The New Times (Kigali)

2 January 2013

Rwanda: 2012 - the Year That Parliament Passed Over 80 Laws

By and large, in Parliament, the year 2012 ends on a high note. This is not to say that there were no low moments. In February alone, flags had to be flown at half mast as legislators mourned the late MP Tharcisse Shamakokera, a former Nyarugenge district representative in Parliament.

Routine functions including oversight role and legislation went on without much ado, for the most part.

The House hosted several high-level regional and international meetings. Along with these parliamentary conferences came some decisive triumphs for the House.

Most recently, on November 30, at the conclusion of the 35th conference of the African Parliamentary Union (APU) and the 61st session of the Executive Committee of the APU, Speaker Rose Mukantabana, was elected as Chairperson of the APU Executive Committee. Her nomination was inspired by Rwanda's model achievements in championing gender equality, among others.

The Speaker's appointment was not the only such victory. Earlier, in May, MP Juliana Kantengwa, one of Rwanda's representatives to the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) and Chairperson of the Chamber of Deputies' standing Committee on Economy and Trade, was elected as 4th Vice-President of the legislative body of the African Union. She will hold the position for three years as a representative of the eastern African region.

And, in July, as Rwanda geared to celebrate its 50th Independence Day - on July 1 and 18 years after the 1994 liberation struggle which stopped the Genocide against the Tutsi, African MPs, scholars, and others, convened at Parliament in a three-day conference on democracy, good governance and development. African academicians were urged to confront the continent's challenges in democracy, good governance and development.

In September, Parliament hosted the 6th Eastern Africa Association of Public Accounts Committee (EAAPAC) Annual General Meeting (AGM) and conference, bringing together MPs representing the Public Accounts Committees (PACs) of 14 African countries.

• Over 80 laws passed

As of December 18, lawmakers had passed more than 80 bills, 35 of which have already been promulgated.

When Parliament went into recess, in the first week of August, 19 bills had been passed. And they headed to their third and final recess of 2012 in December, with 36 bills passed.

Extraordinary sessions were held to fast track work on various bills and other business as the number of draft legislations keeps pouring in, a scenario that is partly caused by Rwanda's need to align its laws with those in the East African Community (EAC), and other regional and world groupings.

The year saw a stretched debate on tough issues, including abortion, defamation, Genocide negation and revisionism, and many others, all wrapped in the Penal Code.

2012 was a good year for the uniformed personnel as parliament passed the Armed Forces Shop (AFOS) law, which allows military and police personnel set up special stores, as is done elsewhere in the region, to enable their families to get a variety of essential goods at a duty free cost.

The whistle-blowers' Act which allow people to make lawful disclosures of classified information on graft-related crimes without retribution was also passed.

Also amendments to the 2001 law on cemeteries were passed, allowing cremation as an accepted option for burial under Rwandan law.

Less dust was raised on this.

Apart from issues in the Penal Code, there was also a lot of hullabaloo, from within and outside the country, as Parliament debated the bill regulating the interception of communications.

In August, when the House finally passed amendments in a 2008 version authorising phone tapping and other private communication for security purposes, all hell broke loose.

Suddenly there was a lot of noise, argument on what is tolerable and what is not. Western media was awash with criticism - as the law was seen as a ploy to tighten government's grip on citizens through the monitoring of email and telephone communications. But the law was enacted, nonetheless. At the time, MP Francois Byabarumwanzi, the Chairperson of the Chamber of Deputies' standing Committee on Human Rights, Unity and Reconciliation and Fight Against Genocide, stressed that his committee had benchmarked the best practices, particularly from Commonwealth countries.

It was all fascinating, but the 'prettiest' thing of all was the maternity leave saga, as revised and passed in the new labour code. It continues to reverberate. Many folks, perhaps out of sheer ignorance of the details, and the bigger picture, or even deliberate subversion, scorned the women majority - 56.3 per cent - in the House, for allowing the bill to pass.

But Parliament argued that its interest was in promoting gender equality particularly by ensuring equal opportunities for women in accessing employment in the private sector.

Under the revised labor code, only mothers employed in the private sector are affected. If a working mother opts to have a six weeks' maternity leave, she earns 100 per cent, or her entire salary, but if she takes the whole three months off, she gets 20 per cent of her monthly earnings in the other six weeks. In the past, a mother would have all the three months of maternity leave but with a 2/3 monthly payment.

Meanwhile, MPs pushed for the ban on hazardous public smoking and the related tobacco law was passed.

The law is not meant to abolish tobacco in the country but it will reduce risks of its use as it bans smoking in public places like bars, restaurants, and night clubs.

Very recently, the other new legislations enacted are: the law establishing the Rwanda Allied Health Professions Council; the law establishing the Pharmacy Council, the law establishing the Medical and Dental Council and several other laws meant to enhance operations in the health sector.

• Oversight

When it comes to holding back graft, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) got even tougher on public spending malpractices and embezzlement.

In February, PAC Chairperson, MP Juvenal Nkusi, tabled his committee's report on the mismanagement of over Rwf9 billion as highlighted in the 2009/10 Auditor General's report. The House called for even tougher measures against graft. Hundreds of officials have been aligned for interrogations.

During PAC sessions, MPs warned government officials against diversion of funds earmarked for specific activities, among others.

Benefit for top politicians

While debating the draft organic law determining allowances and benefits for top politicians, MPs rejected unwarranted extravagance, especially lump sum allowances for the Prime Minister, the President of Senate and the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, for vehicles.

In July, MPs also urged government to closely monitor the situation of Rwandan children adopted by foreigners and consequently taken abroad. One of the MPs' concerns was the likelihood that adopted Rwandan children taken abroad risked losing touch with their country's identity and heritage.

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