The Speaker’s veto

Speaker Anita Among

What you need to know:

  • What came to light was the ease with which parliamentary procedure and the democratic process can be hobbled by a single individual, writes Mary Serumaga.

Last week the country was left aghast by the Speaker of Parliament, Ms Anita Among’s unprecedented veto of a statutory report.  
The long-awaited Uganda Airlines Report, the work of Parliament’s committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (Cosase) was completed and submitted on September 15, 2022. 
The Cosase chairperson, Mr Joel Ssenyonyi, reminded the Speaker at least once that it had not been debated. On January 17 when the report finally appeared on the Order Paper and Mr Ssenyonyi rose to table it, the Speaker took the extraordinary step of announcing that there would be no debate. The reason given was that some of the report’s contents had been leaked to the media and Parliament could not, therefore, debate it.

In the awkward moments that followed, Mr Ssenyonyi attempted to speak but was cut off a number of times by the Speaker who, eyes locked on an indeterminate point to her right, uttered disjointed statements about the culprits on parliamentary staff being under investigation and Cosase being a poorly performing committee that had wasted the resources invested in it. 
She pointed out that of the 107 entities reported on by the Auditor General, Cosase had only scrutinised four reports within the six months allotted. She concluded her rebuke by stating that Cosase had brought shame on Parliament and that its operations were to be investigated. 
Before he could respond, the Speaker instructed Mr Ssenyonyi to move on and present the committee report on the Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra). A stunned Mr Ssenyonyi thanked her for her guidance and vowed to do better, before turning to the Unra report.

What came to light was the ease with which parliamentary procedure and the democratic process can be hobbled by a single individual. After the passing of the budget by Parliament, its implementation by ministries, departments, agencies (MDAs) and local government (LG), the next step is for the Auditor General to ensure the implementation following the Finance Act (the Budget) and that it delivered value for money. The Auditor General’s report to the House is then scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and Cosase, which hold MDAs and Local Governments (LGs) to account before they in their turn report to Parliament.
Ms Among’s veto disrupted that process. It was a unilateral act because it is not backed by any parliamentary rules of procedure – in fact, she did not bother to cite a rule authorising her decision. The Speaker simply has no authority to veto reports on the grounds that they have been leaked. 

Although much is made of experience in Parliament and law degrees, none of the members on the Opposition benches rose to make the point. The chairperson of the PAC (of which Cosase is a division) is a lawyer of long-standing and three-term legislator yet he offered nothing by way of a defence of Parliament’s accountability procedure. 
It was only outside Parliament that the chairperson of Cosase, a first-term legislator, raised the issue on social media. He further pointed out that during her stint as Cosase chairperson, Ms Among had taken a year to deliver the infamous Bank of Uganda Report and had delivered a total of nine during her five-year tenure.

To be fair to the committee, it is overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers. The scrutiny of 107 entities in six months would require it to process four and a half reports a week. Had we remained with the 23 MDAs and 29 districts established during the Civil Service Reform Programme of the 1990s, instead of today’s 110 MDAs and 135 districts, the difficulty would not have arisen.
Recall also that the chief executive officer (CEO) of Uganda Airlines stalled for two weeks until she was compelled to appear before the committee by the threat of arrest. 
Furthermore, the Speaker gave Parliament a month’s recess, reducing the available time to five months. None of this was raised in Parliament in defence of Cosase and the accountability process.

Moving on to the contents of the report, they highlight yet again the failures in governance that result in poverty, ignorance and disease. How? Ms Jennifer Bamuturaki, the CEO of Uganda Airlines, is reported to have embezzled Shs50 million in travel allowances she claimed although she did not travel. 
As she came under more and more criticism in the media, she paid a public relations firm (without following procurement procedures) Shs156 million to repair the damage. 
Finally, Shs982 million was lost in a ticketing scam that saw tickets issued without corresponding payments appearing in the airline’s books. Shs1.1 billion in total was lost in a year. 

Uganda Airlines chief executive officer Jennifer Bamuturaki (wearing black mask) appears before the committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (Cosase) at Parliament on August 17, 2022. PHOTOs/DAVID LUBOWA

The opportunity cost of this waste is the construction of one secondary school, or upgrading two health centre IIs by adding maternity wards. 
Abim District budgeted Shs221.2 million to operate its 19 Health Centres in the 2020/2021 financial year. The district was only able to collect local revenues of Shs105.6 million representing (45 percent of its revenue budget). The shortfalls were in Local Service Tax, land fees and application fees. The chief administrative officer (CAO) explained to the auditor that there simply is not enough economic activity in Abim from which to raise the tax income needed. 

The same story is repeated across the country and in all sectors. In 2020/2021, Busia was only able to collect 49 percent of its Shs640 million revenue budget. The shortfalls were in Local Service Tax, land fees, business licenses and administrative fees and licenses. Busia budgets Shs355.3 million to operate its 26 health centre IIs and IIIs. Busia Health Centre IV in the municipality was stocked out of Maama Kits and malaria test kits for up to 150 days in 2020/2021. It also lacked equipment including a theatre headlamp, pulse-oximeter, caesarean section and a freezer. The CAO explained that there were no resources to procure the equipment. Bunyangabu’s Health Centre budget is Shs882.1 million. Bunyangabu could only raise 48 percent of its revenue budget. 
At no stage did a member of Parliament point out these opportunity costs of Uganda Airlines nugatory expenditure. None of the workers’ representatives in Parliament rose to compare these losses to the amounts needed to pay unpaid medical interns or striking teachers.  This sublime civic education moment was lost.

Local Government under-staffing
Most services are delivered through local government. Health, education, agricultural extension, environmental protection and others suffer from underfunding and also understaffing. 
The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) can hardly keep up with cases of environmental destruction because of the lack of adequate environmental police. 
With the recruitment freeze in place, districts are unable to attract and retain required technical staff. Many lack the knowledge and skills needed for effective service delivery. 

In 2020, Bududa District was only able to fill the following percentages of positions; Planning zero percent, administration 32 percent, finance 44 percent, statutory bodies zero percent, production 13.5 percent, health department 36 percent and hospital 53 percent among others. 
With such understaffing and lack of skills, one would expect local government officials and the rural population to be in close communication with the central government through their Members of Parliament. The forum for such communication would be the outreach activities and public hearings included in Parliament’s budget. 
However, those public-facing items have the poorest outcomes. For example, the offices of the Deputy Speaker, Parliamentary Research Services, Planning and Development Coordination Office, Legal and Legislative Services - all planned for between 20 and 25 outreaches and public hearings in 2020/2021, and all carried out between two and four of each.

The office of the Leader of the Opposition on Parliament (LoP) had planned eight outreach activities but carried out only two.  Of the 20 public hearings planned only three were conducted. 
In fact, LoP attended more international parliamentary fora gatherings than district outreaches achieved. Granted, LoP made more ministerial statements than were planned, but one wonders at what point the voices of the constituents are heard for onward transmission to Parliament.
The final weakness in the service delivery cycle is the reaction of the public to the output of Parliament. In the past, Ugandans have successfully brought pressure to bear on the Executive, for example when a clique tried to make the Treasury pay for aeroplanes when Uganda Airlines did not in fact belong to the State. 
Government was forced to have 100 percent of the shares legally transferred before paying for the aircraft.

This time, whether owing to exhaustion or increased cynicism, the public on social media has been less militant. There is more focus on the Speaker’s physical metamorphosis than on her genetically engineering the Constitution by introducing a Speaker’s veto. There is also a tendency to defend the person of the chairperson of Cosase rather than the position he holds in defence of good governance.

The author is a social-political