, used by both adults and children, because it is found in every aspect of Uganda. To the extent that people no longer frown or feel ashamed to engage in corrupt practices.

Government officials corruptly enrich themselves by stealing taxpayers’ money and force citizens to pay bribes. The situation is getting dire. Because of corruption, the President says the country is now “full of thieves”. We are losing in excess of Shs500 billion annually to corruption yet malaria kills 320 people every day. But this time, Parliament is ready to bite. For some of us who monitor Parliament, the oil debate was incomparable in many ways.

Exciting debate ever
We never thought we would live to see an exciting debate like the one on oil. It was strange to see Ugandans glued to their TV sets eager to follow what was happening in Parliament. In a rare show of unity, MPs dumped their political inclinations in support of national interests. Those who followed the debate, you might have noticed that it was not business as usual. For instance, who thought a one-party dominated Parliament would compel ministers to step aside? Who thought NRM MPs would heckle their leaders including the First Lady. In fact for the First Lady, things became tough for her and she had to be forced to withdraw some comments the lawmakers deemed unfair.

For Vice President Edward Ssekandi, it was apparent that he was being haunted by the ghosts of the Chogm report he “killed” in full public glare. He was accused by Ms Alice Alaso and other members of killing the Chogm report and attempting to dupe the House that the evidence implicating ministers in oil bribery scandals was a forgery. In an infuriated response, the Vice President shouted back “You cannot intimidate Ssekandi”.

At this point, things on the front bench had evidently fallen apart. A few minutes later, NRM MPs led by Cerina Nibanda and Barnabas Tinkasiimire began shouting at their leaders on the floor, calling them “corrupt” and “shameless”. All these events in the House mean one thing: Parliament has recovered its teeth.

Well, whether it’s too early for Ugandans to praise the 9th Parliament, the understanding after the oil debate is that there should be no turning back on issues of public concern. There is no turning back. The Rubicon has been crossed, at least for now. The failure by the previous parliaments to confront the Executive on issues of corruption that has bedeviled our country, compelled members of the 9th Parliament to stand up to the front-benchers and inked their names in the books of history as having championed the restoration of the dignity of the legislature.

Like crusaders heading off to pagan lands to fight the infidels, this week, the 9th Parliament under the judicious leadership of Ms Kadaga, put a “big smile” on faces of many Ugandans as they embarked on an all-out battle against the heinous evil of corruption in government. After a two-day tumultuous debate on massive corruption in the oil sector, the lawmakers passed a bipartisan motion—forcing three cabinet ministers including Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, a close member of President Museveni’s inner circle to step aside in public interest or be forced out through a censure motion.

While Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa and other two ministers (John Nasasira and Mwesigwa Rukutana) have already stepped aside over alleged involvement in Chogm scandals, Mr Mbabazi and Internal Affairs Minister Hilary Onek are still adamant.

But the lawmakers are not yet done; they have vowed to invoke Article 118 of the Constitution to have them censured. In fact, information from the corridors of Parliament indicates that the censure process (collecting signatures) has already begun. Just watch this space.

Parliament, long a fortification of dysfunction and docility has emerged as a robust check on President Museveni’s suspected ministers, giving the people of Uganda an unlikely ally as it tries to plead with the President to clean the Executive before it’s too late. Until now, Parliament was more notorious than influential, rarely challenging the president and gaining notice only for its unorthodox legislation. Although the Eighth Parliament had the opportunity to deal with ministers who abused more than Shs500 billion in Chogm funds, they feared to ride the tiger.

As politics played out, those from the NRM party connived with the Executive —using their numerical strength to absolve suspects without even reading the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee report. This was shameful. In fact, because of his failure to deal with corruption, Mr Ssekandi faced tortuous time on the floor in trying to explain why he helped corrupt Chogm ministers to escape justice. But his successor, Ms Kadaga, has proved to Mr Ssekandi that she is ready to deal with the monster.

In a bipartisan approach to issues affecting Uganda today, the oil debate in many ways redeemed the institution of Parliament. Democracy is like an ecosystem. Its survival is reliant on many things: an independent judiciary, a vibrant Parliament and a responsive government.

Beyond this, democracy needs a vigilant, proactive civil society, engaged voters and a free media: three elements that ensure government is held accountable for its actions, transparent about what it does and goaded into serving the best of interests of the people – not of those in power.

If it is true that courage is what it takes to stand up and speak out, then, in this column we pay tribute to MPs who chose to put country first. And as for the lead petitioners, Theodore Ssekikubo (Lwemiyaga) and Abdul Katuntu (Bugweri), you gave credibility to these words of wisdom from Martin Luther King Jr, who said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”