Absenteeism in Parliament: Is It Contempt, Incompetence or Sheer Indiscipline?

The doctrine of separation of powers mostly practised in the Westminster system has been defined as a fundamental tenet of liberal democracy because contemporary political theory assumes that the balance of power is kept in check to deter absolutism.

The principle divides the government into three arms: the legislature makes the law; the executive puts the law into operation, and the judiciary interprets the law which means that no single institution is able to exercise absolute authority and curtails negatives like corruption that arise from the opportunities that unchecked power offers.

With the hindsight of how absolutism led a young Uganda down a dark and slippery path, the framers of the 1995 constitution said, never again shall Uganda face unlimited power in the hands of one person or group to suppress others.

Requiring Ministers (Executive) to regularly report to Parliament (Legislature) to respond to queries and questions was among the mechanisms provided for the former to be held accountable by the latter- people’s representatives.

Rule 50(1) of the Parliament Rules of Procedure requires that a minister shall attend sittings of the House to answer questions asked of him or her but if they are perennially absent to respond to the same, it inadvertently means the taxpayer has either missed the opportunity to hold those with power to account or that it is a deliberate effort to evade checking the power such an institution holds.

Between May 2021 and March 2022, Parliament had a total of 70 plenary sittings which means that on average at least one of the 82 members of the cabinet would attend these sessions but unfortunately, this has not been the case.

A quick observation shows there are less than 10 ministers or sometimes none in the House during plenary most often leaving the Government Chief Whip in a state of bothering to apologize on their behalf.

A thorough examination of the first session of the 11th Parliament by the Centre for Policy Analysis, (CEPA) reveals that a total of 300 urgent questions were asked but only 191 were responded to. Meaning over 100 questions still await a response.

Quite often the Speaker of Parliament together with members have during plenary called out Ministers on absconding from plenary sittings without leave from or notice to the Speakership.

Observers say, Ministers like any other person can fall sick or merely get tied down by a busy schedule, failing their statutory obligation but what informs their consistent failure to give prior notice for leave of absence to the Parliament leadership is what has been interpreted as sheer contempt.

Some Ministers have not set foot in Parliament since they were appointed to the positions in June 2021 which has raised eyebrows. For example, the Minister of Education and Sports, Janet Museveni has been severally criticized for failure to attend any of the plenary sessions.

In extreme circumstances, the presiding officer of a plenary session has been forced to prematurely adjourn plenary because several senior Ministers were not in the House to answer to matters on the order paper.

Attempts to report the matter to the President and appointing authority of the Executive have neither saved the situation.

Yet Ministers continue to abscond from these sessions. Isn’t this indiscipline on the part of these Ministers? If not, then, why does the President remain mute on this matter and what does this mean for the country? Better yet, can a conclusion be drawn that the Prime Minister and Leader of Government Business in the House bear the hallmarks of incompetence?

Continued failure to attend plenary first and foremost is an abuse of office and disrespect not only to Parliament but to Ugandans as well, especially without notice to the Speaker.

Rule 50(4) stipulates that it shall be disorderly conduct of a Member to fail to ask or for a Minister to fail to answer a question listed on the Order Paper without the leave of the Speaker.

It is understandable when one misses a few and with notice to the Speaker but where one is always absent to answer to matters on the Order Paper is undermining Parliament’s and Ugandans’ time, and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“The Front bench is actually sleeping on duty and they want us to sleep with them on duty. I will not accept that. The Front bench should be notified that we are not going to join them in wasting time and taxpayers’ money,” Mathias Mpuuga, the leader of the Opposition said in one of the plenary sittings.

With regard to cabinet meetings and meeting times, the rules to guide cabinet state that cabinet meetings shall take precedence over all other government business save for when a matter of legislation before Parliament is critical.

Urgent matters on health, education, hunger, floods, and security on numerous occasions have been raised in Parliament. Members expect oral responses and prompt action especially since they are issues to do with the lives of Ugandans and therefore critical.

When these Ministers are not in the House for the same, it means business is stalled, Ugandans are not served or there’s a possible delay in the provision of services to the people.

Rule 45(4) of the Rules of Procedure states that “a Minister shall not take more than two weeks to respond to a question from a Member.” Several issues are yet to be properly responded to by the government.

For example, the creation of a National Emergency Relief Committee to handle emerging disasters by the Office of the Prime Minister. Up until now, the proposed committee has not been set up and yet MPs continue to cry about disasters in their constituencies.

Also, a member catching the Speaker’s eye to ask a question in a full House does not happen all the time. It may take a week or even a month, so when a member gets the opportunity to speak on the floor and Ministers are absent, it becomes a wasted opportunity which is a disservice to the nation. Especially in a country with a big number of ministers.

Members have made it known that members in their constituencies watch the live streams and media coverage of plenary sittings and are pleased when they see their MPs air their issues on the floor and a Minister responded immediately or promised to visit for action to take place.

Additionally, as members of the executive, Ministers form part of the policy and decision-making process that is central to government action especially policies under their departments. These decisions may result in new legislation, budgetary changes and many other actions. Hence the need to be part of committee meetings and House sessions.

Furthermore, except for ex-officio Ministers, the rest are elected members of Parliament. With direct responsibilities to their constituencies. I have seen Speaker Among give some information on Bukedea during debates. A minister absent from these debates denies his constituency a chance to be heard.

The First session of the 11th Parliament is ending in May 2022. I would like to see the cabinet ease the work of the Speaker and Government Chief Whip this time around. They should attend plenary especially when issues on the Order Paper concern their ministries.

In the absence of the Senior ministers, the State ministers at least should act on their behalf as the portfolio ministers so that parliamentary business can move smoothly. The rules allow for that.

Rule 114 (1) of the Rules of Procedure state that for any Ministry, the Minister or at least the Minister of State shall attend sittings of the House and where none of them is able to attend, the Minister shall request another Minister to represent that Ministry’s interests in the House and notify the Speaker accordingly.

The doctrine of separation of powers mostly practised in the Westminster system has been defined as a fundamental tenet of liberal democracy because contemporary

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