How Should Uganda Force MPs to Work? [opinion]

Roll calls are not working is it time to introduce fines?

Among the challenges the 9th Parliament faces, not many seem as disturbing and as intractable as MPs’ absenteeism, with speaker Rebecca Kadaga and her deputy Jacob Oulanyah looking to biometric technology as their trump card.

As representatives of the people, MPs are expected to be in the House to debate and vote on laws and various policies on behalf of their constituents but time and again, the speaker can hardly raise the required quorum.

Parliament has 386 MPs, but often Number 23 of parliament’s Rules of Procedure is invoked to adjourn the House for failure to raise the quorum (about 125 MPs) to vote on any matter.

“If on the resumption of proceedings after expiry of fifteen minutes, the number of members present is still less than the required quorum for voting, the speaker shall proceed with other business or suspend the sitting or adjourn the House without question put and in case of a committee, the chairperson shall adjourn the committee,” rule 23 reads in part.

But these good rules have not forced MPs into the House.

“Many times I have observed that committees and Parliament could not complete business due to lack of quorum. In the next session, I am going to start coming to your committees without notice. I will be coming personally to take a census in your committees” speaker Kadaga said while closing the first session of parliament.

Those words appeared to have been wasted, as the problem appears to be only getting worse. The attempted solutions suggest there is no clarity on what causes MPs to doge work. The failure of these solutions means we neither know the cause nor have a viable remedy.

Theodore Ssekikubo (Lwemiyaga), an active MP who has been in Parliament since 2001, blames absenteeism on what he calls frustration.

“Some MPs feel that when they sit in chambers and their views are not taken, but those of caucus, they choose to sit back because they feel that they are not necessary,” says Ssekikubo, who was expelled from the ruling NRM, alongside three colleagues, for opposing party caucus positions. “There are also other pressures in the constituencies which obstruct them from effectively attending Parliament.”

If the first reason is indeed widespread, it could suggest that part of the problem is NRM’s commanding majority of nearly 79 per cent. Because NRM MPs are so many, each of them does not think that their individual presence matters that much – after all heshe can only vote in a particular way and there is no risk of being outnumbered by the opposition. This interpretation could also hold if some opposition MPs feel that whether they are present or not, the NRM will have its way anyway.

It is with Ssekikubo’s second argument that Ruth Nankabirwa, the new government chief whip, agrees: to be with their voters (who elect and remove them from the House) or to be in parliament.

“MPs don’t choose!” Nankabirwa said, torn between condoning absenteeism and backing ideal standards. “They are forced to be absent by the prevailing political environment where their constituencies are on fire. The voters are looking for them the supporters expect them to be attending every function, because our opponents are on ground.”

Deputy speaker Jacob Oulanyah is sympathetic to this argument, but is aware he needs MPs in the House: “It’s an election year, constituency challenges are there, and we have a lot of competing interests on an MP’s time, but we are appealing to MPs to just focus on the three days that we sit.”

PERSISTENT

In a bid to end absenteeism, Kadaga and Oulanyah have, in the past, taken some radical decisions, including, making a roll call to find out which MPs are absent and those who signed the manual attendance book and then vanished.

For starters, an MP earns about 150,000 per plenary session attended, and Shs 50,000 per committee meeting.

An MP is also entitled to various allowances including mileage facilitation of up to Shs 4.5m, and constituency facilitation of Shs 3.2m. The 9th Parliament members also enjoyed Shs 103m each to purchase vehicles, and iPads that cost the taxpayer at least Shs 1bn, but these incentives appear to be taken for granted.

If anything, these perks – for instance sitting allowances-appear to be encouraging dishonest behaviour. In February 2013, speaker Kadaga made a roll call in which more than 100 MPs and four ministers were found to have signed the attendance list and then dodged the House. This suggested that they were simply after the allowance that comes with attendance.

At the beginning of the this April, it was proved that the problem was still live, two years on, when deputy speaker Jacob Oulanyah ordered a roll call following his frustration over MPs’ behavior.

“I ordered the roll call because the numbers of the MPs that were in the House were more by the time I adjourned, the members had become less,” Oulanyah told us recently. “I rang the bell, there were no members so, we had to call the roll call and you saw the members that came.”

It was found that 213 MPs had signed the book, but the majority dodged the House at the critical time of the national budget framework paper for the fiscal year 201516.

