13 January 2013

Uganda: When Music, Dance Steps Changed in Parliament


Reading what is happening in our Parliament has reminded me of the fairytale of Peter Pan, the Scottish boy who never grew up.

Even when he died, at the age of 14, there was nothing that, in his deeds and thinking, he had morphed into a teenager. Therefore, his decisions were wobbly and childish. It appears that in our Parliament we have many MPs of Peter Pan quality.

It is fair to say that the MPs, as politicians, tend to have parallel lives (a false public image and a true private persona) but again, even if they had, there are certain things that are not expected of them. When I was a still a parliamentary reporter, there were certain MPs I avoided to contact for a comment or, if I did, I made sure it recorded the conversation.

These particular MPs had a habit of giving captivating sound bites that they were also quick to deny them before our editors after they were published. And usually after a show-off before the editor, the MP would call you on the side and apologize, claiming that superior powers prevailed on him to deny that report. It is not bad politics for the President to try to influence MPs; it is his right as chairman of the ruling party and chief executive of the country.

It is the only legitimate way he can influence policy and push the party agenda since he does not sit in parliament; but it is unforgivable when the legislators jettison even the last scintilla of independence of mind. So, when an MP says he wants to withdraw his signature after he signed a petition out of his own free will and consent, what does that say about the calibre of the legislator?

These signatures were not given at the barrel of the gun! And those who say that the signatures were forged, why should they get worried about withdrawing them when in the first place they never signed?

The honourable thing would have been to go to police and record a statement of forgery. And none of the complainants has done so. Did the MPs have to wait until the petition was submitted to the speaker's office for them to withdraw their support and also make claims of forgery?

The absurdity in this matter is that while parliament ought to act independently of the commands of the executive, it appears the latter is succeeding in pulling the strings of a puppet parliament. The music has changed and the dance steps have, inevitably, had to change too. When you scrutinise the MPs who want to withdraw their signatures, many of them are living on borrowed time. They are in Parliament because the powers that be have decided to turn a blind eye to their hidden skeletons.

They cannot afford to offend those who have maintained them in the House. So, the body is rebellious but the heart is scared of being punctured. It is not by mistake that most of the NRM MPs are compromised and cannot afford to rebel against their leader. The politics of compromise and hidden skeletons works well for the president, whoever tries to toe a different line from the party's is threatened with the exposure of his or her scandals.

Let us assume the petition was a bill which was debated, passed and ultimately received presidential assent, would the MPs who previously vigorously backed this bill ask the speaker to withdraw their vote for the law and therefore impeach their own bill? If the MPs can impeach their own signatures, then how can we trust that in matters which have required their considered approval, they have not been informed and influenced by selfish interest and the piper payer!

This invites another question: to whom do the MPs account, constituents or the party? And since from my casual survey in the house, about 109 MPs effectively participate in debates, and the rest are fellow travellers, do we need 387 MPs to do the job of 150 legislators? If we didn't have to depend on the MPs to amend the constitution, we would amend the constitution to reduce the number of legislators. But again our hands are tied; it appears we may need to ask the impossible like ordering the monkey to burn the forest in which it lives!

The author is the Business Development Director, The Observer Media Ltd.

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