KAMPALA – When everyone is quarantined, the last entity to go on quarantine should be Parliament. This is because Parliament is by law and design the chief ombudsman of any nation-state. It is an indicator of how healthy a country’s democracy is; how inclusive a nation’s political systems are as well as a salient feature and dependable partner in the struggle to streamline the governance of any nation-state. Hence, it goes without saying that quarantining Parliament is tantamount to putting democracy on quarantine.
It should be appreciated that Parliaments world over and in all jurisdictions are mandated with the constitutional duty of acting as checks and balances to the Executive and its state machinery such as security agencies. However, this is being threatened world over as nations impose total lockdowns and quarantines in a bid to contain the spread of the novel Coronavirus or COVID19. This is culminating into parliamentary meetings in many countries getting postponed or reduced, the number of parliamentary questions limited, debates restricted to the immediate coronavirus response and discussions on all other topics delayed.
For Uganda’s case, only 100 Members of Parliament are allowed to attend any given plenary session out of more than 424 Members of Parliament. This is predicated on the fact that gatherings of Members of Parliament and their interactions with the parliamentary staff during regular proceedings risk further contamination and the spread of the virus. According to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), there are more than 2 billion people residing ‘in countries where parliaments have been suspended or restricted under coronavirus emergency measures’.
As the chief ombudsman, the suspension or quarantining of the legislative presages a dark spot on consolidating a country’s democracy because it in a way incapacitates Parliament’s ability to hold the state to account on the use of budget allocations as well as in monitoring the country’s governance with respect to human rights and the state’s fulfillment of its social contract with the people via providing security and ensuring equitable service delivery. Such functions are visible in the frequent matters of national importance raised before the floor of parliament as well as the Prime Minister’s question time. Here, all issues of the common man and woman are brought to a national table for debate and resolution. A lockdown of Parliament would be detrimental to this.
By the design of Uganda’s body politick and political infrastructure, Members of Parliament are the biggest conduits of information and enjoy a high level of political legitimacy and trust from the wanainchi. As such, the citizens rely on them for information and advice and this duty can only be executed with an open Parliament. It is prudent that Parliament initiates access to information measures to keep engagement with the citizens and grant citizens access to government programs and the directives on the Coronavirus response. Moreover, it is widely known that lack of access to information exposes myriads of people to infections as well as undermining effective treatment and response to health epidemics like COVID-19.
By Article 78 of the Constitution, Parliament was arrogated inter alia with the duty of legislation. Currently, Uganda’s COVID19 response is premised on provisions of the Public Health Act especially sections 11 and 27 which empower the Minister of Health to make rules aimed at curbing the spread of infection and these provisions have been evoked in Statutory Instrument No.52 of 2020 and had to be gazetted through Parliament. This means that Uganda is operating in a pseudo-state of emergency where citizen rights are subordinate to the State’s powers and this calls for an open Parliament for pre and post-legislative scrutiny. This will make it easy to identify any unintended effects of emergency measures and to suggest changes where necessary. The case of pregnant mothers and chronically ill patients is another example of where legislative scrutiny can effect progressive changes in emergency measures.
It is worthwhile noting that confronting the coronavirus crisis will require very extreme measures but protecting our democratic space and the non-derogable civil liberties granted by the constitution and nature should be pursued with extreme caution lest in protecting the health of people, we slide back into the dark days of military rule and absolute dictatorships. In times of crisis, there is a clear risk that checks and balances are ignored in the name of the efficiency of executive power.
In conclusion, because many countries like Uganda are operating on emergency legislation that was prompted by the COVID-19, it is prudent that Parliaments remain operational as an indicator of scrutiny from citizens. Because of its exceptional nature, emergency legislation needs to be subject to Post-Legislative Scrutiny. An open Parliament would enable Members of Parliament making it mandatory for the government to report to parliament on the implementation of emergency legislation within a set time-period according to pre-defined criteria.
The writer, Prosper Mubangizi is a Policy Analyst with Parliament Watch and a Consultant on good governance and Youth Inclusion.