By Vincent Kasozi
The government might be compelled to withdraw the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2017 in the face of stiff opposition to its proposals on private land, search Chief Whip Ruth Nankabirwa told PML Daily on Thursday.
In its current form, the bill proposes the compulsory acquisition of land by government for public infrastructure projects before compensation disputes have been concluded.
However, this proposal which would require amending Article 26(b) of the Constitution, is extremely unpopular.
Several MPs, including ruling party members, who are suspicious of the real intentions of the bill, see it as a dangerous ploy to remove the existing safeguards protecting fair, prompt and adequate compensation as provided for in the Constitution.
Nankabirwa told a press briefing that during the NRM parliamentary caucus meeting with the President on Wednesday, MPs and the head of state were unanimous in support of fair, adequate and prompt compensation for land owners displaced by government projects.
She also noted that it was necessary to ensure that all land disputes are disposed of expeditiously. This would avoid delayed and lengthy land arbitration hearings but she insisted that compulsory acquisition was a necessary aspect of the law that cannot be avoided with or without expedited hearings.
“Because you can’t say I am not moving away from here, We want to establish a barracks there to save the country and you are saying you will not move away?” she said.
Expedited hearing of land disputes was one of the proposals put forward by several MPs.
Many MPs remain opposed to the bill, noting that there is no need to amend the Constitution in order to solve the predicament of delayed land compensation processes that hold up public works.
In order to come up with a unified front, Nankabirwa revealed that the caucus had come up with a ten-member committee to review and evolve a consensus position that will be acceptable to party members.
This committee will then submit a report within two weeks to be delivered to the parliamentary committee on legal and parliamentary affairs which is scrutinising the bill.
But she pointed out that, if after the ruling party’s internal consensus has been agreed, the House legal committee still makes major alterations to the bill, the government might have to withdraw it.
“If the amendments are so major that they have moved away from the original it may require withdrawing it, so let us wait for what this committee will come up with then it will guide us on the procedure,” she said.
NRM’s committee comprises vice president Edward Ssekandi, lands minister Betty Amongi, Justice minister Kahinda Otafiire, the attorney general William Byaruhanga, Bukhooli North MP Gaster Mugoya, Ajuri county MP Hamson Obua, Gomba West MP Robinah Rwakoojo, Kyaka South MP Jackson Kafuzi and Bufumbira South MP Sam Bitangalo.
She also revealed that the government has decided to ensure compensation funds for project affected persons are appropriated and made available on time in order to avoid disenfranchisement of the masses.
The government has outstanding liabilities in form of unpaid land compensation to project affected persons amounting to Shs 400 billion.
It is this notoriety for not fulfilling its financial obligations promptly which has provoked mass rejection of the bill amongst politicians; civil society, religious and traditional leaders, and the general public.
The government chief whip, however, said that this widespread opposition to the bill was uncalled for and repeated government assurances that the state was not moving to steal private land.
Nankabirwa admonished leaders whom she accused of misleading the public on the bill and calling for the bill to be dropped immediately stating that the president cannot be intimidated in that manner.
The chairman of the House legal committee Jacob Oboth Oboth yesterday welcomed the ruling party’s moves, saying that any amendments to the current bill are welcome.
Oboth Oboth agreed that caucusing is a normal practice in any multi-party democracy. He, however, warned that time is running out since his committee was given only 45 days within which to scrutinise the bill.
He revealed that he wrote to the Justice minister on Wednesday following the expiry of the two-week period Otafiire had requested for to consult cabinet.
“By this time we have not received any response … I believe that something is coming. We are all waiting to hear from the minister of justice and constitutional affairs about the status report on consultations,” Oboth Oboth said.
After hearing from the minister, the legal committee will then open hearings to the general public, including political and other opinion leaders.