A move by the executive to table a piecemeal Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2017 on land acquisition triggered protests from parliament yesterday, with many MPs questioning why the omnibus amendment bill is not ready.
Deputy Attorney General Mwesigwa Rukutana was forced to read out the contents of the bill, after MPs demanded to know whether it contained an amendment to remove the 75-year upper age limit for presidential candidates.
Rukutana later told The Observer, that the omnibus bill that includes amending Article 102(b) on the age limit, a move he confessed supporting, will come to parliament this year.
But the issue at hand on Thursday was land acquisition and Rukutana’s presentation, which was seconded by the minister of state for Northern Uganda, Freedom Kwiyucwiny, was cut short by Shadow Attorney General Wilfred Niwagaba who raised a procedural objection.
Niwagaba reminded the House that the government had two weeks earlier promised to table an omnibus bill containing all amendments, after a Constitution Review Commission has collected views from Ugandans.
“Is it procedurally right for the attorney general to defy the directive of the speaker and orders of this House by coming up with a bill that is intended to amend the Constitution in piecemeal and in particular to steal our land?” Niwagaba submitted amid cheers from legislators across the political divide.
Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga, however, allowed Rukutana to continue reading the bill for the first time. Amid heckling from some MPs, Rukutana explained that the bill aims to amend Article 26 of the Constitution so as to resolve the urgent problem of delayed implementation of government infrastructure and other investment projects due to disputes arising out of the land acquisition process.
He said the amendments will enable the central or local governments to deposit in court, compensation awarded by the state for any private property acquired in public interest.
“It will also empower the government or local government to take possession of the declared propriety upon depositing the compensation awarded for the property with court, pending determination by the court of the disputed compensation amount…,” the minister explained, amidst a chorus of no, no, no from MPs.
As Speaker Kadaga referred the bill to the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee, some legislators vowed to fight it.
“This bill is dangerous especially for my people in Amuru, which has huge chunks of land. We shall make sure we follow it up and kill it in the committee. It must not come up in the House for the second reading. My only fear is that my NRM colleagues may change their minds if they see money,” Gilbert Olanya (Kilak county) told The Observer.
Ssemujju Nganda (Kira Municipality) said the bill is evidence that President Museveni is bent on grabbing land from helpless Ugandans.
Before the land amendment bill was tabled, MPs thought Rukutana had brought the highly contentious bill that seeks to amend Article 102(b). A poll conducted by this newspaper found sharp divisions among legislators on the matter, with most ruling party MPs yet to decide whether they will support it.
Ssemujju said the land amendments were brought to calm tensions and remove the spark from the raging age limit debate.
“I can understand, because of too much pressure from almost all corners, they may have deliberately wanted to bring this one [land amendment] earlier than planned. Without saying we are not brining the age limit [bill], they wash their hands clean and say see, we have brought one on land,” the MP opined.
During an interview yesterday, Rukutana said the land amendment law is urgent because of several infrastructural projects that have stalled in its absence.
“You try to acquire land for development but the owners of the land front dissatisfaction over compensation. In any event, the Constitution allows compulsory acquisition [and] compensation. Since the government is already empowered, after all, to compulsorily take the property, the spirit of not agreeing on the quantum should not let the project stall,” Rukutana said.
Regarding the other constitutional amendments, including the age limit, Rukutana revealed that a list of 18 names had been sent to the president to pick the Constitution Review Commission, which will seek views from Ugandans on the amendments. A report generated from that will form the basis for the omnibus Constitution (Amendment) Bill, Rukutana explained.
Other amendments include electoral reforms arising from the Supreme court presidential election petition. Asked whether amendment of the age limit is likely to feature prominently, Rukutana said that amending Article 102(b) is a popular move that many people, including himself, are interested in.
“We want it [age limit] to be amended, including me, because it is out of date. I am on record since the Constituent Assembly days saying that limiting somebody from leadership because of his age is discriminatory,” Rukutana said.
“As long as somebody is voted for, the person should be free to offer himself. If he is frail and senile, during the campaigns the people will see him and say, oh this man, because of his age he cannot manage, and they will not vote him,” the minister added.
After The Observer reported last week that a constitution amendment bill that includes Article 102(b) was set to be gazetted, some top NRM leaders claimed that such a bill doesn’t exist.
According to Rukutana, the omnibus bill will be tabled in parliament before the end of this year.