Abraham Byandala is still a serving minister in Uganda’s Cabinet. Last week, he was remanded and sent to Luzira prison where he spent a week before being granted bail. He is reportedly among the first serving Ugandan ministers to face corruption-related charges and be remanded in this manner.
His colleagues in Cabinet immediately lamented that “Byandala, was arrested like a chicken thief.” John Byabagambi, current minister for Works and Transport, insists that since Byandala is a serving minister, this matter should have been handled in a “more civilised way,” and nothing “warrants treating him like a chicken thief.” His portfolio should accord him some protection.
While the term “chicken thief” could carry other meanings elsewhere, in Uganda, it carries the literal image of one who was actually caught (in the act of) stealing a chicken. For some reason, such a person gets very little public sympathy. This person, if caught in the act, faces the possibility of some rough treatment. The clearest image of an alleged chicken thief is perhaps one that is marched through the village with the said chicken, both on the way to be presented to the authorities.
There is very little to indicate that Mr Byandala was handled like a chicken thief. However, Byabagambi’s concern can be understood from two perspectives. First, Ugandan cultures tend to respect leaders and would not want to see elders humiliated especially in public. Secondly, this case against a serving minister goes beyond the individual, to the government office that they currently hold in public trust. Beyond their ministerial portfolio, this matter also reflects on the entire Cabinet. This latter concern is perhaps more on his mark.
It is in this context that Uganda could perhaps pick a leaf from Kenya. To protect the integrity and image of the public office, and indeed the rest of government, the spirit of the Kenyan constitution requires any senior government official placed under investigation to step aside, and allow for these investigations to proceed. This does not imply guilt. On the contrary, it reflects the confidence of the office holder in the decisions they took on behalf of the public, and their willingness to defend them before courts of law. It also reflects continued interest in protecting the image of the office they hold.
Right after the promulgation of the new Kenya constitution in 2010, a number of Kenyan ministers relinquished office to allow investigations in which they were named. These include William Ruto, (now deputy president of Kenya), Moses Wetangula (then Foreign Affairs Minister), among others. Earlier this year, five Kenyan ministers stepped aside in the same manner.
This issue came up in Uganda a few years ago. In 2011, Parliament resolved that three ministers facing corruption allegations “step aside” to allow for investigations. These were the Amama Mbabazi, then prime minister, Sam Kutesa, Foreign Affairs Minister, and Hillary Onek, then Internal affairs Minister)
A one Severino Twinobusingye petitioned the Constitutional Court which pronounced itself on this matter. The judges noted that in modern democracies, “stepping aside” is now generally taken as part of the responsibility of the holder of a public office in discharging his or her duty of being accountable to the people.”
While they agreed that, as per Uganda’s constitution, Parliament does not have the powers to remove a minister from office, they added that the minister is at liberty to take an individual decision to “step aside.” Quoting from the judgment, “It is the onerous responsibility of the Prime Minister and each of the ministers to, with the consent of the head of the executive, take an individual decision, each one on his own to step aside pending investigation.”
At the time, the Mr Kutesa, (Foreign Affairs minister) and Mwesigwa Rukutana (then state minister for Labour), decided to step aside and face the law as individuals, rather than expose the Cabinet, and the public offices they held then. Court subsequently acquitted them. Mr Kutesa is currently serving as President of the United Nations General Assembly, and the Mr Rukutana is Uganda’s deputy Attorney General.
So, Mr Byandala is not compelled by law to “step aside” from Cabinet during this court process. Indeed, he did not “step aside” during the investigations. But he may find it worthwhile doing so now and still demonstrate commitment to a higher principle of public governance.
He would be adding to the body of ministers that have taken this courageous step. With these steps, Uganda would develop a constitutional convention obliging ministers to “step aside” in such cases, promote accountability, and protect the public interest.
Mr Banoba works with Transparency International’s Africa department.