The decision by the Parliamentary Commission to award its members hefty welfare perks such as the Ushs200m car grant, payment for foreign travel, free meals and funeral arrangements have sparked outrage in some sections of the population.
A number of people including from Parliament itself, the academia and civil society argue that the bills the MPs are putting up for the tax payer to pick, are simply unjustified in view of the fact that thousands and perhaps millions of Ugandans continue to face life and death problems such as lack of delivery mats for mothers and lack of essential medicines in public hospitals, as well as poor pay for teachers and doctors.
The hefty perks for MPs has taken an interesting twist that has further left the democratic credentials of the Speaker and the senior leadership of the house in serious doubt.
While trying to offer an explanation on the series of unfavourable media reports, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga instead proposed to introduce an archaic Clonial Law on ‘Contempt of Parliament’ by which Parliament would try journalists who criticise them.
Makerere University Law professor Joe Oloka Onyango described Speaker Kadaga’s intentions on gagging the media whenever they report facts or criticize Parliament, as unconstitutional and undemocratic, in his Op-Ed in one of the dailies.
Onyango said: “In calling for editors and journalists to be charged with the colonial offence of “Contempt of Parliament” the Speaker not only demonstrates that she has a very thin skin for legitimate criticism, but she is also acting much more executive minded than the executive itself.”
He was supported by former Leader of Opposition in the 8th Parliament Prof. Ogenga Latigo who also jumped to the defence of the media in its exposition of a profligacy in Parliament.
Latigo said: “My firm view is that the media is not the problem. The problem is that Parliament itself is the problem. In its present state it subconsciously perceives a problem that it does not want exposed. In this anxiety the body Parliament is most apprehensive about the media. In that apprehension we now want the media to do our bidding. Sorry folks in this we are fighting a non-enemy and picking a wrong fight that we will always lose.”
But the ongoing fight over privileges is likely to split the House further if the proposal by the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) is anything to go by. Following public criticism of the Ushs200m car grant, the leading opposition party has agreed to sponsor a motion that will seek to make MPs shoulder the entire cost of the bill gradually, through salary deductions.
Feelings of anger and bitterness towards the MPs appears to have good ground considering that Uganda is going through difficult economic times, but also because other countries doing worse than us, have found better ways of catering for their MPs without overburdening the tax payer.
But other analysts argue that beyond the protestations and rancour, there is a hidden agenda by the government to divert the public’s attention from the real issues of service delivery but also to cast Parliament in negative light.
Parliament’s spokesperson Chris Obore has been a key architect in propagating this line of thought.
He said this week that: “I think we are too engrossed into politics that we are not allowed to reflect. The debate against parliament is politically orchestrated to divert the public from asking for services from those mandated to deliver them.
Soon you will see them address the media saying they have not found money for MPs cars. The public will agree with them but they will not say how the trillions allocated to them have been used and why the services are still poor.”
Other government critics have suggested that President Museveni has previously used the money trick to undermine the credibility of his opponents or even other institutions that have the potential to remove him from power.
“When people were complaining about the size of our Parliament, President Museveni told his critics to personally hold him responsible. He said that increasing the size of Parliament is the price Ugandans have to pay for democracy,” argued one highly placed civil servant, on condition of anonymity.
He added: “With the levels of corruption in government, the President is scared of a critical Parliament because he knows that it is the only institution that can remove him from power. He always dangles money before them to distract them but also divide them,” argued the civil servant.
The public’s sympathies with the use of pigs by members of the Jobless Youth Brotherhood may help to illustrate the anger with which members of the public have against the MPs.
Renowned Kampala City Lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi however dismisses the view that Museveni intentionally dangles money to discredit MPs.
“I don’t believe that the President is dangling money to discredit MPs because previous Parliaments have been receiving millions of money for cars,” says Rwakafuzi.
He adds however that the President is clever and will always want to emerge on top of the situation whenever he senses the public is opposed to a particular subject.
“If the President senses that the proposed Ushs200m is unpopular with the people, he may try to suggest that the MPs’ demands are unjustified. But we know that he needs them to amend the constitution to allow him to stay in power,”says Rwakafuzi.
Rwakafuzi argues that the proposed increase in MPs privileges such as the Ushs200m, would be tolerated if the size of Parliament had remained small.
“Many people including myself feel that the current privileges are not so much except that when you consider the number of 430 MPs, it becomes too expensive and yet we are not getting value added in terms of effective representation,” argues Rwakafuzi
The debate is a major test about whether the MPs or even the ruling NRM government is any more sensitive to the concerns of its people.