OPTIMISTIC

Whereas roll call might be one of the solutions, it may not be sufficient, as MPs seem to be failing to come back to their ‘senses’ and their places in the House.

Oulanyah is optimistic that the impeding “electronic voting” would take them a step forward towards an enduring solution for absenteeism.

“By electronic voting, you [MP] will use your hand and it’s read by the computer and they know that you have voted. In other places they use cards, but these ones have chosen to use biometrics because we don’t have designated seats in this Parliament where they would put a gadget to know all votes by seats,” the deputy speaker says.

On her part, Nankabirwa the whip, banks all her hopes on the roll call method, arguing that there is no single MP who would like to be exhibited as a person who pockets money they have not worked for.

But there are other solutions which have been applied in other countries. Absenteeism among MPs, after all, is not peculiar to Uganda. Perhaps the only major difference is that other countries appear to have taken stringent measures to solve the problem.

SOUTH AFRICA

In South Africa, Parliament put up electronic attendance monitoring system, which would provide accurate and instant record of MPs’ attendance of committee meetings and plenary sittings.

The system consists of two technologies: radio frequency identification (RFID) and biometric (fingerprint) to monitor the attendance of members at sittings of plenary and committee meetings.

Unlike the fingerprint, RFID goes an extra mile to automatically detect MPs when they enter and exit a chamber or a committee room.

Biometrics like the ones Uganda is about to start using, are limited to fingerprint recognition and requires MPs to register their attendance using their thumbprint.

A quite familiar picture of Uganda’s parliament sessions with few MPs in attendance

On top of that unbeatable system, in March 2014, the office of the ANC chief whip adopted Parliament’s leave and policy in which all parties reached a consensus to make MPs more accountable after going through a vigorous consultation process through various structures of Parliament.

The policy contains punitive measures to MPs who abscond their duties.

Among others, the policy provides that:

A member could lose his seat if he is absent for 15 or more consecutive sittings of Parliament without permission, this system is also provided for under the Uganda Constitution.

If a member’s leave period exceeds 15 consecutive sittings, the House must table a motion giving reasons for the continued absence and must agree to a motion to grant additional leave.

Members absent from three consecutive meetings of a committee, of which they are full members and who do not have permission from their political parties for absence, may have to pay a fine of R100 for each day of absence.

CANADA

In Canada’s red chamber, senators’ appearances are made public every month, and every senator is required to file a monthly statement with the commons pay and benefits branch to confirm they were in the commons in Ottawa on each sitting of the House over a given period.

Senators in Canada must account for any days missed by checking off one of the three reasons: illness, public or official business , or other.

Like in South Africa, in Canada, rules state that a senator is fined $120 once found missing 21 sittings without a valid excuse.

KID GLOVES IN KAMPALA

These solutions by other countries notwithstanding, it appears to be a different story in Kampala as talking points argue that the available methods are enough, save for John Nagenda, the presidential aisor on media and public relations, who proposes otherwise.

“You could imagine, the House putting out data on MPs who came, when, who hasn’t come and so on and then people themselves can say that person is not good to us, but it’s wrong that we get such poor services from our Parliamentarians,” he proposes.

“We should also educate the electorate not to pick people who go there [in Parliament] twice once to be elected and once to be elected again they should also play a part in it, these people are well-paid compared to ordinary Ugandans. So, they should be guarded to see that they don’t cheat us the people who send them to Parliament,” he adds.

But senior leaders of Parliament are not at par with the presidential aisor as they are stuck on roll call and the electronic voting.

“But if you have voted, it means you are present, if you have not voted, it means you are absent so, when the voting is done, it will show who is present and who is absent”, said Oulanyah, claiming that it isn’t the right time to apply the above rigorous steps by other countries.

“It will not be fair for this Parliament to bring these changes that MPs are not used to in this last year, but if you start with the new 10th Parliament, by the time they come, when all these systems are in place, it may work better,” Oulanyah adds.

He thus said: “We rather appeal to the good senses of MPs to do their job and let them take their responsibilities seriously because that is what we want to achieve first.”

Nankabirwa said: “This [roll call] will obviously impact on us negatively in the constituencies if we are not in the House. So, it will force us now to take priorities critically and to reorganize our programmes.”

Hence, the Ugandan Parliament seems to insist on trusting MPs to behave honorably and fear being ashamed. But there is no evidence that most MPs are honourable or that they are that afraid of being exposed as regular offenders.

Source : The Observer

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