When you sit in the House of Commons — the mother of parliamentary democracy, one thing catches your eye: The patriotism from both sides of the House. Even when there is a disagreement, a political fight is a little more than a mildly-worded argument - but in China, it’s always more akin to a brawling contest.
In the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, this kind of misbehaviour is not peculiar.
In September, members ripped microphones and almost punched their speaker after the government attempted to push through a contentious Bill that seeks to reserve 33 per cent of legislative seats for women.
Animated scenes swamped the house as members opposing the Bill tore up the document and hurled the shreds at the Speaker in full view of the nation.
In Taiwan, a politician tried to eat the draft of new law to stop a vote on it, while in June 2007, the leader of the ruling party was slapped in the face by an opposition party member who took exception to her address.
These are some of the sad tales from confused parliaments. Unfortunately, our Parliament, on Tuesday, nearly booked a place among such nonsensical institutions.
While the naughtiness of our legislators has not yet deteriorated to the level of the madness in India and Taiwan, the image of our Parliament took another beating when legislators from both sides nearly exchanged punches over Clause 9 of The Petroleum (Exploration, Development and Production) Bill, 2012.
Under this clause, the minister wants unlimited powers to grant and revoke licences, negotiate and endorse petroleum agreements. This is what is provided for in the 1985 Petroleum Act of Milton Obote.
But for fear that by giving such powers to the minister, the country would be risking too much, both sides of the House agreed that such powers be clipped in public interest.
This angered the President, who controls the majority in the House and he thus asked his “troops” to go back to Parliament and summersault on what had already been decided.
In the process of pushing through “the government interests” and protecting the integrity of the House, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga found herself trapped between a rock and hard place. The upshot is the crisis we had seen.
It was not by accident that the members behaved in a rogue manner. We have seen the writing on the wall and the assumption was that a terrible misfortune was about to happen in the House.
But this jungle behaviour of our members should be clearly understood from the governance angle.
What we saw in Parliament on Tuesday was a remonstration against “presidentialism”, a creeping disease that is eating into the fabric that once held our institutions intact. This is why things in Parliament are falling apart. Our Parliament is no longer independent and the “impartiality” of the Speaker is under attack.
In an attempt to distinguish between government and opposition members in making decisions, people have lit fires they cannot extinguish.
This is very dangerous.
While Ms Kadaga’s hands were politically tied, she failed to grasp the politics in the government motion that sought to tinker with what members had decided in presence of the official opposition in the House.
Before asking the “voting machines” to say aye, she had an opportunity to consult widely, given the nature of the Bill. This was not done.
The voting machines ganged up with “chameleons” and pushed through the motion.
After realising that the mob was about to tempt the minister with unlimited powers, some members walked out in protest. The voting could not take place because there was no quorum. After ringing the bell in vain, Ms Kadaga was forced to adjourn the House to Tuesday.
On this dark Tuesday, Ugandans who came to Parliament to witness how the political chameleons would hammer out a conspiracy to muddle what had been sealed in public interest endured rigorous security checks and others were turned away by mean-looking anti-riot police officers. From the on-set, the day looked strange for many.
When the government attempted to push through a vote on a key motion, MPs led by Theodore Ssekikubo (Lwemiyaga) reminded Ms Kadaga that the government motion had collapsed with lack of quorum.
Then, the commotion broke out. Members stood up and started chanting anti-voting slogans— “We won’t vote! We won’t vote!”, provoking equally loud retorts from front benchers: “We will vote! We will vote!” By this time, Ms Kadaga had lost control and left the House.
The next day, she came with a hardnosed statement, condemning the chaos in the House and instructing the Rules Committee to find the culprits and report them to the House for disciplinary action.
In trying to find solutions to the crisis in Parliament, let it be clearly understood that given the heavy responsibility bestowed on the Speaker to ensure fair debate in the Chamber, the post is vested with adequate powers to ensure this. In that regard, the House, too, has to assist the Speaker in carrying out these functions and MPs are required to adhere to the rules of the game.
While I appreciate the mystifying situation the Speaker finds herself in at the moment, by attempting to discipline members she is opening a can of precarious worms.
First, the Fox Odoi Committee cannot complete the task by tomorrow. Secondly, in the process of finding the culprits, Ms Kadaga risks being misjudged by nit-pickers that she is attempting to play politics — helping the government to get rid of unfriendly forces who had stood in the President’s way.
Thirdly, it’s difficult to have dialogue on the contentious issues in the proposed oil law and at the same time appear before the Rules Committee.
This explains why the talks between the Executive and the backbenchers have failed to take off.
My prayer is that the scuffle in Parliament and the drama expected in the Rules Committee should not divert us from the core issues in the proposed oil law.
The government side and the Speaker need to understand that the corruption in government we see today, makes it hard for Ugandans to trust the minister with such unlimited powers in the management of oil revenue. This is the dilemma.