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Time to save Parliament from descending into a travelling circus

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Mr Nicholas Sengoba

A spokesperson for the embattled Speaker of the 11th Parliament put out a tweet on X to the effect that “Parliament will hold sittings in each of Uganda’s regions, starting with Gulu hosting the first one (sic) after the reading of the national budget, announced Speaker @AnitahAmong.”

   The Speaker, Anita Among, has a noose of travel and financial sanctions around her neck from the United Kingdom. She is accused of corruption stemming from the theft of iron sheets intended for the vulnerable people of Karamoja. 

   Ms Among is among several government officials who benefitted from the iron sheets. She is also allegedly a subject of investigations by the IGG for possible impropriety regarding the declaration of her assets in line with the leadership code. 

Her name appeared prominently on social media in the #UgandaParliamentExhibition spearheaded by activists, Agather Atuhaire and Jim Spire Sentongo, regarding payments in hundreds of millions of shillings for undefined corporate social responsibility activities.

    There was also the Shs1.7 billion given to Parliamentary Commissioners as service awards. Among, using her office as Speaker, stopped MPs from discussing the issues claiming that Parliament would not be forced into that direction by social media.

For all its failures (and they are many), social media is the contemporary voice of the people and can tell the direction and state of their thinking. Ignore it at your own peril.

Interestingly, Among in her wisdom feels that hitting the road will help Parliament appreciate the problems bedeviling common people, firsthand. She also believes people would like to see MPs in flesh and blood and also know what they do, as what is seen on TV may not be enough.

It is a good innovation no doubt. The challenge is the timing. Because of the negative reporting regarding the alleged blatant and imprudent use of public funds plus the rather haughty response from the House, it will be difficult to convince the public that this road show is well intended, except as a public relations gimmick.

    The problem of Uganda even without visiting the provinces is an endemic lack of funds to solve the problems that have been with us for years. 

It has led to a weak state that struggles to deliver social services leading to bad roads, schools, hospitals, and unemployment. The end result is a lack of social justice, insecurity, malnutrition, poor health and sanitation, illiteracy, and poverty. etc. These things the MPs know already, for they are not aliens from Mars. They are the people MPs represent and promise to redeem from their known problems when they get to Parliament. MPs shouldn’t expect anything extraordinary except the issues that form the basis of their discussions on a daily basis. They will find it in abundance when they go to meet the people.

What they never confront without fear is why a country that is well endowed with natural resources and generally hard-working people finds itself wallowing in a sea of poverty with many desperate people living on less than a dollar a day. 

    The answer they know and in many cases MPs like most ruling elites are part of the problem. They even make it worse when they pretend to find solutions. It is corruption and misuse of public funds to benefit a few people at the expense of the many, whom they purport to represent. It is having misplaced priorities, especially for the sake of self-aggrandisement and patronage.

For instance, in this case of holding sittings in the regions, how much money is going to be spent to move 557 MPs around the country? What about the support staff including drivers and security? Then their accommodation, feeding, hotel and other out-of-station allowances?

   This extra humongous expense is for work that they would ordinarily do in the House in Kampala at the normal rate. Now they will earn more from the sweat of the people they are supposed to help with their visits.

Yet we are living in very difficult times. The Minister of Finance, Mr Matia Kasaijja, has warned that the times are going to be economically harder. The economy is struggling to recover from the slowdown caused by the disruptions of the global Covid-19 pandemic. So many people are finding it hard to earn and many businesses are cutting back or have closed completely. This has affected revenue collection. For instance in the Shs72 trillion 2024/2025 budget, Uganda anticipates to collect Shs32 trillion from domestic revenue. You can only expect more businesses to contract or close shop under stress.

Yet because of the Anti-Homosexuality Law Uganda promulgated in 2023, support from donors has decreased and is on a downward trend. 

   The government is cutting back on most non-wage activities and social programmes like health and education are the easiest targets. This means that most of the end-users in public facilities either have to dig deeper in their pockets or fall by the wayside.

Many young people are fleeing the country for greener pastures in the Middle East as maids and blue-collar workers. The crime rate is on the increase as we move into a man-eat-man atmosphere.   We are definitely not living in normal times. It is said that if you act normal in abnormal times then you are not normal. The Parliament of Uganda, in trying to carry out its mandate, is being aloof to the challenges Ugandans are facing.

   It is even worse because they are benefiting from it in what looks like a collegial arrangement which will make the embattled Speaker fonder to her MP at a time when she needs many shoulders to cry on. She needs numbers behind her to look ‘stronger’, especially in the face of threats of investigations from the Executive.

    That is why her ‘innovation’ at the end of the day solves nothing but simply enriches her charges because there is nothing new the MPs will learn in these sittings, but have fatter pockets.

It is not too late to salvage whatever remains of the 11th Parliament before it descends into a costly travelling circus that brings pain and not pleasure to those for whom it is showing.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues

Twitter: @nsengoba