Ours is a country of inquiries and investigations, probes and hearings.
We have had countless commissions of inquiry and parliamentary investigations. For every quarter of the year, there is at least one sensational and drama-filled investigation or hearing.
Almost all are about financial malfeasance and gross abuse of office for personal benefit – large-scale theft. We spend loads of money to investigate theft of money or unearth wrongdoing. Few inquiries, though, ever produce substantial outcomes, recovery of the stolen public funds or severe punishment for culprits.
For more than a year now, the commission of inquiry into land matters has been the big thing. It’s tough and dramatic, under the stewardship of a Constitutional court judge, known to be closely allied to the actual rulers, who are among the real large-scale culprits at the centre of commandeering public land and turning the land department into a fiefdom of diabolical proportions.
Parliament has been the routine site of dramatic probes and endless investigations, which is fine because that institution is, among other things, charged with providing oversight against executive activities and all manner of public transactions.
If not for the assault from State House and deliberate emasculation at the behest of the pursuit of life-presidency, Uganda’s parliament has some excellent practices and procedures that can, under normal circumstances, advance the cause of prudent public management and proper utilization of public resources.
One such practice is having accountability committees headed by members of the opposition. This contrasts with, for example, the so-called world’s largest democracy, America, where the majority party takes charge of all committees, thus undercutting oversight and accountability, especially if the majority party in Congress/Senate is also in charge of the White House, the case with the current administration.
Over the years, Uganda’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has at the face value displayed commendable oversight and pressed for rigorous accountability of public funds. Especially when under a well-grounded leadership, and acting on reports of the auditor general, PAC tends to bring out part of the very best expected of a real parliament.
This obviously flies in the face of the rather distorted perception, held by the public but also propagated by the rulers, of an MP as the chief development officer of his/her constituency.
In the past year, it hasn’t been PAC making the headlines; it has been another equally powerful and often functional committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (COSASE) chaired by Abdu Katuntu of Bugweri county. Katuntu is one of the most astute and high-performing members of parliament of the past two decades. He takes his work very seriously and believes in what he does. Smart, decent and focused.
Last year, Katuntu’s committee investigated the infamous ‘presidential handshake,’ the controversial Shs 6 billion dubiously shared by public officials in Uganda Revenue Authority, including the commissioner general, and in the ministries of Finance and Justice and the attorney general’s office ostensibly as a presidential gift for prevailing over oil company, Tullow, to pay capital gains taxes to URA.
I was among the sceptics who questioned the value of the probe and made remarks to that end on NTV’s Sunday night talk-show, the Fourth Estate. Katuntu was watching. He was livid.
He called the following morning to express his exasperation: people like me are doing a disservice to the public by pouring scorn on the work of parliament, he pointedly told me. I listened. He said if we continue denigrating parliament and belittling the work of serious and hardworking legislators, we shall end up with a parliament dominated by comedians and mediocrity.
I told him that I was wholly sympathetic to his position and respected his distinguished service to the country. But if he didn’t see the mess we are in and the fact that efforts of intrepid legislators go to waste because of the very nature of the political system, then he was either blindly optimistic or deliberately hiding his head in the sand.
Now good Katuntu is at it again: probing the Bank of Uganda (BoU). Great job, no doubt. I salute him although I am not quite sure about his vice chairperson who maintains very close ties to State House and is known to be a dealmaker in ways that contribute to undermining the independence and autonomy of parliament.
The big issue at hand is the banking sector. I wrote in this column that the manner in which Crane bank had been seized by BoU raised serious questions that no one was answering. In fact, it was one crucial case in recent years where journalism had failed the public.
Now the lid seems to have been blown and at the centre of the controversy is the former director at BoU in charge of commercial bank supervision who, we are told repeatedly by Andrew Mwenda, was the star of Uganda’s supposedly impressive banking sector.
Earlier this year, a dime dropped, revealing huge-money bank accounts. We don’t yet know the full truth. But the bottom line is large-scale corruption is how the current system works,and not how it fails. Corruption and abuse of office are not just technical issues to be investigated and fixed, they are fundamentally political.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.