28 January 2013

Uganda: Parliament Is Not a Rubber Stamp-Speaker

Rose Mukantabana is Rwanda's first Speaker of Parliament. The Independent's Ostine Arinaitwe interviewed her about the role and its challenges as Rwanda plans parliamentary elections in September.

How do you rate the success of Parliament in 2012?

As an institution charged with passing laws and playing an oversight role, I think the parliamentarians did very well considering that over 80 laws were passed last year. Some of these laws have already been published in the official Gazette, while others are still in the process. You should also note that some Bills are considered and passed by both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

Among the 80 laws passed by the Chamber of Deputies, 35 have already been published in the official Gazette while others are either still in the Senate or at the polishing stage. I would say that Parliament achieved above 80% of what it should have accomplished last year.

Last year, Rwanda hosted the African parliamentary forum, what did Rwandan MPs learn or share with their counterparts?

The Rwandan Parliament is member of different parliamentary forums from the region, continent, and globally. Hosting such meetings is important to us because of the nature of our history which is distorted because some people don't know it well. When MPs from other countries come here, they witness firsthand the progress this country has made in all levels, be it in the economy, security, unity and reconciliation and other sectors.

We always include field visits so that we take them to what is happening on the ground. Last year we took MPs from the African parliamentary forum to three areas which included a historical area in the Southern district; Mutobo (where self-repatriated Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) based in Eastern Congo are rehabilitated before being integrated into the society) and another area which shows the agriculture development in the country.

These meetings are imperative so that people from other countries have a clear picture of this country's history, challenges and vision.

In 2011 Parliament had to waive immunity over MP Ashinzwuwera Alexandre Dumas to face prosecution for allegedly beating and injuring his 12-year old brother. What is the logic behind MPs having immunity?

As a principle, MPs have immunity and before an MP is prosecuted, the Prosecutor General has to write to Parliament to waive immunity and it has previously been done. For that particular case regarding former MP Dumas, he was not found guilty of beating his brother. However, Parliament's disciplinary committee expelled him because he fought with a Policeman who was investigating another case where he was suspected of beating his sister. His behavior was contrary to our internal rules which left the disciplinary committee with no option but to expel him.

Doesn't granting MPs immunity contradict the constitution which says that no one is above the law?

It does not contradict the constitution because MPs like other people who have immunity such as judges, work in the interest of the public; and usually their work puts them at logger heads with most people who would use that against them.

Besides it is just a procedure, it does not mean they can evade justice, all that is required is for Prosecutor General's office to request Parliament to waive that immunity. I can assure you that Parliament has never refused to comply with the prosecution.

Parliament adopted a new labour code which stipulates that maternity leave for women working in the private sector should be reduced to six weeks and those that wish to extend it for another six weeks can only get 20% of their salaries? Isn't this unfair to mothers?

Unfortunately that is how it was interpreted. But, first of all as a country, we advocate for equal opportunities for both men and women in all sectors. We realised last year that women working in the private sector were not getting promotions and most of them had their careers stagnant.

Most employers were complaining that if a woman gives birth twice in two or three years, then the company loses that employee for six months. Therefore one of the solutions was to create maternity insurance so that the employer does not suffer the burden of incurring high costs during maternity leave.

Unfortunately the Bill on insurance in general which includes the one on maternity insurance needed more thorough debate in order to balance the role of women in giving birth to perpetuate our community but also enjoy their fundamental right in accessing job opportunities. At the moment the law says that a woman can have six weeks of maternity leave with full pay and opt for another six weeks with 20% pay. But once the maternity Insurance Bill is passed, 80% of the costs will be covered by that fund.

Technically women in the public sector are better off than their counterparts in the private sector......

You can say that because the concern was mostly in the private sector because investors would claim that it was a burden on them to pay a female employee on maternity leave every year and hire someone else to do her job.

Last year, MP Constance Rwaka, head of the Parliamentary Budget Review Commission proposed that Rwanda petitions the International Parliamentary Forum over donor countries which suspended aid to Rwanda on the allegations that it was supporting Congolese rebel group M23. Is Parliament going to discuss this proposal and when?

I think the whole point of that proposal was to tell our counterparts from other African countries that this is something that can happen to any country so something should be done about it.

What is imperative is that development partners should honor their obligations as agreed in the Paris, Accra and Busan Agreements. So we shall continue dialogue with MPs from other countries to see if we can find a common stand on that.

Regarding that proposal, it has been amended and it will only deplore such situations and call upon western countries to respect agreements that they sign with countries that they give aid to.

Parliament set up a committee to investigate the allegations that Rwanda backs the M23 rebels in Eastern DRC. When will the committee release its report on this issue?

The committee is still doing its work and it will submit the report in February and we shall make it public.

There is a monument under construction at Parliament, tell us about it?

It is a memorial about the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi but with a particular emphasis on the role of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) [Rwanda's ruling party] in stopping the genocide. If you remember there were soldiers from RPF who stayed with politicians during peace negotiations and they played a huge role in the rescuing people from this building that had been targeted for killing.

The monument will be finished before the year ends.

Rwanda will hold parliamentary elections in September and given the fact that majority MPs are fronted by their political parties rather than their constituencies which creates an impression that the parliament doesn't represent the interests of the vast majority of the population. Will there come a time when MPs will be representing particular constituencies?

Every political system or electoral system depends on what a given community decides to use. Our constitution which was voted by Rwandans chose this kind of system, however, that does not mean that the system cannot be changed if the people decide otherwise. I think what is important is what MPs do in parliament.

Critics say the Parliament rubber stamps anything from the executive. What's your opinion?

That assumption does not hold because if that was the case, Ministers or heads of different government institutions would not appear before Parliament to explain themselves or convince MPs to pass Bills. Most of them are given a hard time if they are not convincing but I think most of those people just expect us to be confrontational which does not usually provide results.

Our constitution tells us to dialogue when things are not clear and that is what we always do before taking any further steps. Parliament has never been a rubber stamp and I don't think that can ever happen.

You don't belong to any political party. Is that by choice?

It is a personal choice; our constitution allows people to be independent. I am committed to serve my country without first becoming a member of a political party.

Does that mean there is no political party that shares the same philosophy as you?

As I told you, the constitution allows me to be independent and it should not be a big deal that I don't subscribe to a particular party.

A new parliament will be voted in September to take over from the current one which you head. Will you seek for a second term as MP and Speaker?

I cannot give you a definite answer because the Electoral Commission has not yet given us the guidelines for the next elections. As for wanting to run for Speaker, I would need to first become an MP before colleagues elect me Speaker but what I can tell you is that I enjoy both roles of being an MP and Speaker of Parliament.

What challenges have you encountered as the first woman speaker in Rwanda?

Many people were surprised having a woman speaker but in a country which values equal opportunities, it should not have been a surprise to have a woman speaker. My biggest challenge was heading parliament yet I was a first time MP; it was a bit intimidating but I was lucky MPs helped me acquaint.

What lessons have you learnt as speaker?

It has been a challenging time for me because you learn to respect people's views however much you think they don't make sense.

As speaker you have to be as impartial as possible so that people from different political parties don't accuse you of favoritism. There are so many lessons but those two have been the most crucial.

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