By Norbert Mao

On Tuesday 23 January we gathered at parliament for a Civil Society Forum to assess the extent to which parliament is the voice of the people. I was invited alongside leaders of UPC, NRM and FDC. Seats assigned to FDC and NRM were empty. Leader of Opposition, Winnie Kiiza, stepped in for FDC.The NRM leader was addressing EALA members and pleading guilty to the charges that he presides over a shi*hole country!

The Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah invited members to try and address the theme without talking politics. Blank stares that greeted him and he realized the futility of exhorting the assembly to desist from politics. He predicted, correctly, that his appeal would be defied. Why not? Parliament is a house of politicians. The processes that bring them to parliament are political. Their manner of deliberation is political. How then can their performance be evaluated other than through political lenses?

Speaker Kadaga swept in ahead of a small entourage and took the podium to offer a polite greeting and welcome to the participants. She avoided politics. Too much of anything is bad and I guess she has had an overdose of politics. She has played politics and now politics seems to be playing her. After her remarks, she breezed out, her entourage in tow.

The panel included Prof. Gerald Karyeija from Uganda Management Institute, Uganda Law Society President Francis Gimara, former Human Rights Commission boss Dr. Margaret Ssekagya, and lawyer and Civil Society activist Godber Tumushabe. Simon Kasyate did not mince words on why he was chosen to moderate. He said parliament’s image is in tatters and it needs the intervention of public relations experts and therefore no one should wonder why he was chosen.

Gimara fired the first shot by quoting the words of the Fountain of Honour. “Parliament is just like a place for all, to talk. It is like a bus park but the real things are allocated somewhere else.” From there he wondered whether the MPs can feel valued if the president has such a low opinion of them. Prof. Ndebesa speaking from the floor did not make things any better. He said that the president’s description of parliament is appropriate because after all even the symbol of the NRM is a bus!

Oulanyah sat quietly as the institution over which he presides was pulverized. Obviously, his fears were realized. Politics dominated the discussion. Ndebesa said that even our small gathering was a publicity stunt. A mockery. “Don’t think you are participating. You are being participated!”, he said.

Some kinds words were uttered. Parliament was saluted for insisting on an increase in the health budget, for denouncing the 6 billion shilling handshake, for coming up with a strong law for the oil sector and for demanding the truth about the death of Butaleja MP Nebanda. Of course all those matters were never conclusive save the oil law.

Since the 1995 constitution came into force every parliament seems to have its badge of shame. The sixth parliament shamelessly increased the size of cabinet. The seventh parliament removed presidential term limits. The eighth parliament institutionalized the sense of financial entitlement that continues to cast a long shadow todate, the ninth parliament had a record number of truncated corruption investigations and infamously thought adding the word “independent” to the name of the Electoral Commission would make it so. The 10th parliament though in its infancy promises to excel in ignominy. For now it will be forever remembered as the one that removed the last safeguard against life presidency.

Oulanyah was not amused when he rose to give closing remarks. He said apart from two submissions from the floor, (from a chair of Kawempe Elders who heaped praises on the NRM and a lady from an NGO who spoke about Uganda’s high indebtedness and unemployment), nothing was said that can make parliament better. He threatened that next time he will invite traders, farmers and manufacturers. However, at the end he conceded that perhaps the framing of the theme was to blame for the politically charged debate.