During Monday’s heated NRM caucus meeting, some MPs confessed to receiving bribes from multinational companies to support the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, popularly known as the GMO bill.
The bill, which was due for debate yesterday, was first introduced in parliament in 2012 but has since been shelved. The government now wants it urgently passed.
To expedite it, the NRM leadership in parliament summoned the ruling party’s MPs and some independent allies to a caucus meeting at the Office of the President conference hall on Monday.
The bribery claims were first made by Kasambya MP Mbwatekamwa Gaffa. Mbwatekamwa wondered why multinationals promoting the bill don’t use the money they are doling out in bribes to MPs to fund other agricultural initiatives, like the government’s irrigation scheme.
“The funders of this bill are using a lot of money to bribe us, but if they are keen on funding us, why don’t they fund other projects in the agricultural sector?” Mbwatekamwa wondered.
The fiery MP said multinationals have in the past organized several consultative meetings for MPs at which every lawmaker is paid $100 (Shs 360,000) per meeting.
Chief Whip Ruth Nankabirwa tried to gag the Kasambya MP, accusing him of irregular attendance of the caucus meetings but the latter was not deterred.
Mbwatekamwa’s bribery allegations were augmented by his Manjiya counterpart John Baptist Nambeshe, who told the meeting that “the bill is against the interests of Uganda.”
Nambeshe added that the bill’s sponsors are spending huge sums of money in research and compromising MPs.
“I am a beneficiary of their dollars,” Nambeshe said, drawing protests from Bukoto South’s Muyanja Mbabaali and Nakasongola Woman MP Margaret Komuhangi, who asked the party leadership to discipline the two MPs for making outrageous statements.
But this was before Kiboga East MP Keefa Kiwanuka volunteered more information.
“This bill is meant to enslave Ugandans to the multinationals; it is also politically suicidal for us,” Kiwanuka said, adding, “Hon Nambeshe should not be misunderstood; the multinationals have been organizing a series of meetings, I remember attending two of them at Eureka hotel (Ntinda) where each one of us was paid $100 per meeting. Imagine not even being bribed in Ugandan currency but in dollars!”
Kiwanuka added that if the international pro-GMO lobbyists have a lot of money, they should facilitate MPs to consult their constituents on the matter. As the meeting proceeded, more MPs admitted attending the said meetings and being paid for it. These included, Samuel Okwir (Moroto County), Rosette Kajungu Mutambi (Mbarara Woman), Violet Akurut Adome (Katakwi Woman) and Onesmus Twinamatsiko (Bugangaizi East).
“There was the [anti] homosexuality bill and no money was involved [in lobbying MPs to pass it]; why are they splashing all this money to have this bill passed? It is because it is not good for us.
Artificializing our food will put us in danger,” Twinamatsiko argued.
Prime Minister and Leader of Government Business in Parliament Ruhakana Rugunda and Chief Whip Nankabirwa appeared take aback by the MPs’ submissions, and could be seen occasionally whispering to each other.
The two NRM leaders had arrived at the caucus meeting an hour late, having earlier been part of the meeting of NRM’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) at State House Entebbe.
Prior to their arrival, the caucus’ vice chairman, Solomon Silwany (Bukooli Central), had given an opportunity to the Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr Elioda Tumwesigye, and the Chairman of Parliament’s committee on Science and Technology, Robert Kafeero Ssekitooleko (Nakifuma), to make a case for the bill.
To buttress his presentation, Tumwesigye had come along with a team of scientists who came in handy when the debate got more heated and technical. But some MPs wondered why the government has not given them a chance to listen to scientists opposed to the bill.
This included Samson Lokeris (Dodoth East), who warned government against pushing the bill down the MPs’ throats.
“In the 9th Parliament, this bill came up and we requested that we be given a chance to listen to [scientists] who are for the bill and those against it. Why are we basing on one group? We shouldn’t be pushed, let us have the experts from either side,” Lokeris said.
Other MPs, including Ismael Orot (Kanyum), Denis Sabiiti (Rubanda West) and Geoffrey Dhamuzungu (Budiope East) claimed that besides killing the indigenous crops, allowing GMOs on the market would lead to a spike in cases of cancer. On his part, Raphael Magezi (Igara East) said there was no need to rush the bill.
“There is no need to rush, there’s a reason why this bill has been on the shelf for so long. I was a member of the Science and Technology committee in the 9th Parliament that handled this bill...there’s a [hidden] intention behind it; through regulation they want to legalize GMOs,” Magyezi said.
The bill also had its supporters among the 100 or so MPs attending the meeting. These included Peter Ssematimba (Busiro South), Jalia Bintu (Masindi Woman), Dr Micheal Bukenya (Bukuya), Komuhangi (Nakasongola Woman), Syda Bumba (Nakaseke North), Margaret Muhanga (Burahya) and Minister of State for Local Government Jennifer Namuyangu (Kibuku Woman).
Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities minister Prof Ephraim Kamuntu also spoke in favour of the bill but walked out after some MPs challenged his submissions.
Not sure how the bill would be received on the floor of parliament, Tumwesigye agreed to a proposal by Bukoto Mid-West MP Joseph Muyomba Kasozi to give the MPs more time.
This idea was also bought by the NRM heavy weights present, Dr Rugunda and Nankabirwa, who agreed to nudge the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, to shelve the bill a little longer as more consultations take place.
“In the Bible, God says that never tell your friends that you’ll come back tomorrow...more time will be okay, but we have to make a decision. [Nankabirwa] knows how she will talk to the speaker [to delay the bill] a bit,” Tumwesigye said.
On the bribery talk, Minister Tumwesigye apologised to the MPs but sought to clarify that the money was meant to be a transport refund not a bribe.
“The money being talked about is a transport refund, I’m not sure that it was meant to bribe you. How can you be bribed by Shs 300,000? It was a figure that was agreed upon as transport refund because some of you used your own fuel, but I regret if it happened,” Tumwesigye said.
On their part, Rugunda and Nankabirwa said it was an insult for MPs to claim they had been bribed.
“If it had been half a million dollars I would agree, but $100? I think it is an insult to say that MPs were bribed. I propose that we abandon that talk and look for other arguments,” Rugunda said.