The appropriation by parliament of Shs 10bn or Shs 20m to every MP recently to ostensibly assist lawmakers fight the spread of the novel coronavirus has thrust the House into a huge public firestorm that seems to flare up every day.
The huge payout has also split the House. Some MPs like Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine and Francis Zaake have elected to return the cash they claim was a sweetener for them to pass the Shs 284bn government supplementary budget.
Others have run to court to block the payment. Masaka Municipality MP MATHIAS MPUUGA has also publicly said he will return the money because it would be unethical to spend it. Baker Batte Lule interviewed him and below are excerpts
You have returned the Shs 20 million; why?
There are so many reasons but I will go to the immediate ones. The manner in which the money got into the supplementary budget was controversial. There was also not enough time to debate the supplementary budget. The principle of doing things legally to me applies and it was not done. So, I felt uncomfortable taking the money.
The other reason is, I was also uncomfortable with the rationale given by parliament for appropriating that money. The money’s purpose has changed four times in one week. Initially, it was meant to help MPs buy fuel for their ambulances, which are now used by the ministry of Health.
But I also know that the ministry had committed to facilitating the ambulances and their drivers. Then it changed to facilitating members to do mobilization and sensitization against Covid-19. Now MPs will give the money to the district taskforce teams. But I also know that all district taskforces were given Shs 160 million each.
Then parliament said MPs would use the money to buy food for their constituents. But I also know buying food had been declared illegal. Mityana municipality MP [Francis Zaake] was arrested for doing the same. I operate with certain principles; so, there was no way I was going to be part of that pack of contradictions.
But people are hungry yet government is distributing food only in Kampala and Wakiso...
Distribution of food must come through a clear parliamentary process. It’s a very serious matter because people are starving. It must not be handled as a by-the-way by imagining that MPs have been facilitated to buy food for their communities, which is far from the truth.
I thought MPs are being pushed to abdicate their obligation of calling the minister of Finance to order for presenting a supplementary that would aid other urban centers, mine inclusive, to actually procure food in a proper way with proper statistics of how many people would benefit. But the whole process was shrouded in controversy and there was no way a man of my principles was going to be part of that mess.
Are people in Masaka as hungry as those in Kampala and Wakiso?
The kind of reasons advanced for giving Kampala food apply to Masaka. The kind of jobs that were suspended in Kampala were also suspended in Masaka. We have taxi drivers, saloons, food markets; they employ people who equally need to be given relief food.
If the principle is relief, it shouldn’t be given in a haphazard manner. How do you pass a principle of giving food when 98 per cent of the MPs come from rural constituencies?
What are your hungry people in Masaka saying after hearing that you returned their money?
They can’t call it their money because it was illegally given. I can assure you that by voting for that money, parliament has not suspended or amended any laws relating to the management of public finances. I will not be shocked if some members end up in trouble with that money. I know MPs are already spending a lot of their personal money to offer relief.
But that is not a license for them to engage in an activity that is ultra vires to the laws we passed ourselves. I would encourage members to do what we have done in Masaka. We have mobilized ourselves with the business community and have got funds to buy food. I will tell you that by the close of the week, we had mobilized close to 30 tones of food and none of that was taxpayers’ money.
MPs in urban areas should do the same and avoid participating in an exercise that can’t be defended. I’m sure when the ministry of Finance officials step in the dock they will deny ever bringing that vote to parliament. They clearly brought what they wanted and that money [Shs 10bn] wasn’t part of it. I think I have knowledge about how public funds are voted.
What kind of calls are you receiving from Masaka about that money?
I have consulted key parts of my constituency and they agree with me that buying food is not a small matter and therefore, can’t be handled in a whimsical manner like that. We don’t know how long this is going for. You might see MPs coming back to parliament and claiming more money. The law is very clear; if the minister of Finance needs more money, he will come for an additional supplementary.
I have heard some MPs use the word bribe to refer to that money. Would you use the same word?
The choice of words is an individual matter. I wouldn’t go into nomenclature; the problem is one; the money. Whether someone calls it a bribe or anything else, it was given illegally.
The speaker was angered by the attorney general’s legal opinion that barred MPs from using that money. What do you make of her outburst?
I have not spoken to the speaker to know why she was angry with the attorney general because she is the one who invited him to offer his legal opinion. As a legal scholar, she knows what one does when she differs with his opinion.
Would you take the advice of the attorney general to stay the use of the money as the court directed?
What the attorney general was explaining was basic law, even a student in year one in law school will offer the same opinion. But you see, on matters of the law, lawyers disagree on even the simplest of matters. That really doesn’t surprise me, but they disagree respectfully.
What do you make of the speaker’s reaction to MPs who dragged parliament to court? Was calling them stupid called for?
It’s not my business to tell the speaker the kind of language to use. She’s the custodian of our rules and I can’t educate her on the choice of her words. What I can only state is that the rules of procedure of parliament don’t offer a legal bar to members to seek redress in court when they wish.
In the past you and others have returned money given to you under questionable circumstances. Many of your colleagues are not returning it this time round. They argue that the circumstances are different.
Me not taking this money doesn’t mean I don’t know its value or I don’t know it can offer something. I’m only saying, we can do it better. I’m sure MPs who thought they would use that money to offer relief, have since discovered that they can’t use it because they were told to deposit it with the district teams.
I’m very sure you’re going to hear quarrels over that money because the district teams might have different things to spend that money on. So, members who have behaved like me previously, it’s a matter of principle and doing things right.
There is no quick fix in offering relief, there is an entity called government, which has a public duty and MPs have an obligation to push that entity to act on behalf of their people. MPs have no authority whatsoever to use money wrongly got from the public fund. If they want to offer relief, they should use personal funds.